Will Write, Edit And Produce For A 10 Spot Or Two (Not!)

“Fortune swims, not with the main stream of letters, but in the shallows, where the suckers moon.” –A.J. Liebling
Wired is running a feature on Demand Media, a content mill that produces a deluge of articles and videos everyday in order to eek pennies in ad revenue from each. Lots and lots of pennies, I might add. Privately held Demand is expected to bring in about $200 million in revenue this year and the company is valued by VCs at $1 billion.

Content mills are a hot button topic for content creators, which are paid a pittance–typically $15 to $25 for an article or video. In fact, Erik Sherman is one writer who’s worked up about it. He says, “this makes me so angry that I want to grab writers by the collar and slap them repeatedly until the dazed look leaves their eyes and they get mad.”
Sherman also references this Harlan Ellison video:

Ellison has published works include over 1000 short stories, novellas, screenplays, teleplays, essays, and a wide range of criticism covering literature, film, television, and print media.
The point is there’s a dark side here. Yet, Demand is a successful media business. Perhaps, there’s something to be learned from them.
Here’s a clip from Wired:

…what Demand has realized is that the Internet gets only half of the simplest economic formula right: It has the supply part down but ignores demand. Give a million monkeys a million WordPress accounts and you still might never get a seven-point tutorial on how to keep wasps away from a swimming pool. Yet that’s what people want to know.

Just to be clear, Demand employs an algorithm to come up with story ideas, not human editors. Their business model depends on it. “Instead of trying to raise the market value of online content to match the cost of producing it — perhaps an impossible proposition — the secret is to cut costs until they match the market value,” Demand execs believe. In other words, stories and video shoots need to be assigned by a computer and written and shot by amateurs or semi-pros, or it’ll cost more than the skimpy ad revenue can cover.
I think there’s a place for content mills, and a place for professionally-generated content. What gets lost in these debates sometimes is how large the Internet is. It’s large enough to allow for endless business models. Demand has one that works for them and perhaps for some of their highest grossing content conveyors. I’m working on a different model, one that supplies content to brands as a replacement for, or adjunct to, their existing and future ad campaigns.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.