The secret to Know More's success is simple: It's a site full of content that's optimized to be shared on social media. And it turns out that the content people most enjoy sharing on social media is packaged very differently from the kind of content that news organizations like The Washington Post normally produce. Most Know More posts consist of an image — a chart, a map, or a photograph — and some explanatory text. Oh, and a attention-grabbing headline.
It turns out that when people see this kind of short, eye-catching content, they're more likely to share it with their friends on Facebook. A lot more. The best Know More posts rocket around the Web, from one Facebook user to another.
One of our biggest hits from Know More, generating more than a million page views, has been "This meeting between the Pope and a badly disfigured man will warm your heart." It's exactly what it sounds like: a montage of images of Pope Francis holding a man whose body was disfigured by neurofibromatosis. The text is 44 words long, and the post took less than 10 minutes to create.
Frankly, for those of us who make a living writing and creating pieces that are more than 50 words long, the growing popularity of this kind of site — Know More follows the same basic approach as the wildly successful BuzzFeed and Upworthy — can be a little disheartening. It turns out most people would rather look at an interesting picture, chart or map than read 500 words of news or analysis. But the market wants what it wants.
So, what lessons should conventional media organizations learn from this success? First, they should probably be building a section on their sites that's similar to Know More. They're unlikely to find someone as talented as Know More's Dylan Matthews to run it, but there are a number of writers out there who could do a decent job of creating this kind of content.
But more important, they should consider how to make the longer articles they produce look a little more like Know More. Pay attention to headlines, images and how easy it is to share on social media. Make sure articles have strong first sentences that give people a clear sense of what they stories are about. And avoid loading up Web pages with an excessive number of ads.
More fundamentally, the lesson of Know More is that the era of bundling is over in the news business. The most successful articles can produce 100 times as much traffic as an average article. Web strategy should be focused on creating viral hits and giving them the broadest possible distribution. A strategy that assumes people will read a Web site (or news app) front to back, the way they used to read newspapers, is doomed to failure.