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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How Promiscuous Should Publishers Get with Content on Social?

March 26, 2015 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit

The mantra for digital has always been to serve the news and information where people are, on their schedules, when they want it. So the question now is how far should publishers go to serve them?

Some publishers are pushing the envelope, figuring that creating original content on social media will bring in more attention, more eyeballs and perhaps more chance to distribute native ads—even if that flies in the face of so many social media editors who link, link and link to drive traffic from social media back to the mothership.

But BuzzFeed, for one, could care less about the mothership. At the recent SXSW confab, BuzzFeed co-founder Jonah Peretti announced that BuzzFeed earns 18.5 billion impressions from Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. And Facebook and YouTube have been the go-to destination for BuzzFeed’s videos—not BuzzFeed.com.

And BuzzFeed is not the only outlet with promiscuous content on the web, although it may be the ringleader. The women’s content site Refinery29 is also taking a stab at creating content directly for Facebook. “What we are seeing is the end of the web-centric, desktop-centric era and the dawn of the mobile and social age,” Refinery 29 founder Philippe von Borries explained of its strategy.

Original to Facebook
A recent NY Times report showed just how serious Facebook is in getting publishers to post original stories directly onto Facebook. Facebook is in talks with BuzzFeed, National Geographic and the New York Times about serving content within Facebook and then sharing ad revenues.

“Such a plan would represent a leap of faith for news organizations accustomed to keeping their readers within their own ecosystems, as well as accumulating valuable data on them,” the piece contended. “Facebook has been trying to allay their fears.”

And more social networks are enticing original content with their own native players too.

“Twitter also has a video player and acquired its own live-streaming video app, Periscope. Pinterest has been moving to embrace native content on its site,” Jason Abbruzzee wrote in an analysis for Mashable. Snapchat’s “Discover” module includes several known media companies, including the Daily Mail, publishing content exclusively for their channels on Snapchat as well.

In his Media Equation column last fall for the New York Times, the late David Carr wrote about the growing relationship—and tension—between Facebook and publishers. “For publishers, Facebook is a bit like that big dog galloping toward you in the park,” he began his piece. “More often than not, it’s hard to tell whether he wants to play with you or eat you.”

And this is how many players in the news industry often see Facebook. The New York Times’ media reporter Ravi Somaiya once wrote that Facebook “is becoming to the news business what Amazon is to book publishing—a behemoth that provides access to hundreds of millions of consumers and wields enormous power.”

On the one hand, Facebook is valuable real estate and practically guarantees to publishers that users will see their content. Others have pointed out that the mobile experience on Facebook is much better than that of most websites, and with more and more users having a mobile-first experience, this is an important fact.

Losing Control
While digital native publishers such as BuzzFeed and Refinery29 can more easily make original content plays on social, traditional media publishers have more to lose. Time spent on social platforms means less time users are spending on actual websites—and media outlets have generally relied on web traffic to make money from online advertising. In an age where publishers are searching for a steadier, sustainable business model, it’s a tough call to give up those advertising dollars, not to mention editorial control.

“Ultimately it’s about how we can monetize,” Martha Stewart Digital’s Janell Pittman told WSJ’s Mike Shields. “And for now, nothing beats the economics of a site that you control. That’s always a better situation than a rev share, even if you have the best deal with a partner.”

Shields pointed out that part of the reason sites such as Refinery29 can take advantage of Facebook is that “they don’t have a legacy media business to protect, or revenue streams dominated by resource-intense vehicles like print.” Another reason is that Refinery29—like BuzzFeed—relies heavily on sponsored content. This type of native advertising within websites means that media outlets aren’t necessarily dependent on traditional web traffic. Just take a look at BuzzFeed’s post with the elusive “Dress” that mind-boggled the entire Internet. BuzzFeed didn’t make any money from that post’s record traffic, but, as Abbruzzee wrote, “In some ways, the Dress acted as an in-house ad for BuzzFeed’s skill in reading a room, drawing traffic for viral hits.”

It may still be too early to say whether social giants such as Facebook should become a major distributor of original content from publishers. But it’s becoming more difficult to ignore Facebook’s 1.4 billion users and their steady attention on FB’s mobile app.

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