Are commodity content and quality incompatible? That seems to be the underlying assumption of most discussions of Demand Media’s “frothy” IPO successfully concluded yesterday. Ominously, perhaps, that event was preceded by Google’s promise last week to clamp down on high-ranking content-farm sites with “shallow or low-quality content.”
The terms content farm and content factory are meant to be disparaging, as if content is worthless if it isn’t lovingly crafted by hand. Even Demand Media’s CEO is insulted by the label. But the choice of metaphors is odd. Do we really think farms and factories are bad things? Or that the commodities they produce are worthless? Far from it. Their output is essential to modern life.
Likewise, commodity content is essential to publishing, especially B2B publishing and content marketing. Yes, there are unique and exciting developments to cover in any B2B industry, but most B2B media are built on a platform of commodity content.
This is not a new development. Early in my career I was the editor of an industrial product tabloid magazine. Consisting almost entirely of brief descriptions of new products, it was scarcely a glamorous publication. Though now and then it did cover some new, breakthrough technology, the bulk of it was pure, boring commodity content.
Yet through most the 1990s, it prospered. Readers and advertisers alike loved it because it fulfilled an essential need: the discovery of new materials, components, and services.
But the key reason for the magazine’s early success, I believe, was the premium it put on editorial quality. Though many of the products we wrote about were mundane, we made sure the descriptions were readable, accurate, pertinent, and objective. For us, there was nothing about commodity content that was incompatible with quality.
By 2000, of course, the die was cast, and the magazine began a long decline. The Internet is vastly more efficient than print as a tool of discovery.
Demand Media is all about the discovery of commodity content. It is brilliantly geared towards identifying basic information needs on the Internet and fashioning content that meets those needs efficiently. The element it lacks so far is quality.
That isn’t to say the company is not aiming for quality, or not at least claiming to. CEO Richard Rosenblatt told the L. A. Times yesterday that Demand Media has put in place a “rigorous quality process,” in which each article is “touched by 14 humans, titling, writing, fact checking and copy editing.” The argument would be more compelling if it weren’t so easy to find failures of the quality process (evidently the titler on this one was having a bad day).
The weirdly fascinating thing for me about Demand Media is how it wants to build a high-growth business on commodity content. I’m not convinced it’s possible.
Private equity investors tried to do something similar in the last decade by betting big on B2B publishing as a platform for rapid growth. For most of them, it was a bad bet. The commodity content that B2B publications are built on is essential, but plentiful, and therefore cheap. Quality, the one thing that can distinguish commodity content, is expensive. So the only clear high-growth strategy is to cut expenses, which means cutting quality. As private equity investors discovered, that strategy is not sustainable.
Demand Media has done a brilliant job of recognizing the value of commodity content and making it easily discoverable. But if it can’t match that brilliance in finding a low-cost way to improve the quality of its content, it may be doomed. Commodity content without editorial quality is a loser’s game.