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Content Farms: Angels or Devils?

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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.

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