Contributor networks can generate traffic and inventory with a much lower investment in the content by publishers. That’s the idea behind them. They’re a low-risk opportunity that, if scaled, can have some significant upside.

The Huffington Post was the first to make contributor networks famous, but others have advanced the practice from there. Networks like Yahoo use similar formulas, while others like SB Nation and Glam Media have found different ways to create value off of their main sites.

Forbes, too, just found another revenue stream for its contributor network. They licensed the platform behind it to ALM, a b-to-b publisher in the legal field, so they could start their own network. 

The use cases go further. Big b-to-b media players like UBM Tech are handing more and more of their publishing businesses over to their users. The audience is the expert, they say, so that’s where they’re turning for content. Their brands are “communities” now, not publications.

And aside from the success stories in the traditional media space, social media—by definition—is built on the backs of its users.

Regardless of the results, all of these models hinge on one assumption: That people will want to write for you. For free.

Payment, generally, is in exposure. That can lead to other revenue streams, but contributors rarely see a check from the companies they write for.

Some programs do pay their writers, but it doesn’t amount to much—the whole point behind contributor networks is to keep costs down, after all.

Forbes has both paid and unpaid contributors. Paid writers are expected to hit certain baseline metrics and are compensated additionally based on performance. Less than 3 percent of its 1,100-member contributor network made more than $35,000 last year though, and, as Reuters columnist Felix Salmon notes, that could go down even further as audiences migrate to less-profitable mobile platforms.

But even with a compensation model in place, Forbes “trimmed” 238 of its 1,100 contributors—more than 20 percent of its roster—last year, according to Lewis D’Vorkin, chief product officer at the company.

Turning over one-fifth of its network isn’t insignificant. And one imagines the churn rates for non-incentivized programs to be much higher. The problem compounds as networks scale. (And scale is necessary for the networks to work—Nate Silver estimated the average Huffington Post blog post to be worth just $13.)

This isn’t to say contributor networks don’t work. They’re not a set-it-and-forget-it solution though. 

As they do with traditional editorial content, publishers need to—and, apparently, will—continually invest in the manpower to keep the machine running. Unlike their relationship to traditional content though, they’re ceding control over the supply.


The Many Models of Contributor Networks

Huffington Post: The first big contributor network, HuffPo took a lot of heat around the time of its sale for, some argued, building a media empire largely off of the work of unpaid writers. The site says it hosts more than 30,000 bloggers currently.

Forbes: Forbes has 1,100 contributing writers, some paid, some not. For the former group, compensation is based on hitting baseline goals and traffic incentives. Lewis D’Vorkin, chief product officer, says they’ll play a bigger role soon with contributions coming to ebooks, video, television, and, yes, print.

SB Nation: The Vox-owned SB Nation gets most of its content from more than 800 bloggers at branded team- or subject-related microsites. Like Forbes, some of its contributors are paid, but SB Nation includes qualitative assessments of their work in the compensation model.

Design News: UBM Tech sites like Design News solicit contributions from industry experts, but they’re also investing in the user-generated content found in chats, comment threads and message boards. The site says it gets about 4,000 monthly interactions from its community of 2,500 registered users.