About.com Will Rise Again, This Time With Sponsors

Recently we noted that 2013 has been a lackluster year for the once-promising, high-volume, low-cost, search-engine-centric publishing model known as the content farm. In the wake of a cratering stock price and the resignation of its co-founder, the onetime king of the genre, Demand Media, is busy setting a new direction for the company’s future. In the meantime, plenty of Demand’s former competitors are likewise scrambling to reinvent themselves. What’s next in the evolution of the great American content farm?

Get ready, perhaps, for the dawn of the sponsored content farm.

On Tuesday, Demand Media competitor About.com announced it had hired Brian Colbert, formerly of Pandora and ESPN, to serve as the its first-ever chief revenue officer. According to the company’s release, Colbert will be charged with leading new sales efforts as About.com tries to transform itself in the face of ongoing challenges.

Like Demand Media, About.com got hit hard in February 2011 by Google’s “Panda Update,” a change to the search giant’s algorithm that was designed to lower the rankings of websites publishing junky content. Certain About.com contributors have since protested that their work doesn’t belong in the same category. But ultimately, the protestations were for naught.

In August 2012, the New York Times Co. (NYT) sold About.com to Barry Diller’s IAC for $300 million in cash—significantly less than the $410 million it had paid for the site seven years earlier. Since then, About.com has continued to lose desktop Web traffic.

How to breathe new life into the business?

Ad Age recently interviewed About.com Chief Executive Officer Neil Vogel, who suggested that in the months ahead the company will be, among other things, ramping up its efforts in content marketing.

Over the past year, as content farms have fallen out of vogue, a slew of social publishers have come into fashion, in part by touting their devotion to sponsored content—a newish form of advertising in which brands create story-like units that live among a publisher’s editorial products and share the same underlying aesthetic, tone, and technology.

Along the way, publishers like BuzzFeed have created what are essentially in-house agencies, stocked with creative writers and designers who help corporate clients build content that’s custom-designed for their site.

Could something similar be done on a larger scale using a huge, cost-efficient team of dispersed freelancers? About.com might be willing to give it a shot.

From Ad Age:

“… sites like BuzzFeed and Vox Media that are more closely aligning ads with editorial content, even erecting in-house creative agencies to help marketers create content. About.com has something similar in mind.

“‘In terms of something very specific like a content creation studio, that’s absolutely the sort of thing we’re looking at doing,’ Mr. Vogel said, describing About.com’s 800-plus freelancers as already an informal content studio.”

In other words, thanks to Google, amassing an army of freelance writers to crank out low-cost, high-volume, search-friendly, evergreen content is no longer a great business model. But perhaps amassing an army of freelance writers to crank out low-cost, high-volume sponsored content for brands … might just do the trick?

Let the new harvest begin.

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