Last week, Mackenzie Pearson was an unknown 19-year-old trying to make a few extra bucks writing essays for The Odyssey, a community-based content site that hopes to be the next BuzzFeed for brands.

Then, she wrote about dad bods.

In a 500-word story titled “Why Girls Love the Dad Bod,” Pearson wrote about the reasons girls love that slightly flabby and not-too-sculpted specimen of masculinity that can only be achieved by a few slices of pizza and an extra can of beer. (Some of the reasons: “We like being the pretty one” and “You know what you’re getting.”)

The story took off — it was shared almost 500,000 times from The Odyssey, and was linked to on thousands of sites. Pearson even appeared on “Good Morning America” — and Leo DiCaprio became, unwittingly, the patron saint of the body type. “I was completely surprised by the response the article received,” Pearson told Digiday, adding that she first heard the phrase at her college through a friend. “At first it didn’t seem real, but once people started reaching out to me with personal stories I felt connected to the readers and was thrilled by the response.”

Now, here come the brands. Evan Burns, the 27-year-old CEO of The Odyssey, said he has received queries from five different brands asking for integration with the article. “We’ve learned that there is a real appetite for brands to build real-time campaigns off of extremely popular stories,” he said.

It’s a millennial-focused model that has worked well for The Odyssey, which said it received 10 million unique visitors last month. (ComScore said it does not measure The Odyssey’s site numbers.) Each “community” has between 20 and 50 writers devoted to it. A community can be a college campus, a neighborhood or a small town. Writers from those communities will write both general-interest stories and articles specifically geared to the community. In Maryland, for example, an author wrote about budget cuts at the university.

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The writers are not journalists or even journalism majors. Instead, Burns finds people who have “something to say” about the places they live in. The idea is that because the site has writers coming from every part of the country, it offers a much more diversified look at the millennial consumer than sites that tend to have a more New York- or San Francisco-centric view.

This is precisely how one ends up with a dad-bod article, said Burns.

“A lot of content in the market is generalized, but what I wanted to do was find passionate people who cared about something.” That “something” can be anything — dancing, TV shows, roommates or, apparently, dad bods. Each college or community also gets its own custom URL — theodysseyonline/FSU leads to content created by Florida State writers, “/Maryland” features writers from the University of Maryland, and issues specific to those communities. The “dad bod” story came from Clemson University, where Pearson goes to school.

One of the site’s writers, for example, is Hannah Swanson from Auburn, Alabama. She is known for stories about families and American-Greek culture — and is a “thought leader” in her community. She was tapped to write about four articles a month. “Top” articles, said Burns, can net the author upwards of $1,000 per story.

A Verizon-sponsored story on The Odyssey
A Verizon-sponsored story on The Odyssey

The site has 500 advertisers, including Verizon, State Farm and Mountain Dew.

“With the Odyssey, we saw an opportunity to tap into the millennial demographic and instead of market to them, market with them,” said Iskra Dobreva, social media strategist at Verizon Wireless, which has sponsored content about dropped calls and embarrassing moments caused by phones. The brand started working with the site in January, and picked 14 campuses — Methodist State, Ohio State and University of Illinois among them — to create content for. The students on each campus came up with ideas.

“I loved the fact that the students were co-creators in the campaign,” said Dobreva.

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