For most of their history, media companies have controlled the two great pillars of publishing success: production and delivery. They owned the content we wanted and the the means of delivering it — and therefore monetizing it.
But that’s changing rapidly. Distribution is no longer a competitive advantage: content isn’t constrained to any one time, place or screen, but rather parceled out to inboxes, apps and social feeds. Because content is now so easy to access, relevance has replaced distribution as the second pillar of publishing success.
In today’s online, on-demand world, greater relevance drives sustained consumer preference, which marketing analysts label “engagement.” To keep up, publishers face increasing pressure to distribute content through platforms like Facebook; with their deep understanding of their users, they’re to deliver content to the right people.
The problem is, when you cede control of your distribution, the biggest causality is the data associated with it. Without data, you’re left leaning on one pillar: your content.
Yet, publishers continue to subscribe to this model day after day, month after month, year after year. To understand this phenomenon, let’s look back at how Facebook has influenced media consumption over the past decade.
The new walled gardens
People like to say that the internet freed us from the monopolistic control of media companies who liked to own not only the proverbial movies, but all the proverbial projectors as well. But in this bastion of media liberty, new walled gardens are emerging: social feeds.
Facebook recently launched Instant Articles, the latest in a series of moves aimed at creating a more “vertically integrated” content feed. (Twitter made a similar move with Twitter Moments.) Publishers who opt into Instant Articles will have their content served up, in its entirety, right within the Facebook app. Facebook promises that the cleaner experience will result in more shares, and will make up for the fact that Instant Articles don’t send readers to publishers’ sites.
What’s in it for Facebook?
If Facebook can get users to spend more time inside the walled garden of their app, the business will grow.
Before we go any farther, let’s be clear: Facebook is not the Galactic Empire, and this is not rebel propaganda. Facebook has 3 main reasons, all perfectly logical and ultimately user-oriented, for creating Instant Articles:
Better user experience
Opening an article instantly is decidedly better dropping out of the app, launching a browser window and waiting for it to load — especially if you’re on your phone.
Facebook offers a (currently optional) service that sells programmatic ads on your Instant Articles for 30% of the revenue generated. If history is any guide, we can expect that cut to get deeper as time goes on.
Mountains of it. Facebook gets to see not only who clicks on what, but how long she spends reading it, what ads she engages with, what she reads next, and who she shares it with. Facebook then gets to map that against their own user interest graph to learn how to better engage and monetize their users (see “new revenue”).
What’s in it for publishers?
Leading publishers like The New York Times, National Geographic, HuffPo, BuzzFeed and many, many more have jumped onboard, or at least “giving it a try.” The reasons are pretty simple:
1.5 billion pairs of eyes and ears
Even with organic reach at an all-time low, Facebook is an incredibly powerful and cost-effective user acquisition channel. You can count on Facebook to deliver your content to your existing audience in a relevant way, while also targeting a new audience in a non-invasive, friendly way. Their interest-driven delivery does work. Studies suggest that Facebook now drives more traffic to news sites than Google, which means publishers can’t afford to not be there.
Low (perceived) risk
For now, it’s free. Qualified publishers can join for $0.00, and they only pay for ad placement if they choose to use Facebook’s Audience Network to run campaigns. It also doesn’t require much legwork. Facebook is actively working to make the experience effortless by drawing Instant Article content directly from publishers’ existing content management systems — low effort too.
Attention to UX
Brands like NYT, HuffPo, and The Atlantic didn’t survive the transition to digital by being timid about new channels or by ignoring the way their users behave online. They want to be associated with good experiences. Instant Articles promises to deliver, with support for rich media elements like audio captions, interactive maps, comments, and likes.
What do publishers stand to lose?
Publishers are risking their autonomy. As TechCrunch eloquently wrote, “[they] are in danger of becoming dumb content in the smart pipes of platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”
They can also sacrifice:
Publishers are effectively displacing site visits for Facebook impressions, which are inherently less valuable. When Facebook, and not the publisher, is seen as the source of relevant content, media companies lose brand equity — and with it, bargaining power with advertisers or re-marketing opportunities.
In fact, after publishers said that Instant Articles made it too hard for them to generate revenue from their content, Facebook made a few concessions — like letting publishers highlight and link to content on their sites from the “related articles” section.
A strong user base is worth much more than even a broad swath of new readers. With new users, you’ll still need to make a push toward publishers’ sites, where they could discover more content to fall in love with and consume. If not, the short term gains of new users will likely be outweighed by the erosion of customer loyalty, brand equity, and retention.
With channels like Facebook, you’ll never see the full picture. As such, you can’t compare it to your own data, you can’t use it to build your own interest graph, and you have no control over who your content gets matched with.
Your data is incredibly valuable. Many companies have a hard time realizing that value, but giving up control of it is not the answer; Your data is the foundation of your own ability — developed or dormant — to be relevant to your audience.
What’s the alternative?
We’re not suggesting you quit Facebook, quite the opposite. Facebook has power because it’s become exquisitely good at knowing what will delight and engage each individual user. In other words, it’s made an investment in relevance.
Leading publishers are beginning to make that investment, too, as they realize relevance, via individual experiences, is the way to disrupt and delight. Here’s how:
Some are building in-house solutions
Going digital has been tough for the Gray Lady: when The New York Times’ innovation report leaked last year, Nieman Journalism Lab director Joshua Benton wrote:
You can sense the frayed nerves and the frustration at a newsroom that is, for all its digital successes, still in many ways oriented toward an old model.
The report called on the Times to do a better job of resurfacing old content in relevant contexts; it also called for Amazon-like content recommendations, which the technology team is working on.
BuzzFeed, on the other hand, is basically a bonafide tech company: it’s got a big team of engineers who’ve “created world-class systems for analytics, advertising, and content management,” investor Chris Dixon wrote after putting $50 million in.
Although BuzzFeed has plenty of longform content, the company’s short-form stuff — quizzes, listicles, etc. — are easy to produce and distribute very quickly, allowing writers to hop on news and trends with breakneck speed.
Some look externally to leverage the right technology.
Not all media companies have the resources (or desire) to hire and manage a top-notch engineering team. For many of them, it’s smarter to focus on their core competency: their excellent content.
Fortunately, the marketing technology space is exploding, and it’s full of technology that allows companies to make predictions about what’s relevant from their own data. The one catch: a lot of this technology has been built for B2B or e-commerce companies, around goals specific to their industries. It’s important to find a platform that’s had proven success with media companies, and is able to adjust to each publisher’s specific goals.
The point is, the leading digital companies aren’t relying on third parties channels or data to make them relevant. They’re fighting for control of their data — tracking users across platforms, properties, and the audience journey — and, in effect, fighting for their audience. Because if they don’t, their readers will cease to become theirs, and will simply become people who occasionally consume their content. In the long run, that small distinction is the difference between survival and obsolescence in the race for relevance.
Nick Edwards is the founder and CEO of Boomtrain.