The word publisher can conjure up many different things to different people. Some old-schoolers picture The New York Times or Condé Nast, while younger generations may think of digital-first publishers like Refinery29 or consumer-generated outlets like Reddit. However, anyone working in media and advertising knows that two largest “publishers” need to be taken into account. Together Google and Facebook dominate the lion’s share of viewers and readership, and, of course, the revenue from advertisers chasing those people.
The duopoly, as they are known among buyers and sellers of media, have seen their numbers swell over the course of the still-ongoing pandemic. According to an Aug. 18 New York Times article:
“The traffic on these sites was immense before the pandemic, but daily visits increased sharply in March, when stay-at-home orders began, with Facebook up 15 percent and YouTube 10 percent, according to SimilarWeb, an online data provider. Facebook reported that the number of daily users of its services globally in June was 12 percent higher than a year earlier.”
How can any other publisher begin to compete with such dominance? In short, the answer is: don’t. At least you shouldn’t try to compete with them at their game. Instead, create your own value in ways they cannot.
Opportunity abounds for publishers that have a clear content mission and a strong ad offering. Given the steady rise in time spent on mobile devices across all age and income groups—and advertisers’ need to be where their potential customers are—the smart publisher can offer a few things the giants cannot. These include quality curated content, a less-cluttered ad environment, and a greater degree of brand safety.
The two massive walled gardens suffer from their own size, in that the millions of advertisers on those platforms don’t stand out in any way. Facebook alone is estimated to have something approaching 9 million advertisers alone. That’s a staggering number relative to any other media company or platform. How can any advertiser stand out in such a crowd?
That’s why I argue that other publishers, from digitally native Vox Media to traditional Hearst should take heart, knowing their smaller audiences generate something those giants can’t. One particularly successful area of digital publishing, gaming, also plays by its own rules—but more on that later.
First off, publishers outside of Google and Facebook spend millions of dollars to generate high quality, curated original content. That differs enormously from the user-generated content found on duopoly platforms, which is completely unpredictable. Your quality content sets you apart, and attracts engaged, relevant users, which is the starting point for monetization.
Secondly, advertisers at independent publishers appear in more brand-safe environments. Concern over brand safety online originated with advertisers appearing adjacent to violent content. Likewise, the biggest social platform is encountering resistance from some parts to its in-stream video, which aims to compete with YouTube. Brand safety is particularly important for advertisers in our current viral-moment society, where slips can lead to severe reputational damage.
Finally, and most importantly, advertisers have a chance to be more memorable when working with media companies rather than platforms. Customization opportunities are a big part of that, as publishers can design proprietary ad experiences and opportunities.
Think interactive, choice-driven ads like Ogury’s Video Chooser, which allows the user to select the brand ad they want to see, which drives a 300% uplift in memorability. Publishers may offer splashy takeovers, custom formats, and otherly highly viewable offerings. The brand benefits from facing less competitor clutter, and ads stand out. Users don’t just see them. They notice them.
One area of mobile publishing that is seemingly impervious to the heft of the digital duopoly—and plays completely by its own rules—is gaming. Why is that? For one, it amasses gigantic and demographically diverse audiences, while time spent in-game keeps growing year after year.
For another, the oddity of the mobile gaming world is its acceptance of corporate cannibalism. Most advertisers in gaming are other games, which try to eat away at each game’s audience. Gaming publishers offer advertisers something totally unique: full screen ad opportunities that are seamlessly embedded into games at logical moments in the experiences, like between levels. These ads have 100% share of voice and unmatched viewability, proving that small publishers can offer something the big guys can’t, by playing up their niche.
My ultimate message to publishers is: don’t give up. Stick to what you do best. You can succeed in your niche, even while the walled gardens try to rake in the rest. One day you may even eat into their share.