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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Rise up against AI by doubling down on direct traffic

As social platforms de-emphasize news and search results are gradually replaced with AI answers, publishers need to build their skills at attracting audiences directly.

March 14, 2024 | By Theresa Cramer – Independent Journalist@Cramerstrasse

From Google to Facebook and Instagram to TikTok (and so many more), publishers have spent the last couple of decades chasing their audiences from one platform to another—only to be betrayed by changing algorithms and shifting platform priorities. For years, popular wisdom held that you had to go where the audience is. Now, despite the fact that audiences (particularly younger ones) seek out news and information on social platforms, those platforms are “backing away” from making that content visible. But regardless of a media brand’s position on social media, search has remained the undisputed path to traffic. 

Now, publishers face a whole new threat: generative AI search. Years of fine-tuning search engine optimization strategies may all be for naught as Google embraces AI-driven answers in lieu of links to relevant content. Meanwhile, Gartner predicts that traditional search engine volume will drop 25% by 2026 as users shift to AI chatbots and virtual agents for their answers.

The Wall Street Journal reports that publishers expect a 20% to 40% drop in their Google-generated traffic if the search giant rolls out its AI search tool to a broad audience. So, what are media executives supposed to do in the face of yet another shift in the technology landscape that threatens to put them on the outs once again? There’s really only one solution: devise a plan to regain control of their audience relationships once and for all. 

Discovery: a problem as old as algorithms

AI search has yet to reach its full potential, but referral traffic is already taking a hit. AI-driven search results that fail to link to the content they scrape from is just one part of the problem. Searchers are often satisfied with AI “answers” and have little need to click through for more. And platforms from across the web are trying to keep more users within the walls of their gardens, and that means the likes of Facebook and Google have gone from partners in traffic acquisition to the opposition. 

“We’re seeing an industry in real crisis,” says Jim Chisholm, a news media analyst. While Chisholm says he is not seeing evidence that AI is impacting traffic just yet, that does not mean publishers are not already feeling the squeeze from elsewhere. 

Liam Andrew, Chief Product Officer at The Texas Tribune, says that while his team expects generative AI to impact search traffic, they are still waiting to see a substantial impact. The bigger problem facing the Tribune now is social media traffic or the lack of it.

Once a significant source of traffic for news publishers, social media networks are shifting away from promoting outside content. As AdExchanger’s Anthony Vargas reports, we need to look no further than “the many ways X (formerly Twitter) has messed with referral links this year – from throttling page load times for certain sites to overhauling its external link cards in an attempt to get publishers to post full-length content on the platform instead.” 

While social platforms across the spectrum are pulling the rug out from under publishers, our old friend search is slowly changing the rules of the game. “Search is still working,” Andrew says. The Texas Tribune sees that explainers and guides still drive traffic and even subscriptions. However, other sites have not been so lucky. 

Back in October 2023, Press Gazette found that of 70 leading publishers, half saw their search visibility scores drop—and 24 of those saw double-digit dips. That was the result of one update—more bad news is certain to follow as new updates make their way to the masses. 

AI bots: To block or not to block

Publishers may be preparing for a more significant battle when it comes to traffic. However, right now, there’s another fight on their doorsteps: bots are crawling their sites and using their work to train the AI poised to steal their traffic. Some are already taking steps to stop the free—and possibly illegal—use of their content. The Reuters Institute found that 48% of the most widely used news websites across 10 countries blocked OpenAI’s crawlers by the close of 2023. Far fewer—just 24%—blocked Google’s AI crawler.

For Andrew and The Texas Tribune, blocking AI crawlers is not a major concern. They already have an open-republishing model and are used to seeing their content scraped and used on other sites (often without the requested attribution). “It improves our readership and impact, but we compete with ourselves for SEO,” he says. He also says they see versions of their stories on news sites where the content is entirely AI-written. However, it is “not affecting our core audience traffic,” according to Andrew. So — at least for now — The Texas Tribune is not planning to block the bots.  

Meanwhile, Google is reportedly paying publishers to use its AI tools to write content. While in the short term, this may offer (smaller) publishers relatively small sums as well as an easier way to create low-lift content, like other Google News Initiative (GNI) projects, there’s an underlying concern that Google is not focused on publisher health in the long term.

Developing a direct-to-reader strategy

As Andrew and the product team at The Texas Tribune look toward a less search-dependent future, they are changing strategies. For 2025 and beyond, “we are not going to be focusing on a really good SERP [Search Engine Results Pages] unnecessarily,” Andrew says. Instead, they’ll focus on products built directly for readers. 

“Newsletters have been part of our model for over 10 years. It’s nothing new, but we’re continuing to see success with it,” Andrew says. Not only do the newsletters still drive traffic, but they also drive conversions. Subscribers become members at a higher rate, vital to a publication that does not depend on paywalls for revenue. 

DCN conducted an informal survey on concerns around the impact of AI search on traffic, and while the sample size may not hold up to scientific scrutiny, it was clear that newsletters are a crucial tactic for publishers looking to own their audiences. Other stats suggest this is a good move. Storydoc research found that 90% of Americans subscribe to at least one newsletter. That number goes up for younger audiences as 95% of Gen Z, Millennials, and even Gen X receive newsletters, compared to 84% of Baby Boomers. 

Experiment with engagement approaches

The solutions to the Google problem don’t end at email, though.

“We also have a big robust event system,” Andrew notes. The Texas Tribune holds dozens every year. They range from “pre-gaming the Texas primary” to deep dives into transportation in the Austin/San Antonio area. They gather experts and pundits to share their expertise on topics that interest readers. The team also live-streams these events — a universally important tactic for engaging younger, more diverse audiences. These events also turn out to be effective for converting casual readers into subscribers and members. 

Andrew alluded to products his team is working on that are still under wraps. Still, it’s clear that, like many publishers, The Texas Tribune is preparing for a future when search no longer drives most traffic.

Chisholm thinks mobile apps are another excellent direct-to-reader strategy, and research backs this up. Pew reports that “A large majority of U.S. adults (86%) say they often or sometimes get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet, including 56% who say they do so often. This is more than the 49% who said they often got news from digital devices in 2022 and the 51% of those who said the same in 2021.” Cultivating a relationship with readers through their mobile devices—where you can use push notifications and other native capabilities to grab their attention—will likely be one of the many tools publishers must deploy going forward.

“I’ve been in the news industry – which I love – for 48 years. Now we are at a crossroads,” says Chisholm. “Either we choose the road to recovery, rebuilding relationships with our readers, or we continue down the road we are on, subject to algorithms, more confusion between legitimate news and social media infested with AI nonsense.” 

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