Why Time is expanding its circle of publisher friends

Publishers fight tooth and nail with each other for audience and ad dollars. But there are times when it’s in their interests to cooperate.

Increasingly, that’s the case when it comes to building big audiences. Time.com, for instance, is in the midst of a traffic explosion, with its multiplatform audience soaring 90 percent to 25 million monthly uniques in the past year, according comScore. One big contributor: a modified platform approach that has Time running articles from not just corporate siblings, like Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Health, but also publishers, like Rolling Stone, Quora, Refinery29, Inc., Patheos and the Aspen Institute. Time has around 30 content partners, from just three or four a year ago.

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Time also has increased the use of outside contributors, to include names like Rand Paul, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Camille Paglia, Walter Isaacson and Martha Stewart. According to Time, these partners, with posts likes 9 Terrible Habits You Need to Stop Immediately from Inc. and How Do You Know When it’s Time to Leave Your Job from Quora, now account for 10 percent of its traffic.

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With all these efforts, Time gets the content and, through it, the belief it can expose more people to its brand. The partners can hope for traffic via links back to their own site, but most likely, the main benefit is brand awareness. The contributors are housed in the Ideas section of the site, and the rest of the content appears in other verticals, overseen by the editor of that vertical.

Building audience is akin to doing battle on many fronts. Publishers can push their content out via distribution deals with portals, content-recommendation engines and social networks, to name a few. Traffic-sharing partnerships aren’t new, although for Time, the degree of formality and size are.

The content partnership tack is a modified twist on the publisher-as-platform model that has become popular lately, with titles like Forbes, Entertainment Weekly and Condé Nast Traveler formally opening their sites to outside contributors as a way to build audience. It’s a day that was coming, given Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp has publicly endorsed the platform approach as a way to give the company a needed digital jumpstart.

For Time.com, said Edward Felsenthal, managing editor, the partnerships are a way to make the site a “smart, comprehensive place to understand the world.”

“We have massively diversified the range of outside contributors to Time,” he said. “It’s a way to draw on the expertise that’s all over the company and to reduce duplication. And save money, frankly.”

The content partnerships play neatly into Time’s social media strategy. People are more likely to share a post when it reflects their beliefs, so the more types of content and points of view Time can post, the thinking goes, the more people will encounter the Time brand in their feeds and share it with their own networks. Time’s partner strategy is likely one reason that Facebook has more than tripled as a source of referral traffic, to 16 percent in the first half of this year, per Omniture.

“We’re thinking for the retweet,” said Callie Schweitzer, director of digital innovation at Time. “So much of social is, what it says about me.”

Pushing out more diversity of content also enhances Time’s chances of being favored by the Facebook algorithm that decides which posts users see in their feeds. “It’s fighting for the spot,” Schweitzer said. “It’s about what will resonate. It used to be, you had to fight for a space on A1. Now, it’s fighting for space on a social channel.”

The platform model is way for publishers to scale up, especially in the super competitive news market that has pitted legacy brands like Time and The Economist against upstarts like BuzzFeed and Business Insider. The platform approach isn’t without its potential pitfalls, though, as Forbes discovered earlier this week after it published a column by contributor Bill Frezza with the unfortunate title “Drunk Female Guests Are the Gravest Threat to Fraternities.”

Such instances may be anomalies, but the platform approach still raises questions with ad buyers about how the publisher is managing outsiders’ content and whether it changes the character of the site, though.

For Time, the content partnership approach “somewhat dilutes their brand because they’re relying on content from others to get people over there,” said Jeremy Tate, vp, group director, media, Digitas. “But the difference might be, they’re curating the right content from their partners. It’s just a question though: How much do they do it with content they own versus content from other partners?”

For now, Time seems intent on keeping its site less porous than others have. The outside content comes from reputable news sources or from contributors it has solicited. Moreover, Time.com doesn’t plan to let the partner content exceed 10 percent of the site’s overall traffic.

“We don’t post anything we haven’t read or asked for or approved,” Felsenthal said.