If you can't beat 'em, you can always join 'em.
Demand Media Inc., often pilloried by the media pundits as a factory for online content, has struck a deal to provide travel articles and videos for one of the nation's biggest media brands, Gannett Inc.'s USA Today.
The arrangement calls for Demand Media to create and maintain a new travel section for USA Today's website called Travel Tips. The section, which debuted Wednesday, is populated by thousands of how-to articles created by Demand's editors and freelancers.
The deal is the first of many that the privately held Santa Monica start-up hopes to ink with traditional media publishers, some of which have been among its harshest critics. Wired magazine in November pegged Demand as a producer of "cheap, niche content of marginal quality."
Using a combination of technology and humans, Demand generates 5,000 articles and videos a day, far more than any single media company can produce on its own. The company uses an algorithm to continuously sift through massive amounts of data from search engines to divine what people are interested in reading. The algorithm spits out popular keywords that are massaged by editors into headlines, then pumped into a database.
An army of 7,000 freelancers taps into the database, which on any given day contains hundreds of thousands of topics. They are paid an average of $15 an article, or $20 for each video. Demand has a library of more than 1 million articles and 175,000 videos on topics as diverse as how to paint an Easter egg and treating hair loss.
Until now, nearly all of the articles have been published on Demand's 70 websites, including eHow, Livestrong.com and Cracked.com. Its videos, which are also distributed on YouTube, have generated more than a billion views. In March, its sites were clicked on by more than 55 million unique visitors, making Demand the 16th-largest online property in the U.S., ahead of the New York Times and Gannett, according to Internet research firm ComScore.
To grow, however, Demand needs broader distribution. And it's looking to traditional media to get there.
"This is a very important part of our future," Dave Panos, Demand's chief marketing officer, said of the deal with USA Today. "It's an opportunity for us to get in front of the audience that's already congregating around very well-known brands."
For publishers, Demand offers a quick, inexpensive way to generate more revenue at a time when advertising dollars and circulation of newspapers have hit the skids.
The deal with USA Today, for example, does not require Gannett to pay for the content, which is entirely financed and managed by Demand. In exchange for folding Demand's content into USA Today's website, the two companies split the advertising revenue generated by those articles and videos.
The articles, which dole out tips for treating unfiltered water while on trips abroad or scoring a free hotel upgrade, fall into Demand's corporate manifesto for providing "unequivocally useful" content. For example, a video series from travel writer Rolf Potts titled "Two Minute Tips" includes ways to "breeze through airport security."
Gannett did not respond to requests for an interview. But Victoria Borton, USA Today's general manager for travel, explained the partnership to trade publication Advertising Age by saying, "We're not going to sit and write 4,000 'How to Travel With a Toddler' or 'How to Find the Best Airfare Deals' pieces, but that's the sort of thing people are searching the search engines for."
For now, the articles are limited to USA Today's website. But Demand has deals with other publishers for articles that appear in print, including a regular travel feature for the Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Demand's ambitions don't end with newspapers.
"As Google tries to organize the world's information, we're going to try to create the world's content," said Joanne Bradford, Demand's chief revenue officer.