Publishers and Platforms: Who Will Win Control of Content and Distribution?

Publishers are losing control over both the distribution channels and their audience, and power has shifted into the hands of social platforms that are increasingly becoming walled gardens.

The relationship between social networks and content creators used to be one of symbiosis: Users shared content with their friends on social platforms and, in return, platforms sent traffic back to the original website.

But more recently, the trend has been toward “native” content that lives within the confines of social networks and mobile apps. As a result, publishers are losing control over both the distribution channels and their audience, and power has shifted into the hands of social platforms that are increasingly becoming walled gardens.

To be sure, Facebook, Twitter and other social behemoths still generate quite a bit of referral traffic. In fact, for many digital publishers, Facebook is now the top source of referral traffic instead of Google. However, there are lots of challenges for publishers when it comes to native content deals on social networks.

Facebook isn’t the only network with native content offerings; Snapchat and LinkedIn also host content directly. The question is: Who benefits most from these arrangements?

According to Blaise Lucey, senior content strategist at Bit.ly, publishers have to choose between hosting content themselves or publishing it on Facebook. The latter route essentially means giving away control of the business model and a deteriorating relationship with readers. As more content goes native, fewer people visit publisher websites. Someone might see the content on Facebook and just keep scrolling without ever clicking through.

Lucey added:

You’re essentially promoting your content to a rented audience. If you post a great story but don’t want to pay Facebook to promote it, Facebook can make it so that no one ever sees it.

News360 CEO Roman Karachinsky echoed this sentiment. He pointed out that as more content is optimized for social and more control is given to the distribution channels, the only thing publishers control is content creation. He added that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a precarious position for publishers and content creators to be in.

Karachinsky said there are potential benefits for those who create content, particularly for smaller, independent publishers. When the market is a little more controlled, he noted, it operates as more of a meritocracy, which could be beneficial to the industry as a whole:

It’ll be much easier if you’re a small operator or an individual journalist creating really great content to get traction because you can use these platforms to your advantage.

Both Lucey and Karachinsky admitted that native content is beneficial for users in terms of readability, not to mention a less obnoxious ad experience. Ultimately, readers and social media users just want what’s easiest and don’t really think about the impact on brands or publishers when all of their interactions are within the ecosystem of a social platform.

Lucey noted:

It kind of dilutes the idea of really engaging with the publisher’s content, and the publisher has to work within the parameters of the (social platform). They can’t really do what’s best for building that relationship.

The recommendation for publishers is to leverage big data to get to know their readers. Karachinsky said there are plenty of data points to enable better personalization, even in content offerings. However, Lucey recommended that publishers take a lesson from the tech company playbook and become ecosystems unto themselves.

While the strategy for companies like Facebook, Apple and Google has been to create a system wherein all of the user interactions happen, Lucey says publishers are still dependent on outside sources for referrals:

Publishers have to start thinking about how can we create experiences outside of our website? How can we bring them back? And how can we keep in touch with them when they’re not on the website?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.