Tech by VICE

The Big Box Content Farm Wants to Be Boutique Again

Mass-audience sites are getting angsty as their dragnet audience strategies start to fail.

by Carles Buzz
Apr 29 2016, 4:00pm

After trumpeting the possibility of infinite scale for the past several years, the big box content farm wants to downsize.

The narrative of scale as a metric of human relevance is no longer a realistic way to capture the hearts of lost internet users or the funding of venture capital firms. The idea of one online media company producing the most content and possessing the widest reach across the most relevant platforms might not be 'the model of the future' afterall. It is a model—it's just not as likely that a model can emerge where profits can match user growth.

In April, the angst of the big box content farm expressed itself in the form of financial strain and curated media pivoting the zeitgeist of those same big box content farms.

  • Buzzfeed slashed its revenue projections in 2016 from $500 million to $250 million. This is after it missed its own revenue projections in 2015 by 30 percent.
  • Earlier this month, Mashable laid off 30 staffers. Mashable's CEO Pete Cashmore sent out a memo pivoting the brand into video production, and diminishing coverage of world news and politics. He wrote, "We'll spend more time focusing on our core coverage — technology, web culture, science, social media, entertainment, business and lifestyle, all told through the digital lens."
  • A co-founder of Vox Media wrote an impassioned piece about how this is now our opportunity to build a better version of internet media, now that everything has accelerated to its logical end.

There is no way to build a definable audience when you have a kitchen sink editorial strategy

Big box content farms were forced into a major realization—reporting on generalist news and trends has resulted with a huge, unmonetizable, unsegmented audience. Sure, a branch of your media company exists to piggyback off trending stories and produce low-end shareable stories that keep your traffic growing. But that means there is no way to build a definable audience when you have a kitchen sink editorial strategy. The big box practice of generalism will probably still continue, though, but the segmented audiences in relevant verticals will become even more important to a big box media company's brand.

The trouble with the big box content farm is that it wants to be everything to everyone, much like Walmart is to the consumer of goods. Much like Walmart is an Everything Store, the Big Box Content Farm is an everything outlet with a post about everything with every possible angle. There is no differentiation between news, trends, voice, or time. All that matters is cheaply produced content without any regard for the sustainability of anyone.

What really happened is that the depth of garbage on the internet became so deep that the return on producing 'clickbait' to 'play the game' wasn't actually profitable. Sure, you can get in front of more people if you are well-funded enough to spend millions on Facebook traffic for years. If there's so much content out there, differentiating enough to create a product that you can sell premium ads against becomes difficult. Even if you have in-house creative teams, television studios, and the best native advertising team in the industry, matching the scale of your own site is nearly impossible. You're just a big box content farm, looking for cheap ways to monetize huge audiences of digitally indifferent people.

If you think about it, even a 24-hour cable news network has the constraints of time to program its own video content. The big box content farm has had the task of programming infinite hours of content for the possibility of infinite users to browse. Still, big box content farms are at the top of the internet's informational and narrative-creation hierarchy, which makes the new backlash against infinite scale and generalist news even more interesting. They are positioning themselves for the future, where a profitable business model can keep a business afloat, keep a community of content consumers happy, and hopefully provide meaningful content.

As someone who once had a small-scale independent media company that existed before big box content farms were able to do everything better than a one-man-blog, it's hard for me to buy into the vision of the big box content farm regressing towards a boutique-like brand. It's disingenuous to read the same big box content farms that killed off networks of independent content creators in their rise claim that some sort of new outlook can emerge from analyzing trending happenings from the "digital lens." Somehow, independent voices will regroup into profitable groups. They've already killed the CPM and made textual content more worthless than ever. Investments in editorial teams and longform are great for a media brand but will remain unpopular with the generalist masses that become impossible to monetize.

Instead, we will just witness more of the same behavior with the big box content farms. They will have the revenue and funding to build necessary technologies and spend resources on emerging platforms that allow them to keep being relevant players in the digital media game. They will work hand in hand with legacy media companies that need help producing content in mediums that they haven't quite figured out, nor might it even be profitable in the long run to figure it out for themselves. But the remaining big box content farms have already done their damage to the internet that they want to reinject with rich and meaningful content.

There is a clear divide between content that genuinely resonates with a segmented audience and content that helps a big box content farm grow. But this is how media already was, before big box content farms growth hacked the digital media industry to its ceiling. It was already a mess, well-guarded by gatekeepers, even before the internet's gatekeepers established themselves as peddlers of cheap content in their own arena of chaos.

carles.buzz tanked his own scalable content farm HipsterRunoff and created the UNSCALABLE media project carles.buzz.

Homepage image by Dinu Dragomirescu via Flickr.