Trimming the Content Mullet


ADOTAS – Business in the front, party in the back — In 2008, Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti coined the expression “mullet strategy” after the hairstyle once favored by hockey players and country music fans.  In a New Yorker article on the Huffington Post, Peretti described the merits of HuffPo’s assimilation of both premium and user-generated content:

The mullet strategy is here to stay, because the best way for Web companies to increase traffic is to let users have control, but the best way to sell advertising is a slick, pretty front page where corporate sponsors can admire their brands.

For the next few years, Peretti was proved right. By 2010 the mullet strategy had been widely adopted by a number of high-profile public companies including Demand Media, Yahoo! (Associated Content) and AOL. The high-water mark for the mullet strategy was perhaps the leaked document called the “AOL Way” (a possible call-out to the classic Harvard MBA case study — the Toyota Way) that made explicit the basic economics behind the mullet strategy and its process driven approach to content.

In the AOL Way, the author demonstrates the fundamental reason why a mullet strategy was necessary for a publisher dependent on advertising revenue. A $250 premium piece of content could only be monetized at twice the price (RPM) of a piece of comparable, non-premium “farmed” content ($25), but cost nearly 10 times as much to produce.

Premium content was likely to lose money, but it could still be a loss leader for the mass produced articles that were hyper-relevant to search queries. As for advertisers, they were already highly empowered  to segment, target, and track the audience they were seeking — so the quality of the content only had to be “good enough.”

(Quick aside — by “farmed content” I am referring specifically to content that is produced cheaply and given minor edits, typically with the objective of attracting search traffic. User-generated content with a coat and tie. Sometimes great, but often more bland than bad, it tends to be written by generalists who have learned to quickly research a topic and bang out 500 words. Sometimes helpful, at its worst it is mere pablum and a ripe target for parody.)

Panda Raids the Party

The mullet strategy isn’t just effective for pleasing advertisers — it also has an important search component. A few well-linked, high-profile authors like Lance Armstrong or George Clooney featured on your site can earn links and social sharing from respected sites; Google and other search engines may then rank the domain more prominently — ignoring (for the most part) the “party in the back.”

The mullet strategy was working well — until it took a giant step backward earlier this year, when Google launched its Panda update to its search algorithm. Some mulleted sites lost 40% to 90% of their traffic, but those with a patina of quality tended to fare better.

Panda was Google’s chainsaw approach to the problem, but Google is also planning some longer-term strategies to defeat the mulletheads: for example Google has quietly introduced a new “rel=author” tag for content, which (if implemented successfully and tied to, of course, an official Google profile) will give more search result love to authors who are credible and well known.

Nevertheless, it is too soon to call the mullet dead for most publishers. Most large publishers depending on advertising have to wear some kind of mullet to profitably attract an audience — either following directly in HuffPo’s footsteps with numerous guest authors, or by creating sub-domains and “blog” areas that have lower standards.

Does the Look Work for Brands?

The mullet strategy works well for publishers, but may not work well for brands, many of whom are just starting to embrace content marketing (ie. publishing).

So would your brand look good in a mullet? (I am not talking to you, Keystone Beer.) Should you try to source content from a content farm?  Or should you try to focus exclusively on premium content?

It depends on the brand, but some level of non-professional participation is a good idea even for luxury brands. Without some level of user participation and involvement, the best branded content site will feel unauthentic and will wither — today’s audiences simply won’t tolerate a one way conversation.

Some companies, like Lego, have discovered that some of their best ideas came from a collaborating audience that is given a voice. That said, “the party in the back” should perhaps to be more “ice cream social” than kegger, including moderated comments and edited guest posts.

However, we are not big believers in the “farmed content” route for brands. The biggest issue with “good-enough” content  is reader satisfaction: branded content only gets one chance to disappoint or please a customer, and that experience tends to reflect directly on the brand.  Nor is the search query game a particularly easy one for brands to play and win: as the content mills have pretty much covered the profitable search landscape down to the third keyword.

Rockin’ the Content

So if associating your brand with content has potential liabilities, why are more and more brands taking the risk?

First, brands are seeing a huge opportunity to compete directly with publishers for their target audience, especially now that costs of publishing are near zero, and the credibility of traditional publishing is at an all time low. As a reader, would you rather get your running information from a non-expert writer paid $25 an article or UnderArmour? What if you knew that UnderArmour only worked with known experts, checked its facts assiduously, and had a strict policy not to promote or review its products in content articles?

I haven’t yet read Red Bull’s new magazine, The Red Bulletin, but I am willing to bet their content is excellent — because the rest of their marketing is impeccable.

The second advantage for branded content is that on a branded site, the brand has 100% of the attention of the audience, and an enhanced opportunity to engage and make an impact — and eventually converting a potential customer.  Over the long run, why should Procter & Gamble buy a relatively low engagement ad on the GQ website when they can eventually offer the same content and attract the same audience on their Man of the House site?

The value of a user reading content on a branded site should, and will be valued much higher than the value of that user viewing a brands ad on some other site. Simply put: brands can pay more for content, and therefore can and will create better content.

Finally, brands now have a new tactical advantage because the distribution game is changing, and authors (instead of domains or publishing companies) are becoming the primary drivers of both audience and credibility (remember “rel=author”?).  If content comes with a movable, passionate, engaged audience that is brought directly to them, brands don’t have to worry about paying a bit more — especially if they can find a way to pay the writers for their audience and not their content.



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