Stuck in the Middle: The Role of Infomediaries

infomediariesThe Idea: Information intermediaries are facing revolutionary changes and threats, but the energy behind these changes is not new technologies, but a broad dissatisfaction by readers and viewers with the end-product, and with the lack of value added by intermediaries. This article suggests some answers.

We live in an age of ‘disintermediation’ — the cutting out of the middleman. We do bank transactions without tellers, we browse libraries without librarians, we learn without teachers. Those who used to know their role in our society often find themselves reinventing those roles before they simply disappear. One such group struggling with their role are ‘infomediaries’ — the people who stand (or used to stand) between you and the information you consume. The chain is shown in the illustration at right.

To some extent blogging is an attempt to disintermediate this chain. Some in the mainstream media would like to see us as just another link in the chain, at the very end between the channels and readers, adding little or no value other than links to related stories, high-tech cataloguers. But online journalism can incorporate all six of these intermediary roles, and, in fact, bloggers can be newsmakers in their own right — like when they break major stories that the legacy media miss, or undertake investigative reporting that the legacy media no longer have.much appetite for.

At the same time, search tools and social networking software are providing additional channels and ways to aggregate information, working to some extent hand in glove with bloggers to create entirely new ways to connect

Following are some comments from reader Wendy Siegelman, who works for a major infomediary,  from a recent e-mail exchange on this subject:

I think that intermediaries are perhaps underappreciated because there isn’t a recognized name for the role they have. Maybe these information intermediaries are missing an important element – branding.  Without the proper branding, intermediaries that take, find, gather and make information usable, accessible, meaningful – are not properly valued. 

I think there is a relatively high value placed on the concept of ‘good communication’. There’s the content being communicated,
the communicator, and the receiver of information.  But, there’s also the element of how the info is communicated.  I think that the value is usually placed on the what and who, but not the how

[Politicians and others with vested interests use information to] measure and try to influence opinion and policy. Unfortunately, they have made the science of gathering, sorting and adding value and meaning to information appear to be a negative, opportunistic process. Intermediaries that do the same thing for productive and positive ends aren’t properly recognized or valued.

The critical issue for the future of all intermediaries is, as Wendy implies: What value are you, or could you be, adding? Fail to add enough and you’ll be gobbled up by others along the chain or circumvented entirely. Add a lot of value and you can actually ‘reintermediate’ information flow that had ostensibly been disintermediated — like some of the best librarians have done, reinventing themselves as researchers, analysts and report-writers filtering, compiling, analyzing, organizing, adding insight and producing crisp and concise documents ready for end-customers.

It is that very lack of value-added that has caused disintermediation in the first place. Reporters are too often underfunded and lazy — so they wait for news to break and ambulance-chase, and add nothing to the propagandist commercial ‘press releases’ issued by governments and corporations. Most analysts are paid by stock brokers, governments, biotech companies, corporate-sponsored think-tanks, and other vested-interest groups, to help ‘sell’ their products and suppress information and opinions to the contrary, as James Surowiecki has eloquently demonstrated in his weekly New Yorker column, and as many recent scandals involving analysts who were fired for not towing the line show.

Likewise, editors are paid to reflect the editorial stance of the publisher, and legacy publishers are beholden to shareholders who only want them to publish what sells simply and in large quantity. Aggregators then try to pull this ‘dumbed down’ and censored content together, but are having the rug pulled out from under them by increasingly sophisticated free aggregation tools that channel companies like Google and Bloglines provide. And the mainstream media channels are finding their audience increasingly splintered, demanding and dissatisfied with the poverty of truly informative or useful content they push out. So readers and viewers have been open to disintermediation, not because of cost (which continues to drop precipitously) but because of the poor quality of intermediated content and the lack of value added by intermediaries.

What could information intermediaries do to be more valuable? Here are a few ideas from a presentation I made a few years ago to a conference of intermediaries:

  • Make the content more useful, more actionable, or at least more interesting. The limits of attention span and bandwidth often cause intermediaries to strip out content that provides valuable context to the reader or viewer — tells them not only who, what, when, where, why and how, but also what does it mean?
  • Study how to write great stories, so that those further along the information channel will be disinclined to pare them down and reduce the value you have incorporated in the story.
  • Focus on information that’s important, rather than urgent. Too much of the content reaching the reader and viewer today is ‘sold’ as urgent, when all it is is new. Not enough is important.
  • Follow up. We squander reader/viewer interest and trust when we get them worked up about today’s story and then never tell them what happened later.
  • Be conversational. Let the reader/viewer see the person behind the point of view. And don’t pretend to be objective — your audience knows better.
  • Help people deal with information overload. If people hope to be able to give more attention to important stories and issues, they need the rest of the crap filtered out. Search engines, blogrolls, eProfiles and other filtering mechanisms are woefully imprecise. The tools need to be much better, and intermediaries need to find a new role filtering the firehose of daily ‘news’ in a way that will probably never be possible even with the best tool. There are huge opportunities here.
  • Get out more. Intermediaries need to learn the value of doing their own primary research (interviewing and direct observation), and not merely working with the content flowing though the chain to them. If that’s not in your job description — add it.
  • Read broadly. It gives you perspective. And it has a lot of other benefits as well.
  • Learn a disciplined approach to research and analysis. I like the Pyramid Principle, but there are lots of others. This will make your thinking sharper, allow you to appreciate how your readers will ‘see’ what you’re providing them with, and provide a ‘trail’ that will make your arguments more compelling and allow you (or others) to understand and check your logic.
  • Take some chances. The disintermediation that is overwhelming the information industries came about because the technology industries were bold, and didn’t constrain their products to doing just what other technologies had done before them. Talk to readers and viewers about what is possible, think them ahead to imagine how they could use an intermediary product or service that doesn’t even exist today. Level of ‘customer satisfaction’ with the legacy media is extremely low, and that dissatisfaction has many causes, and suggests many needs that are not being met. Find a need and fill it.
This entry was posted in Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Stuck in the Middle: The Role of Infomediaries

  1. Amy Gahran says:

    Dave, Thanks so much for writing this article. It touches on a theme that’s been much on my mind lately. I’m a content consultant, strategist, and editor — and I’m thoroughly frustrated by my market’s increasing insistence that I provide data, research, or other quantifiable goodies to prove that good communication techniques are worth at least a modest investment of their time, energy, and attention.The greatest benefits of effective communication are intangible: enhanced customer/audience relationships or loyalty, greater efficiency in interactions, increased participation. etc. Yes, all of those things can be measured, but it’s almost impossible to tie those changes *specifically* to the quality of communication, (editing, context, delivery, etc.).I wrote about this here: can organizations learn to value qualities (like good communication) to which you can’t directly pin scientific-sounding numbers? What’s the best way to make that point? Saying “don’t you want your audiences to really understand what you’re saying?” doesn’t seem to cut it.Thanks,- Amy Gahran Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  2. Rebecca says:

    Yay for graphics with arrows! :-)

  3. Wendy says:

    Dave, it’s great to see your thoughts on this topic. It seems like the challenge of infomediaries is to not only demonstrate the value added, but to also become knowledgeable about the information that is being passed along, and the people that are using the data – so becoming expert in the original source, the passage of information, and the end consumer and how the information is used. That’s quite a challenge, but a necessary one to stay innovative and to keep creating a meaningful role for the infomediary.Wendy

Comments are closed.