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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Publishers have their mojo back

April 11, 2019 | By Jason Kint, CEO – DCN@jason_kint

I’m calling it. 2019 is the year publishers get their mojo back. While there’s still work to be done – and the rewards for many are further down the road – the signs are pointing in the right direction. 

More than ever, digital media companies understand that their most precious assets are their audiences and advertisers. They understand that they must foster this relationship over time through their programming, advertising opportunities and the overall experience they create wherever they touch their customers. And, they understand that their brands are proxies for this trust. Without a doubt, the companies that publishers choose as business partners — whether distributing their content or advertising — can, and do, have a lasting impact on this trust.

Those of you who have been in the digital media business for a while are probably thinking: “Haven’t we been here before?” and perhaps you’re wondering what’s really changed in the past two years. Here’s the way I see it:

Facebook: pivots around publisher content

Initially, publishers believed the promise of a fire hose of traffic to their sites but eventually grew tired of the hoops they were jumping through to address Facebook’s changing priorities. From organic content to paid promotion, external traffic evolving into Instant Articles, embedded video becoming Facebook Watch, and everything-must-be-free to efforts to support paid subscriptions – it’s mind boggling. But all of this has resulted in publishers wanting to control their own destinies more than ever before.

Apple: push for consumer privacy

While Apple’s push for consumer privacy in its Safari browser is a laudable approach, it has hamstrung publishers’ ability to monetize their web inventory. At the same time, it pushes publishers towards Apple’s closed app platform where they cough up 30% of their revenues from selling subscriptions to their own apps. In an odd way, this 30% take-rate by Apple has made its reported 50% take on its new Apple News+ product seem more acceptable. In any case, growing consumer trust through a higher privacy bar while building in real support for publisher ad and subscription revenues are steps in the right direction.

Google: control of advertising supply chain

Google has demanded that publishers allow it to track their customers and collect their behavioral data across the web. At least if they want to get the full benefit of what has evolved into a Google-influenced, if not controlled, advertising supply chain. Google has also essentially made it a requirement for publishers to participate in AMP if they want to avoid being lumped into a news black hole on mobile. The relationship with Google can easily be one of the more sensitive issues inside any media shop and rocking the boat will almost certainly have consequences. However, consumers aren’t happy with unrestricted tracking, and that bodes well for trustworthy publishers who are transparent and handle consumer data with care.

Emerging platforms: a chance to get it right

There are new platforms growing quickly, which will succeed or fail based on their ability to fully appreciate the value of high-quality programming. Each one surfaces new negotiations and concerns. Roku is one to keep an eye on as they have the chance to reinvest in high-quality, brand-differentiated programming by truly partnering with their publishing partners. Or, they may be the next Blackberry — steamrolled as their market advantage is lost to other larger platforms that can beat them on technology alone. However, the path to success for emerging platforms will be true partnerships with trusted content brands.

What’s next? 

While we may never know exactly what has caused this shift, it is a positive sign that digital media companies here and in Europe are also asking for the same things, which I’ve seen first-hand. Publishers now speak of Facebook, Google, and even Apple not simply in terms of opportunity but with skepticism. They see the positives of each in driving new audiences, innovations, and experiences – and to be a part of what is “next.” However, they’ve turned a critical eye to each platform’s motivations and are pressing for better terms, including:

  • Protecting and preserving the relationship with their audience. They know that trust and value reside in the relationship: The data, the brand and two-way dialogue with the customer. 
  • Ability to drive subscription or membership revenue. For too long, this was antithetical to the interests of platforms, which wanted to touch as many users as possible for the purpose of mining their data for targeted advertising. The global discussion around this issue has shifted, starting in Europe. Now, the rest of the industry is trying to catch up. 
  • True partnerships. They’re not looking for another quick fling, featuring a spotlight appearance at Facebook’s or Apple’s soiree. Hopefully that no longer carries the glamour it once did as the hangovers are real. Instead, publishers are looking for fair value and a long-term commitment by the platforms to work together, solve issues, and build success for all parties.

Publishers everywhere are looking at these opportunities with a shrewd business eye. They recognize that these opportunities are being designed and offered by an intermediary to their customers. And, as the stock market clearly demonstrates, these intermediaries are focused on maximizing their own profits.

Whatever the reason, or confluence of events that caused it: The non-negotiable, take-it or leave-it discussions from platforms are in the rear-view mirror. Change is here and publishers have rediscovered their mojo.

Now it’s time to put it to work.

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