Denver-based Associated Content isn't often mentioned in discussions of the city's web powerhouses, but it should be. Since May 2007, when Associated Content founder Luke Beatty was profiled in a Message column, the site, which pays content providers fees based on the popularity of their items, has grown at an astonishing pace. Indeed, Associated Content racked up 8.2 million unique visits last October alone, placing it among the top-100 most popular sites on the Internet -- not just locally, but worldwide.
Clearly, Associated Content is in the big leagues now, and that's precisely where its new chief-executive officer has been playing. Patrick Keane takes the AC helm after stints with Google and CBS. During a conversation earlier this week from AC's New York offices, he talked about his background, as well as about his vision of the firm's future.
"I've been in the world of digital-media marketing since late 1995," Keane says. "I was fortunate to be able to grow as the industry grew." He first made his mark at Jupiter Research, working as "an analyst and researcher focused on consumer interactivity -- how consumers were going to interact with media communities and engagement through this new IP-delivered platform called the web." In this capacity, he gave tips to firms such as Time-Warner, Viacom and Disney, "as well as all the burgeoning startups that came along -- folks like Google and Yahoo and eBay and the sort of that grew as a part of that."
Keane calls the experience "a really great boot camp in interactive media and telecommunications. And one of the things I saw while I was at Jupiter was this notion that advertising needed to be accountable, needed to be measurable, needed to clearly be able to be a path to revenue for businesses. And one of the businesses that understood that best was Google. They had the most efficient, scalable, accountable advertising platform. So back in 2001, 2002, I contacted Tim Armstrong" -- Google's former ad chief, and one of the major investors in Associated Content -- "and saw that they really wanted to be a place that sat at the center of this demand-driven, accountable media account and advertising landscape."
Before long, Keane was on the Google payroll, too, in charge of advertising sales strategy. But after four years, he began to notice some chinks in the Internet goliath's armor. "Google's always been challenged in big-brand advertising: companies like Proctor and Gamble and General Motors, which try to persuade consumers through emotion-driven advertising. Google wasn't really equipped to do that." CBS was, however, and he served as chief marketing officer for the outfit's interactive arm through late last year.
As for Associated Content, Keane says, "If you were to build a media company from the ground up in terms of how you measure the way content is procured and monetized, I think this is the perfect place for me. We're an open-content publishing platform, so whether you're an amateur expert on a certain topic or a professional, we create a marketplace for you to distribute your content and make it discoverable through search. We're the next generation of a content publishing and syndication platform, with over 250,000 individual contributors since the inception of the company.
"We're a mass producer of content, and we compensate content producers by up-front payment and ad revenue," he goes on. "It's a large amateur and professional content network with strong analytics and strong metrics to measure the value of the content and the value of advertising that measures that content. That's the model, and the timing is perfect. If you look at where media is today, most consumers aren't satisfied with the content choices out there. They don't get the depth they're looking for in a lot of traditional media -- and the web is all about more specific and narrow opportunities for content consumption."
Not that Keane sees Associated Content replacing traditional media. "We complement them in many ways," he maintains. "You're still going to need your New York Times, your Denver Post, your local news and TV. I just feel that we provide a little more depth, a little more granularity. And we want to be able to partner with media companies -- be able to go into a big publisher, whether it's a magazine or a newspaper publisher, and say, 'We have hundreds of thousands of contributors and more than a million pieces of content. We'd love to provide some of that content to you.' And we think they're great producers of content, too, and we'd love to syndicate and take in some of their content as well. We want to do more of these kinds of partnerships, because they offer a new audience."
Although Keane says he'll spend a significant amount of his time in Denver, he'll spend more in New York City -- and he feels his presence there will help Associated Content to step up its game even further. "New York really is the advertising agency and media capital of the U.S. and, arguably, the world," he allows. "And we really feel it's important to have a strong advertising and sales and partnership company here, where we can work with the world's largest advertisers. And we also want to focus on the consumer side, so that we can build and construct and support a larger consumer business by building on the Associated Content brand and provide more solutions for consumers."
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Of course, pretty much every major company these days is trying to figure out how to make bank from the Internet, and most of them are failing. "I'll be the first to admit that it's a tough economy," Keane says, "and when I worked in the TV business, I remember Jeff Zucker, the head of NBC, saying, 'We're sacrificing terrestrial dollars for digital pennies.' But while that might be true on a short-term basis, I think it's a very short-sighted, ostrich-driven approach.
"When you look at user minutes, the time people are spending online: These numbers are exploding," he continues. "Now, people aren't inventing new hours in the day. They're taking them from somewhere else -- and too many traditional companies see it as purely cannibalistic. But one thing we like to sell is engagement. Our pieces of content are extraordinarily useful, and they bring an advertiser to the point of purchase, or the point of purchase consideration. That's why Google has been extraordinarily successful in search, and we need to do that as well. Advertisers don't just want massive reach. They want engagement and the ability to influence transactions. You want to be able to not only influence a purchase in a year -- you want to influence a purchase tomorrow. And I think we can do that pretty efficiently."
It's a brave new world...