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12 January 2021
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Marketplace startups are turning content into revenue

Publishing is dead, right? Well, it’s not so much dead as transformed. During what’s been a two-decades-long decline of traditional media, the medium itself has changed dramatically, but there’s never been more content making more money for more companies than right now. Just not in the way you’d expect.


New content markets began opening and growing before the first nail was hammered in the media coffin. Content survives on the Internet, it’s been democratised for better or for worse with social media, it’s been decentralised via streaming video, and it’s even been automated.

I’ve had luck with two startups built on the mining of action from valuable content (Intrepid Media & ExitEvent). I’m focused on another startup now (Teaching Startup), that’s betting on a whole new evolution in content delivery: Content as product.

So I’ve got loads of experience here, enough to know I’m not alone in calling this a trend.

Social media left behind a mess, but also an opportunity

Publishers are beginning to discover the true value of their content, and it only took 20 years for them to figure out that “eyeballs” — a term invented in the late 90s to measure valuation of Internet content — had nothing to do with said value.

The reason this revelation took so long was that it was hidden under the giant, billionaire-producing smokescreen of web-based advertising, and then mobile advertising, which covered up the stench of SEO-infused word salad with the deodorant of impressions and clickthroughs.

Seriously. That dumpster fire was pretty much the entirety of Internet content in the early-to-mid 2010s. A sea of listicles and slideshows slathered in keywords meant to lure search engine spiders to bequeath rankings high enough to generate rich CPMs for advertising engines.

But then something kind of wonderful and stupid happened. Social media went mobile-first.

The bullet train of SEO couldn’t migrate to mobile fast enough, adopting its new-fangled photo and video capabilities, not to mention geolocation. Now THAT was a billionaire-making machine if there ever was one.

That shift left in its wake the spark of an opportunity. A number of content publishers —producers of words, pictures, audio, and video — were left searching for a new revenue stream to counter the loss of SEO eyeballs.

The true value of content was never in the read

As a new breed of mobile-social-local media companies battle for eyeballs on your phone, a sort of old guard of content providers, those formerly thought to have value, has been experimenting with all manner of revenue streams searching for something that will stick.

The first shot fired was the paywall. With the exception of a few stalwarts, this model didn’t work for traditional media companies like newspapers and magazines.

But there was something there.

Subscription models were a huge boon for video and audio media — movies, television, podcasts, and music — but the jury is still out on the hybrid model of subscription fee + advertising. Note that the media outlets serving video and audio without ads are losing a lot of money doing it, and only those giant companies with the money to lose are likely to survive.

But there’s something there.

Content marketing now sits in this meta space where you can describe content marketing as content that has value that points to something else of value that isn’t the content. Industries like travel, leisure, and finance do content marketing very well, nevertheless, the success there seems to be industry-based, not universal.

Regardless, there is something there, and it’s that third evolution where startups are catching on to the solution. Ironically, the solution stems from the cause of the problem itself. What those SEO-jockeys realised early on was that the value of the content wasn’t in the read, it was in the action prompted by the read.

Now, the advertising model doesn’t care about the value of the content at all, as long as it hits the lowest common denominator and brings in enough shit so that some of it will stick to the wall and click on whatever ad is served on top of the word salad.

Actionable content is valuable content

What content marketing taught the producers and publishers of that content was if they could write something worth reading, they could turn that reader into a customer of whatever it is they were writing about.

So why should that result in handing off that customer to another company?

Why not build their own marketplaces?

I recently dropped some marketplace knowledge for an article in Digiday about a company that is pivoting from restaurant reviews to a marketplace of curated restaurant experiences. It’s clever. They use their own reviews to vet their marketplace vendors, they have a built-in supply of customer demand, so to speak, in the readership of those reviews, and they already have the publishing and content marketing in place.

All they need is the marketplace infrastructure, which is a whole other problem not to be underestimated, but it beats running ads. It gives them a better chance for survival anyway.

Education is also a fertile area for content as product, with free classes that serve as trial versions of paid classes. This is the model I’m using for Teaching Startup, educating entrepreneurs while throwing out the whole notion of linear education. It’s me saying: “Here, this content will make you better. Please subscribe to it.”

But those aren’t the only sectors exploring content-as-product. Any area that can produce information-rich content that can trigger an action that adds value to the reader has the chance to convert that reader into a consumer of that content.

The delivery channels have gone mainstream

The second step in the evolution of content-as-product is a very recent advancement in two technologies.

One is the mainstream adoption of video as a replacement for face-to-face. Today, hopping on a Zoom is as ubiquitous as hopping on the phone. The other is completely unrelated at first glance, and it’s the proliferation of no-code tools. Now almost anyone can build a web or mobile app in almost no time.

The early adopters are all over this. The result is an explosion of content-related businesses fuelled by apps and sometimes driven by video where face-to-face used to be a requirement.

Throw in the content-marketing angle, whether that’s written word, photo, audio, or video, and you have the dawn of the eService era. It’s consulting, coaching, counselling, coding, basically any service where the vendor no longer has to physically interact with the customer.

And you better believe marketplaces are springing up around those services, including access to the actionable, valuable content being generated by them.

The pandemic and quarantine not only accelerated the advancement and adoption of the technologies to make these eService companies possible, it also led to an entire world staying home and learning and doing new things.

Need a fitness coach? A cooking lesson? There’s an app for any of that now, with content and potentially even a live human available over the Internet, on-demand, whenever you’re ready.

Here’s the catch

For content to become product, which in turn becomes revenue, that content must have inherent value. SEO doesn’t work here. To be fair, it does work, it just works on a more atmospheric level. In other words, you still use SEO to bring in customers, but that content can’t be your value content.

For now, this evolution has created an almost nostalgic return to valuable content available on the Internet. Will the quality remain high forever? Only time will tell.

But one thing that seems permanent is the removal of another gate (middleman) between provider and customer, which is the promise of a truly valuable digital marketplace. That should remain an option in the content universe for quite some time.

This article was originally published on Medium by Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio is a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. In 2015, he sold Automated Insights to Vista Equity Partners. In 2013, he sold ExitEvent to Capitol Broadcasting. Before that, he built Intrepid Media, the first social network for writers. You can read more and sign up for his newsletter at

Article by David Johnson