Why Time Inc. is expanding its contributor networks

Time Inc. is increasing its reliance on outside contributors as it seeks to grow its digital footprint and serve ad partners. The magazine publisher behind People, Time and others is launching two products, Springboard and Time Inc. Connect, meant to help editors source content from contributors, some for traditional editorial content and some for native or branded content.

“Great content doesn’t just come from within our walls,” said Regina Buckley, Time Inc.’s senior vp of digital business development. “We’ve found a way to tap into the best of [user-generated content] while still being very careful to own and curate our brands.”

A couple years ago, contributor networks were all the rage among traditional publishers who watched enviously as their digital brethren including The Huffington Post and Bleacher Report built huge audiences on the backs of (often unpaid) contributor content. Time Inc., Condé Nast and Hearst have all launched contributor networks or, in the case of Time, pulled in content from other sites.

The results have been mixed. Travel + Leisure used a small group of contributors to grow its daily output by 700 percent; Entertainment Weekly’s The Community, which was hoping to attract 1,000 contributors, came up short of that, and while it still operates, it no longer posts daily; The Mix, a kind of personal essay hub where editors wrote headlines they wanted, before sourcing actual stories from contributors, lasted about a year before Hearst shuttered it this spring.

Time Inc. has struggled to turn around its largely print-based company and replace its declining print revenue with digital dollars, and one way it’s seeking to do that is through audience scale. With Springboard, Time Inc. sees a way for editors to create more content around specific topics or events rather than just getting content on the cheap. Each contributor will be vetted by an editor. In some cases, subject-matter expertise or authority and, in other cases, geographic location will be important: An early use-case of the product saw Essence editors using Springboard to on-board contributors to create content on site at the upcoming Essence Fest in Durban, South Africa.

Content can take the form of text-based posts, photographs or video, but execs there insist, quality will be high. “They have to meet our editorial standards, which, at Time Inc. are very high,” said Will Lee, Time Inc.’s group digital director for entertainment, sports and fashion.

As for the influencer networks, called Time Inc. Connect, Time Inc. is gathering separate groups of people with some degree of social influence who will create content for title editors as well as advertisers. It’s another example of publishers using influencers to cozy up to advertisers, a practice that many media buyers regard with skepticism.

The plan is for there to be three influencer networks to start, focused on beauty, style and food, each containing 50 to 75 people.

“There can be an inverse relationship between the absolute size of someone’s social following and the overall quality of their work,” Lee said. “Our editors are better than anyone in the world at selecting editorial talent. They will apply the same rigor to selecting people for this.”

It is not yet clear if the three influencer networks will operate under Time Inc.’s editorial operations or inside The Foundry, the Brooklyn-based sponsored-content unit launched last year. “Because it sits between editorial and advertising, we want to be very careful about where it sits,” Lee said.


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