June 7th, 2010

The Content Graph and the Future of Brands

by

Yesterday, two stories from Aol’s DailyFinance appeared in the Sunday print edition of the Daily Telegram, a newspaper in southern Michigan. These stories appeared on a business page that would otherwise have been produced almost entirely with stories from the Associated Press. The Daily Telegram got permission to publish these Aol stories not through a big corporate content deal, but directly through a peer-to-peer relationship — The Daily Telegram simply subscribed to DailyFinance’s newswire in Publish2′s News Exchange.

Now I’m going to tell you why what you see on this page of the Daily Telegram could play a decisive role in the race between Aol, Demand Media, and Yahoo to win the prize of big brand advertising on the web, and why it is also pivotal to the future of news.

It’s about a big idea that I introduced at TechCrunch DisruptThe Content Graph — an analogue to the Social Graph, where high quality content brands create a large scale distribution network that could rival search and social media as a distributor of content.

In the Social Graph, you’re defined by your friends. In the Content Graph, a content brand is defined by its distribution relationships with other content brands.

The Content Graph is about leveraging the brand equity and consumer trust that is the greatest asset of every traditional media company. It’s about building a content brand’s reputation through distribution.

The news industry’s business model broke after it lost control over the distribution of news, with news brands suffering one wave of disintermediation after another.

The Content Graph puts news brands back in the game, but not as a return to monolithic monopolies, rather through the power of networks — a network of content brands. (This network includes independent journalists who cultivate their own personal brands.)

Ultimately, the Content Graph could be a map for brand advertising on the web, that enables advertisers to tap into a network of high quality content brands, at scale.

Sound interesting? Let’s dig deeper.

To understand the potential of the Content Graph, let’s look first at the race to become the most efficient, largest scale producer of high quality content in the world.

Demand Media has Aol and Yahoo in its sights to win this race. So declared Joanne Bradford, the new chief revenue officer for Demand Media, and former head of U.S. ad sales for Yahoo, who knows as well as anyone why the race is on — Demand Media, Aol, and Yahoo are positioning themselves for the huge tide of big brand advertising that is expected to flood the web and digital media in the next 10 years. Bradford talks about advertisers like HP and General Mills appearing in “contextually relevant” pages of Demand Media content.

The first race for ad dollars on the web was won by search and its dominance of contextual relevance. But for the next wave of ad dollars, contextual relevance won’t be enough, because these are BRAND ad dollars, and big brands will seek out the most trusted, highest quality content brands.

That’s why Bradford states the goal of Demand Media like this: “We want to be the biggest, best destination for brands.”
It’s about brands, and it’s about quality, as you’ll see in the first paragraph of Yahoo’s announcement of the Associated Content acquisition: “This strategic move extends Yahoo’s ability to provide high quality, personally relevant content for the benefit of more than 600 million users as well as tens of thousands of advertisers.”

And Aol’s goal, according to CEO Tim Armstrong: “AOL is planning on being the largest high quality content producer for digital media.”

Bradford boasts, “I believe our quality stands on its own.”

See the recurring theme? But with all the posturing, here’s the big question: Who will be the arbiter of content quality? How will big brand advertisers decide which content brands they can trust with their brand?

To get big brand advertisers, you’ve got to have reach, but to really get brand advertising at scale, you’ve got to have the highest quality content brands — because it matters to advertisers:

“I think these guys are not building trusted media brands,” Brian Monahan, senior VP at Universal McCann, said of the general landscape of low-cost content. He sees these entities as closer to niche enthusiast magazines rather than newspapers. “They’re never going to take the place of a Condé Nast or some other trusted premium editorial voice,” he said.

Just ask all of the traditional media content brands that still get a disproportionate share of big brand advertising, and whose brand power is a big reason why those dollars haven’t followed consumers onto the web… yet.

It’s no surprise, then, that Demand Media and Associated Content have eagerly pursued distribution deals with the trusted content brands that can burnish their brands in the eyes of consumers and in the eyes of advertisers. Brands like San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and USA Today. These are the content brands that already have the trust of advertiser brands, and it’s this trust that the new breed of demand-driven content producers rightly covets.

Demand Media, Associated Content, and Aol’s Seed are aiming to revolutionize the efficiency of content production. But a huge leap forward in efficiency won’t win the race unless they can also build brands that can attract brand advertising. Search may drive enormous traffic, but it doesn’t build content brands (ask any branded content site how well search visitors convert to loyal readers). Social media distribution (i.e. Twitter, Facebook) replaces the value of content brands with the value of personal relationships.

That’s where the Content Graph comes in.

Aol just took a huge leap forward by efficiently leveraging the Daily Telegram’s brand to build the DailyFinance brand, taking the place of the Associated Press, one of the most widely known and trusted content brands.  And, critically, this happened without the kind corporate content distribution deal that is entirely lacking in the efficiency that Aol, Demand Media, and Yahoo are pioneering in content production.

For every revolution in content production, there is a corresponding revolution in content distribution.  The Content Graph is the revolution in efficient content distribution.

Daily Telegram, a node in the Content Graph, forged a direct connection with DailyFinance. Aol got free branding. And Daily Telegram not only got free content but lifted up its own brand by running better, more interesting content from DailyFinance than they could get from the AP.

Now, imagine DailyFinance content appearing in hundreds of newspapers around the world, rivaling the Associated Press as a primary source of business news — imagine the huge brand equity that Aol could build by being distributed by all of those trusted content brands.

Now imagine every high quality content brand, connected in the largest brand network in the world. Imagine the Content Graph at scale.

The Content Graph defines content quality for newer brands by mapping how their content is distributed by established brands. And it further defines the quality of established brands by mapping how they distribute newer content sources.

Think about how valuable that network would be to media companies for efficiently building and positioning their brands, to ensure that their content is distributed to the broadest possible audience in a way that delivers maximum brand value.

I highlighted the example of the Content Graph in print because there’s a huge near-term opportunity to build the Content Graph through a massive improvement in the efficiency of content distribution to print, and to leverage the value of those trusted brands while print still reaches tens of millions of news consumers.

But the Content Graph is entirely multiplatform, and ultimately a map of a global digital distribution network.
On the web, the Content Graph isn’t just about the linking — it’s also distributing branded full content, rather than the inefficiency of content brands re-writing each other’s stories without attribution or writing a cheap knock-off post that has a link but is meant to serve as a substitute. Instead, publishers could mutually benefit from the efficiency of distributing each other’s content — with permission and full control over terms of use — so that they can realize brand value of this distribution through the Content Graph.

Full content distribution on the web would of course still come with links to the source — the goal is to build the Content Graph in parallel with the link economy. Google could eventually use the Content Graph as a guide, e.g. to identify canonical sources.

The Content Graph also extends to mobile platforms, where publisher apps can be greatly enhanced by distributing content from a wide range of sources.  It’s about content brands as curators of the best content, anywhere, not just the content they can produce.

And what is the mutual business benefit for content brands in developing the Content Graph?

Think about the value of the Content Graph to a big brand advertiser, looking to not only maximize their reach on the web, but as important if not more, to maximize their brand value. Imagine how an advertiser evaluating DailyFinance could use the Content Graph to measure the brand’s distribution across of hundreds of trusted newspaper brands… and what if the ad dollars followed DailyFinance throughout the Content Graph?

And that gets to why this is a pivotal moment in the future of news.

A newspaper like The Daily Telegram can get ahead of the curve to benefit from the disruptive power of the web and the efficiency of content created for the web. If they had run this Walmart college story from WalletPop in place of the AP story that appeared on the page, they could have gotten the content for that page entirely for free (along with the Dave Ramsey column), all by leveraging the value of their brand. And it’s by unlocking the value of its brand that newspapers like The Daily Telegram can survive and ultimately thrive in the digital age.

The Daily Telegram can become part of the largest network of high quality brands — the Content Graph — a network formed by the news brands themselves (not a middleman like the Associated Press), which can capture big brand advertising dollars as they migrate to the web.

And that is the future of news… a network of trusted news brands. And the corresponding future of brand advertising is in harnessing the power of this brand network.

  • Gina

    Hey Scott,

    I just came across this blog for the first time and am absolutely loving your posts... so many fresh, insightful thoughts at once! I'm not writing a piece about the translation of print news to social media and these are definitely getting my juices flowing.

    Keep it up!
    - Gina

  • jonathangroves

    Great post. It seems the Content Graph is where ProPublica is trying to derive much of its value, with high-profile stories with the New York Times and "This American Life."

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