November 14, 2013

Render Unto Caesar What is Caesar’s: NYT’s David Carr on Content Farms

David Carr of The New York Times is the media’s most thought-provoking columnist on media issues. This week, he reviewed Contently, a high-end content shop that produces sponsored editorial for corporations, often for posting on media sites. He covers it mostly from the perspective of a journalist, evaluating how valuable high-end sponsored content is and how it could fit into a wider universe of reporting.

Contently, which grew out of the TechStars incubator program in New York, developed a roster of writers and journalists for hire and a software application that helps companies tell their own stories as well. Three years later, the company has raised $2.3 million in financing, developed a roster of 27,000 writers, grown to 24 employees and has 40 Fortune 500 companies among its clients. Some of its customers include American Express, Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo.

As Contently’s $2.3 million in raised funds demonstrates, there are more opportunities than ever for companies to interact directly with their clients without the filter of media. For the public relations industry, the growth of such outlets means that clients don’t have to push as hard to get advertorial-type stories in earned media, allowing media relations professionals to spend their time on more constructive efforts like corporate strategy and relationship cultivation.

This is all the more important given that some client messages do not meet the threshold of news. By not having to perform the often-difficult task of turning an advertisement into a compelling news story, everyone gets more for their public relations investment.

Moreover, this trend does not diminish the importance of earned media, which carries more weight than ever in swaying consumer decision-making. There are countless places to look for feedback and reviews on the Internet – but the traditional, branded media still carry outsized weight as authorities. There are too many ways to game platforms like Yelp for consumers to give them equal weight to an endorsement from being in The New York Times.

In some ways, Contently invites competition from PR firms. Many tasks that used to be outsourced by even large firms—such as media coaching, presentation training and strategic writing—are now done in-house by smaller boutiques. In most cases, an incumbent PR firm can compete with Contently for those assignments, but nevertheless it will be interesting to see how the rising demand for sponsored content changes the way PR account retainers are structured.

Sean Dougherty, Vice President, Media Relations