Content Farms: Angels or Devils?

One of the more memorable moments from Advertising Week last month was when supermodel-turned-talk-show-host Tyra Banks decided to teach Interactive Advertising Bureau CEO Randall Rothenberg how to “smize.” Smize—a term coined by Banks during her days as a judge on America’s Next Top Model—means to “smile with your eyes.”

As the round-faced, bespectacled exec peered seductively at the crowd, two things became clear. First, Rothenberg has a limited future on the runway. Second, Demand Media—Banks’ new partner on an upcoming beauty site—is trying pretty hard to get sexy for the digital ad industry.

It’s doubtful that many Web publishers in the audience were impressed. In fact, most harbor a special vitriol for Demand, along with its brethren, Yahoo’s Associated Content and AOL’s Seed. These businesses employ a content model that’s growing faster than poison ivy across the media landscape: Hundreds of thousands of everyday contributors crank out general interest articles and videos. The model burns the backsides of many traditional publishers. It also scares the hell out of purists, who question the validity of “articles” generated by people whose only source might be Wikipedia.

Some publishers and content syndicators feel so threatened that they’re trying to stem the growth of these so-called content farms by pushing for credentials that will tout the “professionalness” of the content. A few have even approached Google about taking steps to better factor in quality in the company’s search results. But Web publishers are lacking a key ally in this fight: digital buyers.

For example, when asked, few buyers mention Demand’s alleged ties to shady online pharmaceutical sales. And when it comes to Demand or Associated Content’s paltry pay scales for freelancers, advertisers retort that they typically don’t have a beef with the content’s quality. What they care about is audience and performance. As for the content farms’ threat to journalism, well, sorry, say the buyers, that’s not our problem.

One thing beyond dispute: Content farms draw traffic. In August, Demand Media was the 17th largest property on the Web, per comScore, reaching 59 million unique users. Its site eHow, with its mix of service articles like “How to Cook Salmon on a Plank” and “How to Tell If He’s Not Marriage Material,” reached 49 million unique users alone, per Quantcast. AssociatedContent.com, which decants such refined fare as “Tips to Eliminate Stink Bugs,” clocked about 17 million uniques in August.

Advertisers want big reach. They also love narrow targeting. These companies deliver both. So what if the contributors only earn about 10 bucks a story, as has been reported? “It’s not up to me to determine the morality of paying someone so little,” says Eric Bader, Initiative’s chief strategy officer. “I have to evaluate things strategically and ask, does this represent an opportunity for my brand?”

In a sense, online advertising is pure social Darwinism. “We are trying to target by mind-set and potential consumer need, and this gives us a great platform,” says Steve Minichini, president of interactive marketing for TargetCast. “But I look at the performance of my ad units. Everybody has to stand up to the same test.”

Plus, buyers say that advertising alongside cheap-to-produce content is relatively cheap in itself. “If you’re working in an especially competitive vertical, this gives you access to environments you wouldn’t normally have access to,” explains Donnie Williams, vp of digital strategy for Horizon Media. Williams has helped shepherd campaigns on Associated Media for his client Ace Hardware, which has to fight against big spenders like Home Depot.

“We can offer advertisers content on fall cleaning projects in New England,” explains Associated Content co-founder Luke Beatty. “There simply isn’t any content like that on the Web, so advertisers come to us for it.”

Williams is quick to dismiss objections about content quality. “Journalists care a lot more about this than marketers,” he says.

Regardless, even bloggers are touting their commitment to quality. “Smart advertisers are looking to learn about content farms like Demand Media and will test their opportunities just like they will test high quality content companies like ours,” says Michael Wayne co-founder, CEO of DECA, which develops and packages blog content for advertisers. “In the end, for advertisers to really shift the majority of their budgets away from mass media, you will need to have both scale and quality content and brands online.”

Recently, the Internet Content Syndication Council (ICSC), whose members include the Associated Press and Reuters, began circulating a proposed set of guidelines for its members that would, among other things, push sites to tout their writers’ credentials upfront and possibly even adopt a formal accreditation process.

Andrew Susman, CEO of Studio One Networks and chairman, ICSC, won’t name specific companies, but he think the stakes are high for publishers and advertisers alike.  “As industries mature, they adopt codes of conduct along moral, ethical and legal lines,” he says. When it comes to content farms, “we think there may be room for improvement.” In three weeks or so, ICSC plans to release a more formal set of recommendations for its members. It has also actively engaged Google, which according to sources is taking a cautious approach, waiting to see what the ICSC comes up with.

But what can traditional publishers really do? Not much, admits Jane Seagrave, svp and chief revenue officer for the Associated Press. “It’s a free market,” she says, though she adds that it’s “a nuisance to have people flooding the market with ‘good enough’ content. You’ve got to assert your brand.”

The power of brand is what traditional publishers are banking on to help them hold onto readers and advertisers. “A big piece of our value to advertisers is our audience really loves our site and has true genuine affection for it,” says Roy Bahat, president of IGN Entertainment, a division of News Corporation. “Transactional audience equals transactional ads. Genuine audience equals genuine ads.”

Evan Minskoff, marketing vp at About.com, argues that you can do both. The site pulls in 80 percent of its traffic from search but also uses 800 trained guides to determine what content it produces, resulting in more useful, nuanced content that stands out in search, argues Minskoff. “If users find utility day in and day out, of course they are going to return,” he says.

But others believe that such reasoning won’t hold up as better quality niche content enters the stream. “I don’t think that in the long run [content farms] will be able to garner the audience they are getting now,” says Jim Spanfeller, former CEO of Forbes.com who now leads the Spanfeller Media Group, which recently launched The Daily Meal, a decidedly high-end food site.
 
Spanfeller is betting that as Web publishers (or even magazines) roll into the media-scape with top-drawer content in niche areas, Associated and Demand will fade. That leaves a big question for companies like Demand: Does anyone actually come back to eHow.com on a regular basis?

Demand is betting on a recent eHow redesign, as well as personalities like Tyra Banks and Lance Armstrong (Livestrong.com), to build a loyal base. And, of course, Associated’s new parent Yahoo has a well-established brand. So does AOL, which places its name on all Seed-produced freelance content—something execs see as a key differentiator.

“We are not just interested in writing thousands of articles on mundane topics,” says David Mason, svp, AOL Content Platform. In Mason’s view, Demand and Associated’s content is “just an extension of search. Our major point is to get people to engage on our sites.” (Citing its upcoming IPO, Demand declined comment.)

Meanwhile, not every traditional journalist is freaked out by the coming of a low-rate freelancing pool. “What we’ve seen over the past few years is an editorial market correction,” says Lucky editor in chief Brandon Holley, who recently left Yahoo. Looking ahead, “you need both [professional and amateur content],” Holley says. “We need to have editors tracking every fashion trend out there. But then if I want to find a specific dress in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, that’s where the peer-to-peer comes in.”

One approach, according to Tina Sharkey, chairman, global president of BabyCenter, is for Web publishers to clearly label their original articles by experts even as they embrace content produced by everyday moms at home. “This is the reinvention of the publishing model,” Sharkey says.

Maybe so, but no amount of pacifying talk about content farms will be enough to still the nerves of some online publishers. “A big question in the market is, over time, ‘Is search better than social?'” says one publisher. “These guys are playing right into Facebook’s hand.”