Becoming a Content Activist

battalion charge

Dear Readers: I wrote this article a few weeks ago … before the news of the Aaron Swartz tragedy struck. I had intended to add in the Jewish sources, but instead, I’d like to present this post as a starter essay. My hope is to expand the topic of Content Activism into a series written in memory of Aaron. 

By Yonatan Gordon


When I was first learning about the publishing industry, I would attend the annual educational sessions held prior to Book Expo America (BEA). BEA is the largest book event of the year, and these sessions are no less prominent. The industry’s top names grace the stage with their witticisms and insights. While the topics are varied, all of the study tracks somehow center around books. From the incipient beginnings on how to write a manuscript, to marketing the book once published, the classes cover it all. The only challenge (as I found it) was to remember to look at your notes and class handouts afterwards.

At one session in the spring of 2007, the presenters were speaking about the advances they were making to universalize e-book file conversions. Prior to this effort, publishers had to convert their book files to fit the proprietary coding or DRM (Digital Rights Management) of the respective reading devices. If the book was to be available on Palm, Microsoft Reader and Mobipocket devices, then the file would have to be converted three times by the publisher. As one can imagine, this led to excessive production costs and a delay in making content available. This also limited the amount of titles available as e-books. Publishes would only undertake the digital conversion of a book if it made monetary sense. Many good titles, that were not bestsellers, were simply not being made available on as e-books.

To combat these issues, and establish file standards in e-book publishing, an organization called the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) was formed. At this session at BEA, members of IDPF were there to announce their new .EPUB file extension, “a single format that publishers and conversion houses can use in-house, as well as for distribution and sale” (Wikipedia). No longer would publishers need to convert the file multiple times.  EPUB was intended to be the one stop shop to suit everyone’s needs. EPUB was officially launched a few months later in September, 2007. While many e-readers still support EPUB today, the dream of universality among e-book files was short-lived. Amazon came out with their first Kindle device just two short months later in November 2007.


Why did I tell this story? It’s not just an anecdote that shows how a retail giant can ignore the rules, and blaze their own trail; but a lesson about the limits of democratizing content. People in today’s Information Age would like to think that content aggregation is the answer. But amassing the world’s information, and making it available on Google, doesn’t necessarily make the world any better off. The fact that Google has scanned millions of books is impressive, but among those books is content that is erroneous or even hateful.

Because of the vast proliferation of content, today’s consumers have shifted to more stewarded means of selection. To find the diamonds in the rough—those worthwhile companies, services and products—consumers are looking for clear and present signposts to guide them.

The message Amazon was sending by issuing their own file formats (AZW then KF8) instead of EPUB was that they thought they could do it better. They decided for a more monarchical position over the publishing world instead of a democratic one. Whether their file format is better or not is something programmers debate about. What is of interest to us is the activism that propels a company to say we have the answer.


This brings us to another related topic. Why are more consumers going directly to Amazon to buy their products instead of first searching on Google? The simple answer is that Amazon is in many instances the cheapest. But a more dynamic response would be that Amazon makes it easier to choose by helping to choose for you. Besides sorting listings by sales rank or relevance, there’s a whole slew of other metrics that Amazon uses to make it easier to click the buy button. If Google is about giving options, Amazon is about directing you to the products you are most likely to buy.

Is activism then the correct response to aggregation? Much like EPUB wanted to take the best of all existing e-reading file formats, Google was founded to help people search as much information as possible. On the surface, democratizing content seems something universal. But in practice, people would rather be showed what the best choice is rather than presented with options. Amazon also started off as an aggregator. Jeff Bezos chose books as his first product type because the ISBN system made it easy to categorize millions of books online. He then moved to CDs and DVDs, and the rest is history from there.

But the surge of products and content has led to a retreat of sorts. This is also the age of Word of Mouth where people would rather listen to a friend, or expert they trust, over all the full-page ads and prime time TV commercials a Fortune 500 can afford.


What does it take to attract a consumer to your brand? In short, it means being an activist for it. There is a well known marketer who likes to say that Advil is marketing an old and outdated concept.  Nobody wants “pain relievers,” anymore (so he says). If I was in charge of the marketing department at Advil, I would have mounted a “We Wish Pain Was Outdated!” response against this remark. As we saw from Amazon, it takes activism to succeed. While EPUB is a very good platform, Amazon wanted to make sure to distinguish themselves from the other e-readers on the market. By showing themselves dissimilar, their claim that they were “the best” became easier to sell.

But it’s not just about disregarding collaborative efforts, or responding to attacks on your brand; consumers today want to see honest activism. This was what Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms were supposed to help with. But many companies have turned to outsourcing their social media management, or hiring entry level people to oversee it. But in truth, no person is better positioned to manage the image of a brand then the founder or CEO. While he or she is encouraged to work together with others in their company, if the leader doesn’t have a clear brand vision, then no amount of tweets or posts will help.

When I write press releases, I always try to turn the founder into a protagonist or champion for the cause. While this may seem uncomfortable for them at first, I explain that this is the best way to get their message through to the public. Anyone can say something, but if you believe it with conviction, then you should be willing to lead a protest to defend it. We have transitioned from the world of content aggregation to activism. Increasingly, the ones who get noticed are those who are willing to become leaders to promote their ideas, products or services.


We hear all too often about brands faltering because the company failed to live up to their public image.  Obviously, the first step is to know what your company stands for. The next is to be a protagonist and thought leader for that message. If you sell car tires, petition congress for better car safety regulations—even if this means higher production costs for you. If you’re an accountant, join community programs to help poor and underprivileged families make a budget and file their income taxes. If you sell trinkets to children, promote and support those agencies working to eradicate the use of cadmium and lead in jewelry.

It was said of Steve Jobs that he would make a good king of France because he was a man of action. Instead of saying that you’re the best, companies need to lead by example.  There is no better brand ambassador than the founder himself. Once people see that the company takes the message of their brand seriously enough to become an activist for it, then the public will become animated fans and followers.

It is well known that after the Kindle was first announced in November 2007, Jeff Bezos went on a media tour to promote it. Not only did this help ensure that the Kindle would become the best-selling e-reader, these appearances also increased the size of the e-reader industry as a whole. Many consumers, who had never considered buying an e-reader before, were now purchasing Kindles because they saw Jeff on their favorite program.

Next time you think about your brand, think of it as your clarion call to the public. It’s your banner from which to lead your battalion forward. Don’t market your brand. Lead it to greater and more expansive territories.

Note to Reader: So as not to end off with Google being the aggregator and Amazon the activist, Google has also spearheaded “activist” type campaigns such as 10 to 100 and self-driving cars. One could also say that the manner with which Google manipulates its search algorithm itself is a form of activism. Just ask those affected by Google Penguin.

Photo Credit:, John Knill


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