Upstart publishing platform The Odyssey is reminiscent of fellow "platishers" like Medium, Thought Catalog and Slant News. Its twist is to cultivate pods of writers who create content for their own communities.
By harnessing interest about local events, The Odyssey hopes to attract a millennial audience and the advertisers that want to reach that audience.
Since graduating from beta in June 2014, The Odyssey has expanded from 30 communities and 600 writers to 360 communities and 4,000 writers, who sometimes receive incentive payments but mainly work for the exposure. Each community attracts an average of 100,000 unique visitors each for a total of 20 million unique visitors a month.
Half of those readers are of college age, speaking to the publication’s roots. CEO and founder Evan Burns created the publication as a way for Indiana University students to write articles about and for the university – many centered around the fraternity and sorority scene.
To monetize its expanding audience, The Odyssey is building capabilities in two fast-growing areas of advertising: programmatic and native.
Burns hired Ken Nelson in July to serve as chief business strategy officer. Nelson, a veteran of ad tech players Collective and Exponential, views programmatic as an opportunity, especially if The Odyssey can incorporate its first-party data into the buy.
“Today a vast amount of programmatic is audience buying,” Nelson said. “We feel there’s a form of targeting that’s evolving that’s content-driven and native-driven.”
To allow brands to segment their buys, The Odyssey is building an in-house DMP that allows advertisers to do things like buy 100% share of voice on articles written about trending topics like Kanye West’s speech for the MTV Video Music Awards.
“Within hours we had dozens of articles written about Kanye running for president,” Nelson said. “Does the brand want to insert themselves in the conversation?”
The publisher is also wielding the strength of its publishing platform, Muse, to enlist dozens or even hundreds of writers to create content on behalf of brands.
The Muse content management system ensures that the 4,000 writers representing the 360 communities on The Odyssey submit quality content. Muse automatically filters for quality, measuring, for example, SEO and checking for profanity and spelling, , and gives suggestions to writers to ensure they meet The Odyssey’s standards.
As for native ads, The Odyssey has run content programs with Monster energy drinks, “Top Ten Best ‘Darty’ Schools In The Nation,” Verizon-sponsored “Best Moments Captured By Social Media” and Schick for the thought piece “Grow Up, Bro.” These articles are among dozens or more created for each brand.
The Odyssey relies on its writers, not paid amplification, to distribute both editorial and branded content via social media, which accounts for 87% of its traffic. It prides itself on purely organic distribution.
“A lot of these premium publishers have to put 15 to 20% of their budgets into Facebook to get views,” Burns said. “Because we have the pulse of what’s going on in communities and understand what resonates with them, we’re able to have them distributed by humans,” namely The Odyssey’s community.
The Odyssey’s sponsored content model automates some of the burden of content creation and distribution by relying on its writer network and Muse. Eventually, Nelson hopes its strategy of native and programmatic may eventually merge into one programmatic model.
“When you talk about native content, the article itself is an ad unit. The question is how you can standardize and monetize that programmatically?” Nelson asked, and that’s a problem The Odyssey is keen on solving.