Discovery Communications, which owns the Discovery Channel, TLC and Animal Planet, plans to integrate more than 100,000 hours of programming on HowStuffWorks.com, which had 3.9 million unique U.S. visitors and 18 million page views this September, according to ComScore.
For Discovery CEO David Zaslav, the acquisition represents the latest in a trio of digital properties the company has added to its portfolio to build its social-networking communities. First came Animal Planet's acquisition of Petfinder.com in November 2006, followed by Planet Green's buy of Treehugger.com in early August. With HowStuffWorks working hand-in-hand with Discovery Channel's content, Mr. Zaslav said the company can now afford to "really hit the accelerator."
"We've made a lot of progress on Discovery.com and making it a really strong vertical. HowStuffWorks has great search, a great library and strong advertising teams; Petfinder is the No. 1 pet site; and Treehugger has a real understanding of the green space but also a bunch of tools for the community," he said. "We can bring this group together now and say, 'OK, now we've got the tools and we have the talent. How fast and aggressively can we push it?'"
Along with HowStuffWorks.com, Discovery will also acquire a database of digitized maps owned by GeoNova Group (formerly MapQuest Publishing) and the medical-education business Quick Compliance.
"We view ourselves as the leader in knowledge and curiosity on air, and we figured there was a real opportunity to expand that on the internet," said Bruce Campbell, president-digital media and business development at Discovery Communications. "There is such a terrific overlap in our subject areas and our brand recognition."
Shopping for consumer base
Traditional media companies, which have had some difficulty translating viewership or readership into online traffic, have increasingly been acquiring existing online properties with a built-in consumer base.
The acquisition of HowStuffWorks also gives Discovery Communications access to a library of text-based content, a good fit for a naturally curious batch of viewers.
"If you look at our most popular shows, such as 'Mythbusters' and 'Dirty Jobs' ... [the viewers] are people who want to learn about the world about them," Mr. Campbell said.
Having reliable, text-driven content also makes HowStuffWorks popular with search engines. The site has gained favor in particular with Google, which was evident at last week's Zeitgeist event. Google's co-founder, Sergey Brin, called the site "a website I like personally" when talking about how Google's business plan depends on there being a swath of successful internet properties.
Since its founding in 1998 by North Carolina State University Professor Marshall Brain, the site has focused on studying search behavior and providing reliable content, said CEO Jeff Arnold, founder of the e-health-care company WebMD.
And in terms of marketing, Mr. Campbell said the acquisition will be an opportunity for Discovery Communications to "create content that responds directly to our advertisers' needs."
For example, if a marketer wants to advertise hybrid cars, HowStuffWorks can provide a variety of relevant topics, such as articles on global warming or greenhouse gases, or video on hybrids, and then allow marketers to advertise around that content or on the video.
'Comprehensive yet entertaining'
"It's all about canvassing a topic and being able to go extremely deep and be comprehensive yet entertaining," Mr. Arnold said.
In the case of HowStuffWorks, Mr. Zaslav's plan is to sell the site with Discovery content as a kind of aggregated search buy. "It allows us to take what we have on hybrid cars and put it together with photos and text and offer a really interesting proposition to advertisers," he said. "If you get somebody in that serious moment with hybrid cars, we can super-serve that person by satisfying their curiosity about everything they want to know about hybrid cards. A good portion of those people aren't point-of-purchase, so it's a great opportunity to go to Ford or Toyota and say, 'Here's some great products you're selling. We have some consumers specifically interested in learning about those products.'"
And as the broadcast networks begin dipping their toes in the water to host their own broadband sites like Hulu (NBC and Fox) and Joost (CBS), Mr. Zaslav said HowStuffWorks will be competing for a separate consumer mind-set. "It's not clear where people are going to view video on the web. There's a battle as to who will own that market share and value. This is really playing in the more traditional web information space, like, 'How does an electric car work?' 'How do sharks swim?' It's that impulse of, 'I wonder how that works' and getting into that space. It has a very different engagement."
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Contributing: Abbey Klaassen