Content syndication is one of the oldest media tricks in the book for publishers looking to supplement their original content. But syndication has evolved beyond big names like the Associated Press and Bloomberg. Interest from both publishers and advertisers has propelled new syndication business models for more niche content, specializing in topics like cars, pets and sports.
More vertical-focused content helps media companies expand their coverage into specialized areas. But it also represents an opportunity for the publishers themselves to scale and syndicate their own niche content. Content companies such Studio One Networks and High Gear Media offer topic-based content to publishers, through both licensing deals and advertising-supported programs.
Studio One Networks, which creates editorial programs focused on several verticals such as health, parenting and pets, has tapped into interest among advertisers to sponsor editorially independent content in a specific niche in order to reach a targeted audience. Procter & Gamble is a big backer behind programs such as the Prilosec-sponsored Live Right Live Well. And P&G-owned IAMS is the sponsor of The Dog Daily, a program licensed by media companies such as CBS.
Don't confuse Studio One with the concept of custom publishing. Advertisers may sponsor Studio One's editorial, but Studio One claims they don't influence or control the content.
Studio One provides the sponsored content for free to its 600 media partners, ranging from big names like CBS and Yahoo! to popular blogs like Madame Deals, which uses two of the content programs as filler content. The model is "like an Associated Press, but supported by advertisers,” explained Andrew Susman, president of Studio One Networks.
“This is all based on the fact that the old way of [display] advertising isn’t working online,” Susman said.
Studio One's editorial approach is based on creating information produced by subject-matter-expert journalists and then syndicating the content to its online publisher partners, Susman said. “Publishing partners can retain audience with high-quality content that’s supplied to them for free, and advertisers can associate with something consumers actually want rather than trying to intrude.”
The program sponsor will always be displayed on the syndicated content, but media companies can sell additional advertising around the content. For instance, you'll see regular display advertising around Studio One's Dog Daily content on this local Fox TV news site:
WorldNow, which provides online publishing solutions to local media companies like the one above, uses Studio One in addition to many other content providers, ranging from big brands such as Forbes to providers more focused on specific verticals. Produced by a small content staff, most of WorldNow's lifestyle content comes from syndication partners, said Lisa Spodak, vice president of national content and lifestyle editor-in-chief at WorldNow. Studio One is a major provider for pet content and other lifestyle channels.
Spodak said she always questions whether the sponsor is influencing content and is clear with syndication partners that “if there's any kind of advertising element to it, it has to be transparent.” With Studio One, she said, “it really is independent content that's brought to you by a sponsor.”
Susman said more progressive advertisers understand the need for editorial independence. Advertisers can offer their own sponsored content if they want (like a traditional advetorial) as well as use program content in their own newsletters.
“Ultimately the police for the quality of our content are the media partners,” he said. “Unless they believe that what we’re supplying is at least as good as what they’re supplying, we have no business.”
Susman, who is also chair of the Internet Content Syndication Council, is vocal about improved quality standards and has spoken out against so-called “content mills,” or companies that focus on producing cheap content that does well in search. He's worked with the ICSC in developing a draft of standards to improve the quality of online content.
The topic is timely, as noted content mill Demand Media has begun syndicating channels of topically focused content. Publications already using Demand's content channels include Hearst Corp.'s SFGate.com and Chron.com and Gannett's USA TODAY.
In addition to the Demand deal, USA TODAY might be ramping up its own syndication efforts: The publisher today announced, as part of a broad reorganization, a new vice president of business development who will "secure new business opportunities," including brand licensing and content syndication.
While Studio One offers content in a variety of content verticals, publishers also turn to companies specializing in one vertical, such as High Gear Media, an automotive media company. Sports and technology are other common syndication verticals. The Bleacher Report licenses its sports content to several media companies, including The Los Angeles Times and USA Today. The New York Times supplements its technology content with news feeds from popular technology blogs such as GigaOM and ReadWriteWeb.
"Increasing numbers of publishers are going to be turning to online publishing companies that specialize in vertical content,” said Jeff Birkeland, vice president of product management at High Gear Media. “Then the publisher can focus on what's really important to them and their audience — it might be local coverage; it might be news coverage.”
High Gear has created an interesting model as an all-around publisher and curator of the auto industry, publishing its own websites (including TheCarConnection, MotorAuthority, and GreenCarReports.com) in addition to licensing content to other outlets. Birkeland said syndication arrangements could be based on advertising revenue share or content licensing.
Birkeland said car coverage can be lucrative advertising-wise for media companies, but it can also be difficult to produce. High Gear has created a scalable business based on a technology platform specifically for automotive coverage.
The company creates white-label auto sections for media companies, such as this local CBS website:
High Gear leverages a few in-house journalists and more than 250 freelancers and contributors, paid via revenue-sharing, to produce its content. Contributors include automotive journalists or bloggers as well as people who work in the automotive industry. High Gear could be classified as a content mill, but Birkeland said the difference from others in the category is their vertical focus on the automotive industry. “You got to know something about cars to be writing about cars,” he said.
High Gear's strategy also includes aggregating and curating content from around the Web. For instance, a review about a particular model of a car on one of High Gear's sites will also display snippets of third-party reviews and video clips. This curation element is applied to High Gear's own content as well as the outside media properties that license its content.
"We're basically creating the largest news desk ever created for the automotive industry,” Birkeland said.