Monday, August 6, 2012
Catching Up With Joanne Bradford, Demand Media
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Santa Monica-based Demand Media (www.demandmedia.com) has seen its share of ups and downs as one of the highest visibility technology and media companies to come out of Southern California's technology ecosystem in recent years. The company went from a venture backed high tech startup to an IPO as a publicly traded firm, and over its time has battled the perception of being a "content farm", suffered through Google and its Panda update, and now has emerged as a major content partner for Google, via YouTube. The firm has now become one of the largest technology companies in Southern California, and one which is committed to the region. To learn more about where Demand Media is today and how it has evolved, we sat down with Joanne Bradford, Chief Revenue Officer at Demand Media.
What is Demand Media doing nowadays?
Joanne Bradford: The first thing we start with everyday, is listening to the signal of what people are doing. Our whole goal is to create content for real life. We've built a studio system of 10,000 freelancers, copy editors, video directors, and video editors, and what we do is figure out what assignments they should have, give them those assignments, and figure out where to put that content, so that it creates the biggest experience and distribution and impact for the consumer.
We now have over 100 million users visiting our owned and operated sites, and we're also doing this for other people like USA Today. They have a great brand name, are very discoverable, and are looked upon favorably. But, they could not write, and did not know what to write from the travel perspective. We looking our studio system and listening platform, and figured out many thousand travel articles we could write for them, worked on the format, and found writers, who had been reviewed and rated, with at least five years of travel writing experience to help.
Can you explain that process?
Every one of those writers has a byline and a bio, and are paid twice a week at a pretty decent rate for that writing or assignment. Most of those assignments now are segmented by expertise. When we first built our system, anyone could come in and take an assignment. But now, those taking assignments have to be rated and reviewed, and have expertise in that area. We're now creating content for USA today on how to hike at a national park, how to take a cruise, taking your dog on vacation, and how to avoid lines at Disneyland. We're now driving 2 million unique views on USA Today every single month, via the partnership with Demand.
For Legalzoom, it's a very different model. They need content for people looking for legal advice on things like divorce and other topics. They couldn't find enough people to write the content they needed, at the quality they need. So, we're now adding the majority of articles for them, helping make them discoverable in search, and getting a handle on how that content performs. We're using our listening platform to figure out what to write--in their case, we figured out lots of people were interested in how to start the divorce process. In the case of Clorox, we are producing lots of articles, and making them discoverable, for their Hidden Valley Family Foods section, creating content around family and food.
Can you talk about the move into video for you?
Joanne Bradford: What we've perfected better than anyone else, is a distribution mechanism for content creation at scale, for text format, and are now moving on to visual and video formats. A great example is our YouTube video we created with Victoria Stilwell and videos on training a puppy. She's a great expert, cable quality, and we feature multiple camera angels, visual stills, and of course the talent of the puppy. We found that the number one thing searched for on pets, was people looking for information on how to get a puppy to sit. Her video on teaching a puppy to sit now has over 670,000 views, in only a short period of time since we posted it. What we've done there, is we've taken what could have been written as a text article, and added an expert--Victoria, in this case--and added video, and we're now putting that on YouTube and seeing success in that format. It all goes back to creating content for real life. The goal is to put up all of the information and experience that you need to tailgate to the game, but we're just not buying the right to show scores of that game. That why we're not in perishable news, and will never by like the AP, or never like the national news, and never would include things like NFL scores or rights. However, I think there's a huge opportunity in real life for us, like teaching a puppy to sit, figuring out how to manage your divorce, how to go on vacation, learn about cooking a recipe, or doing some arts and crafts.
It sounds like there's quite a bit of focus now on quality versus quantity, compared to when you started?
Joanne Bradford: I think quality improvements are a huge part of the game. If you look at anything that's evolved in consumer technology, it always starts pretty basic. We perfected that in text format, and very simple formats. We bought sites, built a studio system, and now we're figuring out what different formats to approach. We launched eBooks last week, and we're launching many different formats. The biggest thing in the last five years has been real identity online, understanding who an expert is, and why someone is an authority on something. It's all about social signals. The other thing is visual formats, and how that shows up. eHow Spark! Is our how-to-version of the pinboard. Where an article before might have been written in a very simple text format -- for example, how to make a chocolate basket -- now, you get a scrollable, compelling visual, so even if you're not really into chocolate, you can follow step by step visually. It's a richer experience for consumers. So we're teaching writers in the studio how to create those, covering everything from fixing leaky faucets to figuring out how to file taxes.
Are those kinds of content deals with brands a big focus?
Joanne Bradford: Our owned and operated network is still the largest customer of our studio system. But, we are seeing and really working with other partners. eHow is still our largest customers, Livestrong is still an important customer. The goal is to use our studio system for ourselves on our network, for our publishers, and for our partners. We've done that now for National Geographic's Green Guide, USA Today, Clorox, and another twenty or so partners. There's always something in the pipe, and there's a whole bunch of things we're working on now. We believe that we're now one of the largest content creators across any platform on the web, whether you translate that itto Facebook, YouTube, Google, or mobile devices. We own all of that content, and are putting it anywhere in any format.
Can you talk a little bit about your YouTube channels and how that works?
Joanne Bradford: We have three YouTube channels, eHow Pets, eHow Home and LIVESTRONG Woman. They're all sponsored on YouTube, which sells sponsorships to them. With those, we believe we've really driven the quality bar up significantly. We also do put a large amount of content on YouTube, which is not part of the channel program system that YouTube funded, on a regular basis. So, we're partnered with them on a couple of different levels. It's helped us to invest a little in talent and quality, and we've been able to use our programming, knowledge, data, and insights to make a better product, which has been really working well for us. If you look at Livestrong Women, Johnson & Johnson is sponsoring that, and YouTube sold that sponsorship. People are happy with the quality of it, where it's going, and how it's performing.
Our goal is to create a content base on what a consumer is looking for, using data, at economics that can scale. We're able to do that, because we've built a pretty decent system for creating videos, adjusting it, putting it on our site, putting it on YouTube, and other places. Many different factors go into that, but because we've been at it for five plus years, we've been able to build a pretty decent size fan base. There are so many different aspects of what we do, from Livestrong, to Cracked. The way I like to think about it, is if I were to close my eyes, and think about how I'd built a media and technology company for today, and what would I have to do, is I'd have to understand search, I'd have to understand the social graph, and I'd have to understand the economics you need to have to create content that performs. You have to have access to lots of creators, have to pay them and manage them in a big, crowd-sourced, virtual way, and to be able to build brands and drive results with publishers. We do all of those things. It's a very complex road, and the landscape changes every single day. Mobile is a big opportunity there, and figuring what the formats are, how to integrate ads. Even the concept of integrating an advertiser into video and embedding versus advertisement is something we've been working on quite a bit. That's the next big challenge for us. There's never a day of rest here, but the good news is we're able to use all of the information and success we've had, and the lessons we've learned from thinks like Panda--that was a great, interesting lesson for us--and proven that we understand how to make changes to our quality, an dour content, and figure out the complexities of search and algorithms, just like we're thinking about YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
You mention mobile is a thing you're thinking about a lot now?
Joanne Bradford: It's a very important focus. A large part of our users are discovering content via mobile. Cracked is an interesting one, and we recently were named to the Entertainment Weekly top 10 apps. We've been way ahead of the curve there, and Cracked has very early adoption of mobile product usage. We also have mobile with Livestrong, in the health and fitness area. Our mobile app allows you to track calories, so you can figure out that the granola bar you ate today was 120 calories, how man you ate yesterday, and the day before. We now have over 100 million calories tracked every single day. Mobile is an important part, and our goal is to bring that thinking to the content and format in the broader sense of our studio system.
One part of our story which I think is a little bit misunderstood, is how we think about quality, content, and creators. What we do, and how we get there, is we use data and insights. That's very different, and a change in the world. We still talk to media companies who are creating content, and then trying to find an audience, instead of what we're doing, which is creating something that we think meets needs that address real life. We've proven this over and over, and now have 100 million uniques. We're pretty savvy about doing this. More importantly, we've learned, have taken lessons of what happens, and are growing the business. One thing we have learned, is we know that every day, something is going to change. Someone is going to change their API, someone is going to change their algorithm, something else is going to happen. I now get fired up about that, because we now have the wherewithal and orientation to respond to that, versus being debilitated by it. Most companies would ask, what do we do now? Instead, we're figuring it out, breaking it down, and making things work with content, video, and mobile.
What's the most interesting thing you see happening at the intersection of content and technology where you are?
Joanne Bradford: Figuring out the mobile format for content is the most critical. It's figuring how people consume content via Twitter, or how they use their mobile device. I was recently sitting at the airport, and didn't want to go in while I was waiting to pick my daughter up from a flight, so I stayed in the car. My husband said--wasn't I bored? But, I completely caught up with all my news and information, and literally a very useful half hour. The thing I was most surprised at, was the format and experience there still doesn't match how much time I spent. I might be dating myself, but I came to work on the Internet from print in 2001, and the format types and what things looked like, what that experience was, and how it came together was such a huge questions. On the web, that's not an issue anymore. But, advertising formats have failed to keep up with the consumer. Mobile presents a big opportunity. If you look at it, there's a device change, a format change, and an economic change. I think every company has to think about that, because where now we have digital dimes, right now we only have mobile pennies, and we need to get to mobile quarters.