by Ben Elowitz

Commodity ContentNo publisher wants to believe that content is a commodity.  But by introducing a new web Travel Tips section powered by Demand Media, USA Today is taking the bold and necessary move in admitting just that.

It’s a turning point for the publishing industry to concede that not every column inch is vying for a Pulitzer, and to act accordingly.  Let’s face it:  certain types of content — in this case, detailed travel tips, deals, and the like — do not require nor merit the talents of their highly capable (and highly paid) editorial staff.

It’s also clear from Nat Ives’ report at AdAge that the new section is an opportunity for the USA Today brand to capitalize on search engine optimization (SEO) to capture prospective travelers who search for specific advice, such as “hotels with toddler pools in Maui”.   Demand Media will analyze search trends and engage writers in its content marketplace to address topics with the greatest commercial potential.  Meanwhile, USA Today lends their brand to the equation to generate new audiences from search engines and revenue for both parties.  For USA Today, this solves the problem of how to add more to their user experience and grow their audience, with little to no cost.

It also solves Demand Media’s problem:  they have a whole lot of content with no place to put it, and this deal opens up distribution for a broad new category.  Demand Media clearly has its sites on ‘movin’ on up’, and they are dating up a tier on the social ladder with this deal, as it helps them move upscale into a more premium environment under the halo of the USA Today brand name.  This provides further momentum on the heels of the news that CEO Richard Rosenblatt convinced online heavy-hitter Joanne Bradford to join Demand Media as chief revenue officer.

Will the content be up to the typical editorial standards of the USA Today?  Almost certainly not.  But travel tips don’t require particular expertise or training, so this category is an excellent candidate for commoditized content.  Moreover, it’s important to understand that the primary consumer quite likely is not a current USA Today enthusiast.  It is a web searcher who may or may not have any relationship with the brand.   And given the topic, the value-add of a highly paid writer could easily be lost.   One doesn’t need to wax poetically about a toddler pool after all.

Most publishers will turn their noses up at this as “farmed” content.  But to do so would be foolish.  This is a great example of a top brand recognizing where they do and do not make a difference, and focusing their investments where they matter.

For the USA Today online team, led by Jeff Webber, this is a smart move.  Now, other publishers need to do what people in other industries have done for decades:  focus on your core competencies and economize on those things that do not differentiate your product.    The publishing world has been all too slow to recognize this Econ-101 reality, and it’s time for a wake-up call.

What are your thoughts on low cost, commodity content?

  • JustLooking

    Lame.

    Whether authored by professional journalists or not, the reader is looking for AUTHENTIC articles. This is especially true for reviews (food, travel, shopping).

    “OMG OMG, the kiddy pool at the Grand Wailea rocks!” is OK coming from a true blue fan. Coming from a paid author (journalist or not), this comes off as a cheap shill/adwords bait/SEO ripoff.

    USAToday made a mistake. Staying true to core competencies means continuing to produce premium content. Expanding means getting a social fan base to add to that content. Not outsourcing it to a commodity producer.

  • elowitz

    Fan content has its place, just as commodity content does. Neither one of them has much of a place on the front page of a newspaper. But they both have their places to round out the content experience in the collection.

  • http://currentlyobsessed.com/ joe heitzeberg

    Great post, Ben. Question though, where do you get your notion that Demand has too much content with nowhere to put it? I thought their model was to compute their aim, and fill accordingly, and assumed therefore that their deal with USA Today is just a reflection that their model is working and they want to expand their reach.

  • http://www.digitalquarters.net Ben Elowitz

    One of the biggest challenges for Demand Media is that, by focusing on commodity content and search engine traffic, once they press the 'publish' button they have to sit around and wait for traffic to arrive. When the algorithm is right, the pennies roll in predictably. When wrong, the content just sits there. But in that model, who is in control of Demand's traffic? Google, not Demand.

    By syndicating to USA Today, they get a destination with a steady supply of traffic; plus the chance to get more premium monetization if USA Today can sell the inventory at higher rates by branding it, which is likely higher than Demand would otherwise be able to get.

    Without a destination site, the content is just a thin layer spread under the rest of the internet. With a destination, they are starting to look like a media property.

  • http://www.wetpaint.com Ben Elowitz

    AdAge recently posted on a similar theme: “More major media companies are looking for ways to find cheap content. Thomson Reuters, Cox Newspapers and Hachette Filipacchi have run articles supplied by Associated Content, one of several companies, such as Demand Media and AOL’s SEED, that mines reporting from masses of freelancers for as little as $5 a story.”

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