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Editors, Shipping, and the Future of Content

Thanh recently passed along a string of blog posts that touch on a subject close to my heart: the relationship between new companies and new technologies on one hand and good old-fashioned content editors on the other. It’s a bit of a long thread but bear with me. First, Tom Taylor writes here that when you ship a good to a customer you are putting yourself on the line in any number of ways, beginning with the claims you have made about that good and ending with the customer’s subjective opinion of your product.

He later enlarges that thought to the media, and admits that the media is shipping all the time. Over at F Train, Paul Ford writes, 

"People often think that editors are there to read things and tell people "no." Saying "no" is a tiny part of the job. Editors are first and foremost there to ship the product without getting sued. They order the raw materials—words, sounds, images—mill them to approved tolerances, and ship."

He goes on to talk about how, in this age of endless information, we need editors more than ever (cue fist pump!). (Actually, I’ve never done that. Cue happy dance!) User-generated content is cheap free and plentiful but that doesn’t mean it’s good. I don’t care what everyone has to say, I care about what the experts/trusted friends have to say. (See here for reasons why you shouldn’t trust Yelp.)

When I was still at a traditional magazine and looking at startup jobs, I was frustrated to find that 95% of the listings were for developers, with only a few choice editorial opportunities. That said, I do think things are changing, and people are re-realizing the value of editors, curators, arbiters - whatever you want to call them. We are in charge of sifting through the crap (or as Ford says, “dealing with the glut”) and organizing it into a smart, digestible package.

Ford closes by identifying the three-pronged problem facing next-gen content: editors don’t get the web; editors don’t necessarily want to get the web; and big companies don’t always see the value of (hiring enough) editors. By and large, I agree but I also think that the startups that succeed going forward are going to be the ones that really focus on their content, making sure everything they put out there — on the web, in their shipped boxes, in their customers’ inboxes — is consistent, valuable, and interesting.

Which brings me back to Birchbox. The core premise of our business is that women need help navigating the beauty landscape. It’s cluttered and confusing. Traditionally, women would get their beauty intel from magazines like Allure, which rigorously test products and give hundreds of recommendations in a given issue. The problem: there are still too many products to choose from and you can’t try them before you go out and purchase them. With the rise of ecommerce sites like Beauty.com and Sephora, customers have the ability to search user reviews to bring up the top-rated product. But, as Scientific American points out, crowdsourcing is a flawed selection method.

We see ourselves as an extension of the traditional magazine model. We research and test products to choose the four or five that will be the most fun, effective, and relevant for our users that month. Then we go one step further and ship them the physical product to try in their own home. Because we want our members to become more confident, savvy beauty customers, we are backing this program up with an online magazine filled with the kind of articles that you can use right now: how tos, q&as, trend tips. For us, less is more, and editing is key.

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