Sheep vs Foxes: A Mindset Shift for Publishers

A sheep and a fox staring at each other

A buddy of mine just gave up on his years-long quest to catch a fox at his house upstate.

Last week when he finally abandoned his efforts, he was broke, bloodied, and going through a messy divorce. Things aren’t looking too good for him at the moment. (Maybe some of us in the publishing business can relate.)

But before I continue the fox story, let’s pivot to publishing and briefly rewind to see how we got here.

When online publishing found its footing in the early 2000s, we lacked the sophistication around data collection and user research we have today. So we treated our audience like sheep because we didn’t know better; we funneled them into uncomfortable signup flows, forced them to constantly “click here!”, and led them through other dark user-hostile patterns.

(Some of us even call them “users” today; a term that evokes addiction more than cooperation.)

But a stark reality is that the sheep are dying out and are being replaced by a younger cohort of digital-natives who know better than to get sucked into the same schtick we’ve been trying for years. They are the foxes, and they can smell marketing a mile away, hate intrusive ads, and are deeply protective of their personal data.

As publishers, if we want to engage a digitally-native young audience who has zero affinity for our brands, we need to stop thinking about people like sheep and start treating them like foxes.

Instead of trying to trick them, we should try to engage them.

And maybe the goal isn’t to capture them in a cage at all. Maybe it’s to provide them with a safe space so they can come and go as they wish so they don’t break into your chicken coop in the middle of the night and eat your chickens. (I don’t know how that analogy fits into the broader theme of publishing, but that’s blogging baby!)

As generative text models like GPT3 are driving the creation cost of text-based content to zero, many publishers are in a race-to-the-bottom to become click farms that bend to Google’s whim. When you spend as much time thinking about how to game the algorithm as you do thinking about how to create content that enriches people’s lives, maybe it’s time to take a good long look in the mirror.

As for what’s next, that remains to be seen. But providing value to people’s lives has always been our north star, and now more than ever we shouldn’t forget that.

And as for my friend, he’ll be fine. Or maybe he won’t. The specifics of the story don’t matter anyway because I made it all up.