A Lesson from Demand Media: Embrace Your Commodity Content

Editors of trade publications are confirmed believers in the preeminence of high-quality content. In their minds, everything in their publications is or should be outstanding. But the fact is, across-the-board brilliance is rarely possible, or even, perhaps, desirable.

Like it or not, there is a role in most publications for run-of-the-mill, commodity content. The challenge for editors is not to eliminate such content, but to manage it effectively. Though it may sound like heresy to some to suggest it, Demand Media offers them a model for doing so.

In an article on eMedia Vitals this week, Sean Blanda details his experiences on “Demand Media’s Content Assembly Line.” Though he remains noncommittal about it, the process he describes is impressive in its efficiency.

As Blanda notes, Demand Media and other content farms like it have been criticized for, among other things, producing low-quality content. That’s a misguided objection. The content Demand Media produces is indeed ordinary and uninspired, but for the most part it works. It is commodity content, like commodity components in many usable and affordable PCs. There’s an important role for such low-end content. It answers legitimate questions and serves real needs.

The brilliance of the Demand Media model is that it understands that commodity content is best produced by mass-production methods. No one expects the model to produce long, insightful articles—feature writers, columnists, and essayists can rest easy.

B2B magazines probably have a higher percentage of commodity content than other types of publications. That’s partly due to the prevalence of service journalism in B2B. But it has more to do with the influence of advertisers. As advertising has become harder to sell over the years, B2B publishers have added increasing amounts of commodity content to their print versions to hook advertisers.

Such content takes many forms, including parboiled press releases, buyers guide listings, rewritten product sheets, and even the dreaded advertorial. From an editorial point of view, such content may be hard to abide, since it’s usually more valuable to the advertiser than the reader. But from a business standpoint, it has its merits.

Yet even editors who accept the need for such commodity content have cause to hate it. Why? Because it drains away valuable time and energy from editorial staff.  Asking a reduced number of full-time editors to spend an increased amount of their time on commodity content is a misuse of resources. It draws away from their work on high-end content. Rather than improving the quality of commodity content, it makes the longer-form content more like a commodity.

Since most editors can’t refuse commodity content, they simply choose to resent it. Instead, why not embrace it for what it is, the Demand Media way? Rather than ask the editors to spend their time on commodity content, why not outsource and automate it?

I’m not talking here about using traditional freelancing resources. Keep those for higher-quality content. Rather, I’m suggesting that publishers invest some resources in building systems similar to those Demand Media uses to process its commodity content.

There are some obvious challenges in adapting this model. Smaller publishers may lack the volume of content to sustain it. Likewise, they may lack the web-development resources to build their own systems. Perhaps there is an opportunity for someone to develop a Demand Media–style marketplace for B2B commodity content. And perhaps there are small-scale ways to implement the model.

For editors, I think, the first and most important step is to stop despising commodity content. There’s a place for it in most publications; accept it for what it is and you will be on the way to handling it more effectively.