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Summary:

While Demand Media and AOL’s Seed get all the press, Associated Content has been around longer and is larger than either one, with 250,000 contributors and two million pieces of content. But CEO Patrick Keane denies that it is running a “virtual sweatshop” or “content farm.”

Demand Media and AOL’s Seed project have been getting lots of attention lately, in part because they’ve both become poster children (although Demand more so than Seed) for the idea of a digital “content factory” — a virtual sweatshop filled with people toiling at terminals for pennies a day, churning out stories about algorithmically determined topics. While Demand has been described as “fast food” content by TechCrunch, Seed got some press recently for a high-profile attempt at “crowdsourcing” content around SXSW by finding people to write about all 2,000 bands at the Austin conference.

Meanwhile, hardly anyone talks about Associated Content, which CEO Patrick Keane notes has been around longer and is arguably bigger than either of its newer competitors. And make no mistake, Associated Content has been subjected to many of the same criticisms as Demand Media and Seed about low-quality, mass-produced content. Slate writer Farhad Manjoo, for example, described it as “a wasteland of bad writing, uninformed commentary, and the sort of comically dull recitation of the news you’d get from a second grader.” However, he also admitted that the site got more visitors than many other mainstream media sites, including the Washington Post, primarily because its stories were “bulging with hot search terms.”

As Manjoo noted in his piece, one of the unusual things about Associated Content is that former Google executive Tim Armstrong is an investor. Why is that unusual? Because Armstrong is also the current CEO of AOL, and as such has been pouring money into building Seed, thereby more or less duplicating the model that Associated Content has already built (and not doing all that well, according to reports about Armstrong criticizing the project). So I asked Keane whether this wasn’t a little, um…awkward. “You know — it kind of is,” he said with a laugh. “Tim is a friend and an investor in the company, so it has been interesting to see how they are thinking as far as Seed is concerned. With their scale and revenue base, they will definitely be a strong competitor.” (There have also been reports that AOL tried to buy Associated Content).

That said, however, Keane added that “I think Richard (Rosenblatt, CEO of Demand) would agree with me that it’s not an inconsequential task to build a platform for this kind of production of content, and Seed at the moment is more of a concept than an ongoing platform.” The Associated Content CEO (who also happens to be a former Googler) told me: “We haven’t seen much of them in the market, either on the advertising side or the content side.” He also noted that Seed seemed to be focused more on the journalism and news-driven side of the content business, including hiring “big-name, expensive journalists” like Saul Hansell of the New York Times , whereas Associated Content specializes in what he called “evergreen” content such as tips on how to diaper a baby.

In terms of size, Keane said that Associated Content — which has been around for about five years — has more than 350,000 contributors and over two million pieces of content (with north of 3,000 pieces produced every day), all of which generates about 30 million unique visits per month (Demand Media, meanwhile, uploaded its millionth piece of content last fall and reportedly has fewer contributors). “We are certainly the pioneers in this market,” Keane says. “But of course being first doesn’t mean you win, or that you succeed.”

And what about the accusations that Associated Content and its competitors are virtual sweatshops and digital content farms? “We’re not clubbing baby seals over here,” says Keane. “We’re not trying to exploit anyone, and we’re not putting a gun to people’s heads. We’re giving people an audience and giving them some exposure for their writing and we’re paying them a little bit of money along the way. You can call them factories or whatever you want, but we’re just giving people a voice.”

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    1. Thanks, Tom — I see Keane hit many of the same highlights in his conversation with you. I still wonder how Tim Armstrong is going to resolve the conflict between his investment in Associated Content and the money he is plowing into Seed.

  1. Associated Content failed to innovate on the technical end. Their leadership occasionally leaves shrill comments on blogs. He’ll come by this one, perhaps.

    Their compensation model also exploits writers (slightly) by outsourcing the risk of whether or not the piece will perform.

    Demand also has some issues. When a company starts recruiting random people with newspaper advertising, you know something might be stinky in upper management.

    As for Seed… let’s put it this way. To get accepted for the program, all you need to do is register.

    I suppose you can say that Seed is still in the speculative stages, but it strikes me that AOL lacks a coherent strategy for turning a profit off of this content.

    Media in general is psychotically focused on trying to make display advertising work. Sorry, not with the consumer so squeezed.

    They also have a record of paying writers late in their WebLogs network.

    I’ve seen (and worked for) these sorts of startups that burn through cash during the beginning stages, suddenly realize that their strategy leads off a cliff, then attempts to impose quality control as profits taper off.

    Frankly, as advertising technology advances, these companies are going to have a great deal of trouble retaining market share. And anyway, Google has the power to end them by flipping a switch. Hopefully, that will keep them honest.

    1. I definitely agree that the media in general is “psychotically focused on trying to make display advertising work,” and that is probably one of the biggest flaws with a content-generating model like Demand’s or AC’s — in that it floods the market with generic content and thus drives down their own CPM rate (and everyone else’s).

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    The one thing Keane did after taking over AC was to move from Google Ads to display ads. Whilst this reduces dependence on Google, display is not sustainable in the long term. Advertisers are not idiots, and display assumes they are.

    And as someone observed ahead of me, AssociatedContent is clueless about technology.

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