For major publishers, covering real-time and local information is increasingly a struggle. As budgets and bureaus shrink, publications are competing with never ending updates from social media and young upstart news sites on increasingly stretched resources.
Associated Content is one of those crowd sourced news organizations that often strike fear in the hearts of traditional publishers. Rather than funding huge newsrooms around the country, Associated Content that lets anyone publish content and try to make money off off of it. The network taps into a growing cadre of citizen journalists and professional writers who want to have their voices heard.
Revenues have grown 100% year over year, for the last five years. Patrick Keane has been CEO for the past year, and seen the company's roster grow to over 300,000 registered contributors. Those writers publish about 10,000 new pieces of content weekly.
Keane (who is not related to me) came from Google, and brings a data driven approach to content to his new company. It shows in their approach to publishing. Rather than relying on brand to promote their content, Associated Content finds readers through searchers interested in specific topics. According to Comscore, they have 16 million unique visitors monthly, and 90% come through search.
If that's not enough to make other publishers who depend on their trusted brands nervous, articles like Keane's AdWeek piece — The Case Against Engagement — are sure to do it. But Keane doesn't see Associated Content as a competitor — or threat — to traditional news media. I caught up with him to find out why.
How would you describe Associated Content's business model?
We think of ourselves as the people's media company. You can write about anything you want, which is incredibly horizontal. We allow people to have a voice for what they have an interest in. 80-90% of our audience is driven through natural search, and we're purposefully brand agnostic. I take the philosophy that we're 2 million brands as opposed to one brand (a la Yahoo).
It works really well for advertisers. When you do that search for a specific piece of content, if you land on a highly relevant page that's going to perform very well.
Why don't you think engagement matters?
Engagement is something that advertisers are talking about all day long these days. But I think advertising is about selling products and services. If you can do it in 2.5 page terms versus 50, that's great.
Search is at the lowest point of the funnel or whatever you want to call it. People the come to our pages are landing on incredibly unique, targeted conversations. We're brand action marketing. We bring the effectiveness of search to display advertising. I can't compete with Yahoo for scale, but we perform like hell for advertiser on all the criteria they're looking for.
Should publishers be worried about you?
We don't want to be the next person to claim we're hollowing out traditional newspapers, or taking food out of the mouths of journalists. We're not a news site, we're not a journalism site. Less than 10% of our content is news. AOL and DemandMedia want to play in news and reinvent journalism.
We look a lot more like social media. We're thousands of people writing authentic content with an authentic voice. The real science of our business comes from understanding the value of a piece of content. For our writers, they should be betting on the uniqueness of their content. We pay about $1.50 for every thousand page views, or up to $2, depending on the clout of the writer and the uniqueness of their content. It encourages people to get into the fabric of the social web to promote their content.
If they want to write about fast moving news stories, they can. But we like evergreen content that is as valuable the day it was written as it is in three to four years. It's not worth it to us to just try to chase the next big story in Twittermania to get in front of that audience. I like content that lasts. It works better for advertisers, and better for search.
Are publishers going to get anywhere cutting themselves off from Google?
Google is the oxygen of the internet. You need oxygen to live. I don't think we're going to change user behavior. In terms of shutting it down to Google, if some content providers want to play a game of chicken, they're going to lose audience in a very drastic way.
Before AdSense there wasn't really a monetization layer for this kind of content, but Google can now compensate people that create content. But news has become a commodity. Where you get your news is increasingly irrelevant. Do you have to know it came from The Times?
I take it you're not bullish on paid news sites?
We would never be in the business of paid content. When I look at highly proprietary sources of news content, the genie is out of the bottle, it will be tough to stick it back in.
General interest has no chance of success from paid. A lot of that info is so commoditized that users are going to find it elsewhere. The notion of brand is losing a lot of value. People don't start at CNN for a news experience as much as they once did. They're starting at Google, Yahoo or Twitter — those are the filters.
What about consumer trust?
It matters a little less. People presume that if Google surfaced it, it has to be of a certain quality. That may or may not be true, but more people think it feels useful. People are relying on search and thinking less about starting the day with a trusted brand. That's good for us. Because of the nature of our users, we look a lot more like search.
I still The New York Post, The Times and The Journal. But I'm not sure my three year old is going to. My wife works at Conde Nast. They've gone through a lot of challenges. Not just due to the recession and advertisers chasing users, but because some of the best content you can find in fashion can be written by 12 year olds on blogs.
We're not going to put our contributors up against theirs in terms of pedigree, but we can create content quickly that is useful, far more cheaply than they could hope for.
How do you think search will be improved in the coming years?
Search can definitely get more personal — and not just in a creepy way of following past searches. There's incredibly valuable proprietary content that's not crawlable right now. Also, finding content based on what you've looked for before. At Google, we didn't worry about Yahoo. We worried about two kids in a garage. That's who probably is thinking of more complete search — and more content discovery.
What has surprised you about the publishing business over the last year?
One thing has surprised me is that in many ways quality is often irrelevant to consumers. They're wondering, was it useful? Did it satisfy my needs? If the user gets value, then that works for them.
Advertisers' comfort with social media has surprised me. I thought it would take longer. But look at Foursquare. Major brands want to play in that sandbox. Advertisers are jumping in a lot faster with social than I thought they would.
What's next for publishers?
It's an irony that traditional media companies move really slowly when at this time they have to move faster than in their history. I'd like to see them move faster — some of this content creation needs to sit inside their businesses. I think there needs to be a lot more science put into the publishing industry. We can be helpful in that way. There's got to be some of that kind of thinking that goes into this.
These companies need a more cost effective creation model around real-time content. Increasingly, people are capturing events that are not tripod HD quality, but someone standing on their SUV when a guy lands a plane into an IRS building in Austin. Some of the best content I've seen is shitty iPhone video. I can wait a couple of days for the investigative piece in The Times, but I need to know what happened now. As much as we don't want to be in the business of news creation, these kinds of content creation models need to be thought about. We're working with publishers to do that. We've worked with Reuters and helped them get man on the street content. They can use our assignment desk to program content they need.
Another area is local. I can activate people in every zip code in the country almost insantaneously to create content. If you're The New York Times trying to cover the five boroughs or upstate, do you need 350 writers trying to cover that, or would it be useful to source someone we have? We can activate those users quckly. There's a lot of investment in local right now. My old boss Tim Armstrong at AOL has invested in Patch and Seed — he's spending about $250 million to participate in local. It's going to be interesting.