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The Real Secret to Premium Content

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h1 Yeah, everyone's not me.

Carrie Matthison, Homeland

Premium is becoming an overused word like amazing (is that sandwich really amazing?), or a misused word like literally (most people are "literally" using it wrong). Just because a company uses the word premium to describe its product – it doesn't make it original, high quality, distinctive or even valuable to the consumer. As any fan of Homeland, Shameless or even, Gigolos will tell you, Showtime is definitely a premium cable channel, worth every extra dollar you spend for entertainment. Any car owner who spends more at the pump for premium gasoline understands higher-grade fuel means better engine performance.

But for every real premium experience, there are plenty that aren't. An entrepreneur in Malaysia has launched a premium coffee served at luxury hotels in Asia and the Middle East, that sells java to connoisseurs for $50 a cup. The "premium" refining process? The coffee beans are fed to Thai elephants, plucked from the pachyderms' dung and, then, prepared for roasting. Makes you reconsider any grumbling over paying more at Starbucks.

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The same holds for premium content. Almost every publisher believes their content is premium. And yet, too often a premium content experience for readers means articles about a topic you care about surrounded by stories of moisturizing jeans and cross-dressing virgins.

The definition of premium should be overhauled before this awesome term literally becomes irrelevant. At a basic level, premium content must have a point of view, tell a compelling story and be visually engaging. Depending on the intended audience, premium content can be a recipe for whole-wheat blackberry scones on 101 Cookbooks, a list of the top 10 epic tech gadget failures on ReadWrite or a DYI for a sequin bracelet from Honestly...WTF. The quality of the content is determined by something that's too often taken for granted: reader engagement. Not pageviews or clicks, but real engagement. Did the reader leave a comment? Were they moved enough to "like" it? Tweet it? Pin or share it? If they did, that engaging content deserves the title of "premium."

Provocateur Jane Pratt of xoJane has mastered the art of reader engagement. The loyal audiences at Sassy and Jane magazines are as responsible for establishing Jane's no-holds-barred editorial style as she is. It’s not unusual for a story on xoJane to elicit hundreds of enthusiastic reactions. Jane created a viral tsunami when she asked readers to submit pictures of themselves when they first wake up, resulting in hundreds of entries, participation by Courtney Love and major media coverage. By making her readers part of the story, Jane ruled social media before it was even called that.

Every publisher and brand online looking to be considered premium needs to determine the value of the relationship between content and reader. That is the only way the true essence of premium can remain pure and doesn't become a matter of quantity over quality. As digital media becomes more fragmented and increasingly personalized, premium content is signified by its intrinsic value to the reader and its ability to motivate someone to take action. It means rethinking the idea that bigger is better for brands, and embracing the power of environments where people are talking. It’s the choice between screaming one’s brand message at half-million bustling pedestrians in Times Square or addressing a captivated audience 5 percent the size in Madison Square Garden.

The highest rated show currently on network TV has an average of five times the viewers of the season two finale of Homeland. And no disrespect to those wacky nerds Leonard and Sheldon, they entertain millions of people each week. But, do they elicit any morning-after, water cooler talk about their latest hi-jinks at a Star Trek convention? Not likely. Now try bringing up Carrie, Brody and Abu Nazir in conversation, and like that coffee from Malaysia, that's some premium ... stuff.

Thom Allcock is the publisher of Style for Say Media.

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