In conversation with Digital Content Next’s Michelle Manafy, Flipboard founder and CEO Mike McCue and Washington Post managing editor Kat Downs Mulder explore the evolution of digital media, serving the audience “where they are,” and leveraging emerging technologies to better meet their needs. Their talk, which was part of Collision Conference 2021, covers the challenges and opportunities of social media news distribution and consumption and the rise of Substack. They also talk about the challenges facing local news in particular. Their discussion explores AI and other technologies that increasingly impact news creation, delivery, consumption, and user experiences.
Each year the Reuters Institute publishes an analysis on the state of the digital news ecosystem. The Digital News Report is vast, covering six continents and 40 markets across the globe. This year’s report explores the impact of coronavirus on news consumption and on the economic prospects for publishers. It looks at progress on new paid online business models, trust and misinformation, partisanship and populism, and the popularity of curated editorial products like podcasts and email newsletters.
The report provides a comprehensive review of the marketplace and incorporates and tracks core consumer metrics of trust and engagement. In particular, it offers insights into digital news publishers’ business models, their sustainability, and the overall impact on modern society.
With the rise and distribution of low-cost internet publishing and its usage to fuel political polarization, the news media as a whole has been called into question. Unfortunately, extreme viewpoints intensified by social media algorithms and the amplification of echo chambers produce a lot of noise and misinformation. Consequently, divided societies trust media less, as they are generally dissatisfied with institutions in their countries.
This type of dissatisfaction is reflected in the data with only four in ten respondents (38%) trusting news overall. However, close to half (49%) trust the news brands they know and use. Further, news in distributed environments (search and social) are trusted the least at 22%. Not surprisingly, social media leads as the biggest source of concern about misinformation (40%), twice the level of news sites (20%).
With a surge of politicize news sources, respondents want the facts. Close to two-thirds of Americans (60%) prefer to get news from sources that have no point of view compare to 30% who prefer to get their news from sources that share your point of view or 10% who prefer to get news from those who challenge their views.
Many publishers added new opportunities for paid content to their business model, such as subscriptions, memberships, donations, and micropayments. Growth in subscriptions continues with 20% of respondents in the US paying for online content, up four percentage points in the last year.
Reuters identifies two waves of subscription growth in the U.S. Wave 1 was set in motion by the younger and more liberal voter population in 2016 who subscribed after Donald Trump was elected as president. This segment wants to be informed and to support journalism as a tool to maintain democracy.
The second wave is upon us now. It is fueled by a new election cycle and tighter restrictions around paywalls and what content is available for free. News publishers also experienced growth in new subscribers with the onset of the coronavirus. And that comes, despite many of them offering free Covid-19 content.
With more pathways to news content, just over one-quarter of consumers (28%) report accessing news websites or apps directly. Another 26% access via social media and 25% access through search. However, among 18-24-year-olds, only 16% have a direct connection with news brands. More than twice as many (38%) prefer social media for their news. Developing a relationship with Gen Z is an important target for publishers’ long-term sustainability.
Overall, the majority of consumers report that the news media did a good job in helping them understand the details of the pandemic. However, close to one-third (32%) reported that the news media sensationalized the seriousness of the situation. The coronavirus also showcased the need for local news, however long-term demand (and support) is in question.
With quality journalism in demand, digital news publishers must be highly consumer focused. Given that close to three quarters of consumers using backdoors to access their content, publishers need to increase their focus on brand value and customer experience. The 18-24-year-olds are a focal point for growth. And fostering a relationship with this younger demographic holds strong promise for news brands.
This past month, we took an in-depth look at the referral platforms sending the most traffic to our network. We looked at the rate of their growth in 2018, the word count and device type for each, and the specific categories of content that attract readers, both in total volume and pageviews per post.
We’ve got loads of data, which you are welcome to dig into. But here are five key highlights from the 50+ graphs, 5000 words, two posts, and a PDF we created out of the data report we produced.
1. Consistent growth on Flipboard and SmartNews for 18+ months.
Non-social and non-search traffic referrers grew (in terms of percentage) the most in 2018, 21%, you can see the breakdown for each below.
Specifically, a lot of people didn’t realize that SmartNews and Flipboard have been growing for a while. Sure, their volumes still don’t warrant the attention that Facebook or Google gets. However, their steady growth numbers still surprised a lot of people who saw our data. For anyone that wants to learn more about these two platforms: Axios covered more about SmartNews, and Digiday looked at Flipboard’s user growth.
Figuring out if that’s an audience that works, and how to work with them should at least be on the short list of considerations for audience teams in 2019.
2. Twitter referrals vs. content “about” Twitter
Twitter didn’t grow in terms of referrals in 2018, but does that mean it’s not important? Just because we see a platform go down in one metric doesn’t mean it should get written off. One example of why was this data stat: More views go to articles that include Twitter as a topic than views that are actually referred by Twitter.
The relationship between media and Twitter is clearly more complicated than a simple “how much traffic are we getting” question.
3. Pinterest gets the highest percentage of its referrals to short (<200 word) posts.
SmartNews and Facebook also both send more shorter posts than is average on our network. LinkedIn sends the highest percentage of its traffic to long from (>1000 word posts), as does the Drudge Report.
This data itself doesn’t say much about whether people stay and read those long form pieces, but it does indicate what people want to share on those platforms and the mindset they’re in.
4. Desktop dropped, mobile and tablet increased:
Well, this one isn’t exactly a surprise, but it is worth noting that the trend hasn’t stopped.
From Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report, per Recode:
“People, however, are still increasing the amount of time they spend online. U.S. adults spent 5.9 hours per day on digital media in 2017, up from 5.6 hours the year before. Some 3.3 of those hours were spent on mobile, which is responsible for overall growth in digital media consumption.”
Speaking of mobile, AMP is everywhere.
- 44% of mobile referrals from Flipboard are on are AMP. As are…
- 50% of mobile referrals from Google Search
- 89% of mobile referrals from Google News
- 39% of mobile referrals from LinkedIn
- 19% of mobile referrals from Pinterest,
- 54% of mobile referrals from SmartNews,
- AND finally, 48% of mobile referrals from Twitter.
The full report on these referral data trends and more can be found on the Parse.ly blog.
Earlier this year, Facebook announced that their News Feed would prioritize posts from friends and family over news content. While some news publishers faced modest declines, others reported significant ones. Chartbeat, a content analytics platform, provided data showing Facebook traffic to publishers declined 6% since the beginning of January. However, LittleThings, a publication focused on feel good stories and other content for women, claimed they lost 75% of their referral traffic due to changes in Facebook’s New Feed and subsequently shut down.
In its latest research, The Shorenstein Center on Media Studies explores the impact on non-profit news brands. Non-profit news organizations rely heavily on social interaction to help encourage donations. A traffic decline could negatively impact donation revenue. Shorenstein’s new report, Facebook Friends? The Impact of Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm, offers a custom analysis of eight non-profit news publishers.
The research divides the publishers into two categories: investigative and single-subject. The investigative group focuses on producing investigative journalism on a wide range of topics. The single-subject group produces investigative journalism in the context of a single subject. The three investigative organizations include The Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. The five single-subject organizations include Chalkbeat, The Hechinger Report, The Marshall Project, The Trace, and The War Horse. The analysis focuses on two key metrics – total users and total sessions – looking at the three months prior to and after the News Feed change.
In the three months after the News Feed changes, in terms of overall traffic, the investigative organizations saw small changes in both the number of users and the number of sessions. In contrast, the entire single-subject cohort registered growth for these two metrics.
The analysis also looks at the composition of traffic, where the traffic is coming from, by using the Google Analytics channels Direct, Email, Organic Search, Other, Referral, and/or Social. Referral traffic was most consistent; increasing both in users visits and sessions. Only two of the eight non-profit publishers show social referral increases. Not surprisingly, Facebook referrals closely follow in line to social.
Given some of the non-profit news publishers registered small to moderate traffic increases, the Shorenstein research hints to Facebook’s potential growth path for non-profit news publishers, even with the algorithm changes. The difference between larger commercial news publishers and non-profit may be due to how non-profit new organizations’ stories are shared on Facebook. More research on this is needed to understand the consumer experience sharing content from commercial news publishers compared to non-profit news publishers.
While it’s hard to compete with Facebook’s 1.47 billion daily active users, the story of Snapchat as the underdog fighting back is one to watch — especially as publishers tire of Facebook’s litany of problems.
‘Brand Safety and Control’
While Facebook consistently dominates tech news coverage, Snapchat also turned heads recently when it launched a private marketplace for advertisers akin to its own premium programmatic advertising marketplace. Now, advertisers can book space on specific shows and channels from a variety of publishing partners, including BuzzFeed, ESPN, and NBC Universal. Previously, brands could buy Snapchat ad inventory, but not target their advertising to specific publishers.
The beauty of this? Publishers can set their own ad rates, target only certain segments of a show’s audience, and advertisers can find more brand safety on Snapchat than they currently do with Facebook and Google’s YouTube. This is of course a boon for Snapchat too, as AdAge’s Garrett Sloane put it:
“Advertisers have been concerned about the type of content that appears on both YouTube and Facebook. Snapchat is trying to take advantage of the industry’s unease by offering a higher level of brand safety and control: Discover already operates as a gated community for professional publishers only, and the private marketplace now lets advertisers expressly select the shows they want while still using ad tech.”
On top of this, Snapchat is planning to sell six-second, unskippable ads in the private marketplace — meaning the chances of sustaining audience attention is even higher.
Broadening Discover’s Horizon
Snap also recently announced a new Discover partnership with an LGBT publisher — its first one — the U.K.-based website PinkNews. According to PinkNews CEO and editor-in-chief Benjamin Cohen, part of the incentive is that Discover is still a curated platform, meaning that accessing the humans behind the automation is still possible. Snapchat was also enticing in part because Facebook traffic for PinkNews— as is the case with many publishers — has gone down, Cohen said, and so he was looking to broaden audience traffic elsewhere.
The idea of working with a social platform like Snapchat that is actually willing to pay publishers became even more attractive for PinkNews. The partnership is also, undeniably, a win for Snapchat. It gains an outlet that will help the platform attract a young audience willing to push the boundaries of sexuality.
Indeed, it’s obvious that Snapchat is on the hunt to broaden its 191 million daily active users. In addition to working with traditional publishers, Snapchat has made a bigger effort this year to partner with digital publishers and social media stars that appeal to younger audiences. That includes Daquan Gesese, a hip-hop and pop culture personality with a huge presence on Instagram, and Fanbytes, an 18-month-old digital media company that runs four popular accounts on Snapchat, and operates a network of mostly 15- and 16-year-old creators who run their own accounts and publishing brands on Snapchat.
In May, Daquan launched his own Discover channel, and Fanbytes and Snapchat are currently trying to figure out whether “official” versions of its channels could be tailor-made for Discover.
But here’s what’s ironic about the Snapchat comeback: It wasn’t that long ago that Snapchat was ridiculed for a redesign that paired friends and family in one stream, and publishers and advertisers in another. Audiences complained, publishers worried.
“Content producers from eight publishers I spoke to said that the redesign had made their metrics go haywire,” Vanity Fair’s Maya Kosoff wrote. So it seems pretty natural that some publishers don’t necessarily see Snapchat as a particularly good long-term strategy if they can monetize better elsewhere, as one publisher anonymously confessed to Digiday last month.
However, it’s also understandable — decent, really — that Snapchat is letting publishers introduce non-exclusive shows to Snapchat Discover. Syndication is not particularly sexy, but even if shows have already aired on YouTube or Facebook Watch, this is a chance for Snapchat to build a Discover audience — and it’s a chance for publishers to ignite new revenue streams for its most popular intellectual property without having to create something original for each platform.
While publishers aren’t going to give up on a massive platform like Facebook anytime soon, Snapchat is getting back in the game on two counts. First, it’s actually the steady performer as Facebook struggles. And second, it is finally serving publishers in more ways while opening itself up to newer creatives. As with all platforms, there’s only so much trust publishers can give third parties who change their practices and rules on a whim, but it’s a good thing that Snap is trending up at just the right time – finally getting off the mat to give Facebook a few good licks.
Here are five trends to watch as media flips to mobile-first:
1. The mobile pivot point
Since January 2017, total traffic from desktop to news sites declined by 14%, while mobile traffic increased by 34%. One of the main drivers for this is the growth in referred traffic from pages using AMP. For news sites, mobile has finally met desktop.
2. The shapeshifting reader
Mobile readers are now more likely to go direct to mobile apps and homepages by typing in the URL than they are to be referred to a site by Facebook. Recent data shows that direct mobile traffic surpassed all Facebook-referred traffic as of mid-October and is steadily climbing. Despite the recent News Feed changes in Facebook which have resulted in declining traffic to publishers (-15% since January 2017), readers still seek out news news, and they are doing so on mobile devices.
3. The browser: the next major traffic source?
Are discovery tools in the browser the next main gateway to news?
We’ve seen a rise of in-browser content recommendation modules, such as Google Chrome Suggestions. And, with a rise that started last year, traffic from Google Chrome Suggestions has grown 21x. Another is Pocket, which has an integration with Firefox and was acquired by its parent company Mozilla in February 2017. Pocket may be significantly smaller than Google Chrome Suggestions, but with a 297% increase in referral traffic since January 2017, it is worth watching.
4. The next class of news referrer emerges
In looking beyond Google Search and Facebook, we see that traffic from Twitter to publisher sites has declined by 18% since January 2017 and is now at a similar traffic level to Google Chrome Suggestions. While Twitter may be off of its high, there are very strong gains in the last year from a new tier of news aggregators including the brand-new Google News app, Flipboard, Instagram, and Axel Springer’s Upday app. Here’s what we’re seeing:
- Google News is quickly trending up as a referrer source, particularly since May when Google announced an all new Google News app that replaced Google Play Newsstand as well as the old Google News & Weather apps. We will be watching this closely in the next few months, particularly as Google continues to execute the next steps in its mobile news strategy.
- Flipboard has had a dramatic increase in the amount of referrer traffic it sends to publishers, and it is now a meaningful leading referrer, having doubled since June 2017.
- Instagram, which recently announced its billionth user, is commonly thought of as only a photo and video sharing app. However, we’re also seeing that it’s becoming a meaningful source of traffic for news sites; Instagram referrer traffic to publishers has grown 232% since January 2017.
- Even more surprising is Upday News for Samsung – a news app from Axel Springer that is featured on Samsung phones. Since January 2017, Upday saw a huge tick upwards of 763% growth in referrer traffic. Upday is one of the fastest growing sources of traffic for publishers in Europe. It is also now driving roughly the same level of traffic to publishers as Instagram.
All of this indicates that the consumer demand for news via apps has strong momentum, and you should keep a close eye on the growing news app ecosystem as part of your content distribution strategy.
5. The more-engaged-than-we-thought mobile homepage reader
You may think reader attention is more scattered on mobile than on desktop. However, our data shows otherwise, specifically with regard to mobile homepages. On mobile homepages, the average visitor spends 40% more time actively engaging than their desktop counterpart (22 engaged seconds on mobile vs.16 engaged seconds on desktop). While this comparison isn’t entirely apples-to-apples (you could imagine that a reader is more likely to idle in a more information-dense desktop experience), this is a notable reversal of the reading behavior we see on article pages, where desktop readers engage slightly more (38 engaged seconds vs. 34).
Mobile readers are also 20% more likely to click-through to articles than those on desktop. Mobile homepage visitors click through to articles 68% of the time, compared to 57% on desktop. Whereas desktop homepage readers scroll more of the page, mobile readers are more engaged in reading articles by clicking from the mobile homepage into content.
What does this mean in terms of how we value the mobile reader or monetize the mobile homepage?
There is no doubt that the consumer, publisher, and device-maker shift to mobile is driving growth and evolution in how and where traffic flows around content. Consumers are increasingly seeking content directly on publishers’ mobile websites and apps. They are also using news aggregators, where we see a new class of secondary traffic referrers emerging. And with mobile homepage readers more engaged in content than we thought, now may be the time to rethink what we thought we knew about mobile.
Based on a YouGov survey conducted with 74,000 people in 37 countries, this is the seventh in an annual series of reports that track the transition of the news industry towards an increasingly digital and multi-platform future. Among the many challenges highlighted in the report is a low level of trust in the media in most countries and concerns about fake news. The business side continues to struggle despite a rise in reader revenue, as it has failed to offset continued declines in print and digital advertising revenue.
Here are 6 key takeaways from Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018:
- The use of social media for news has started to fall in a number of key markets after years of continuous growth. Usage is down 6% in the United States and is also down in the UK and France.
- Globally, the use of messaging apps for news is on the rise. WhatsApp is now used for news by around half of the sampled users in Malaysia (54%) and Brazil (48%) and by around third in Spain (36%) and Turkey (30%).
- Across all countries, the average level of trust in the news in general remains relatively stable at 44%, with just over half (51%) agreeing that they trust the news media they themselves use most of the time.
- By contrast, 34% of respondents say they trust news they find via search and fewer than a quarter (23%) say they trust the news they find in social media.
- Last year’s significant increase in subscription in the United States (the “Trump Bump”) has been maintained. The average number of people paying for online news has edged up in many countries, with significant increases coming from Norway (+4 percentage points), Sweden (+6), and Finland (+4).
- Privacy concerns have reignited the growth in ad-blocking software. More than a quarter of consumers now block on any device (27%). More than four in ten (42%) now use blockers in Greece (+6) with significant increases in Germany (+5) and the United States (+4).
The report concludes that the many changes this year serve as a reminder that things that once seemed certain (such as the importance of Facebook and the online advertising model) can quickly shift. The entire space continues to rapidly evolve, with technologies like voice-activated interfaces and artificial intelligence are on the rise, which will bring new opportunities as well as challenges. While the future of news remains uncertain, the report does provide hope that quality content will be increasingly rewarded in the future.
On April 5th, 2018, MediaRadar hosted a panel to discuss the state of the media industry in the wake of these sweeping Facebook changes. The name of the event was “Facebook vs. Snapchat: What’s Next for Third-Party Distribution?”
Marty Swant, Staff Writer from AdWeek moderated this discussion. I was honored to be a part of this panel, which included four other industry experts with various and impressive backgrounds: Maia McCann, former Editor-in Chief & EVP of Programming from Little Things, Emily Cohn, Executive Growth Editor from Insider Inc., Kieley Taylor, Managing Partner, Global Head of Social, [m]PLATFORM, and Brian Madden, SVP Development at Hearst Digital.
Here are 5 takeaways from the conversation:
1. LittleThings isn’t holding a grudge against Facebook.
Maia McCann entered the panel with an experience completely unique to any of the other panelists. She was the Editor-in-Chief for LittleThings, the digital media firm that recently shuttered in the wake of Facebook’s algorithm changes.
Marty Swant’s very first question of the night was directed solely at McCann. He simply asked, “What happened? Could you tell us about the rise and fall of LittleThings?”
Maia stated that the company was “born out of viral Facebook traffic.” She went on to say, “We toyed with the idea of diversifying traffic, but we made a decision to look at Facebook as five different avenues of distribution. We looked at Facebook as a landscape. There was an idea that this landscape was never really going to change.”
Unfortunately, their strategy did not serve them well, as Facebook’s landscape did change. LittleThings was not built to withstand those changes. It lost about 75% of its organic traffic, which killed their profits and caused the company to shut down.
In light of the outcome, one might assume that McCann could have bitter feelings towards Facebook’s algorithm changes. However, she expressed a much more positive outlook, devoid of grudges. In fact, she appeared grateful: “There’s been a lot in the press about how Facebook killed LittleThings. I really don’t feel that way. I don’t have rage dreams about Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook made my career.”
She noted that Facebook gave her the giant audience that led to her success. Without it, she’d just be “writing somewhere.” McCann also added that there was “probably a route out of it,” in reference to the decisions LittleThings made leading up to its shut down. “Hindsight is 20/20,” said McCann.
2. Traffic sourcing strategies vary greatly.
Something to note in McCann’s comments about LittleThings was how they approached traffic sourcing. They relied almost solely on Facebook. Regardless of LittleThings’ fate, however, this showed one very specific approach to gaining an audience.
When the other panelists discussed their own strategies, it became evident that media companies can, and do, approach traffic sourcing in completely different ways.
Brian Madden of Hearst Digital discussed how the company “never wanted to focus on a single source of traffic.” They focused on multiple sources, to diversify their audience, maximize growth potential, and avoid having a heavy dependence on a single source (i.e. Facebook).
LittleThings and Hearst presented two contrary ways of seeking traffic. Regardless of outcome, however, neither one of these ways is right or wrong. They’re simply different.
3. In media, experimentation is key.
Throughout the panel, one of the consistent themes was that, for media companies, experimenting with different content platforms is crucial. Brian Madden spoke heavily on Hearst’s diligence with experimentation and how it has fueled their multi-platform and overall success.
“We always knew something else was coming, so we wondered how we’d be first on every platform… Being able to experiment in a lot of different places has been key.”
Even in rehashing the story of LittleThings, Maia McCann stated that, if given a second chance, she would, “diversify traffic, hire people for SEO, look at YouTube, and look at Snapchat.” In other words, she wishes they had experimented with more platforms.
Experimentation allows media companies to better understand which platforms and audiences are the most profitable, and where they might be able to find long-term success.
4. Content should be “story”-driven.
One thing that Snapchat and Instagram do extremely well, is showcase content in a “story” format. Kieley Taylor of GroupM’s [m]PLATFORM expressed her thoughts that “Stories” and “Moments” would be a large factor in filling the Facebook void.
“The story-telling format that we’ve seen the most success with, is the ‘Stories’ format. The thing that is working across a lot of distribution points, where a lot of people are trying to spend their time, is ‘Stories.’ [i.e.] Instagram Stories, obviously Snapchat.”
She referred to this “mobile-first, social native” format as something of great value.
Not only should publishers and advertisers look to tell a story within their content, they should also look to utilize the “Stories” format on Snapchat and Instagram to communicate that content to their audience, and potentially fill the vertical content void left by Facebook.
5. SEO fuels long-term success.
Emily Cohn of Insider and Business Insider was a strong advocate for search engine optimization (SEO), especially as it relates to the long-term success and profitability of content.
“Search is our number one source of traffic,” said Cohn. “Around 80% of our search traffic is to stories that were not published today. One of our top-searched stories is from 2014. Search is valuable to us because it’s making our whole ten years’ worth of content really valuable.”
While media companies may find high rates of traffic from social media, a single viral post may not lead to long-term content profitability.
Maia McCann also expressed her belief in the value of SEO, saying that LittleThings got rid of their SEO team amidst company cuts, and that in hindsight, doing so was a “huge mistake.”
While these takeaways were certainly some of the highlights of the night, the entire panel was filled with many terrific questions from Marty Swant and the audience, and a ton of great insights. Overall, we learned there is a lot of opportunity out there through social media channels. Now, it is up to media outlets to harness and monetize that opportunity.
Last June, I called out Facebook and Google on this very point. Driving subscriptions would be a win for publishers who need more revenues, and for the tech platforms which need a way to build trust, support the news ecosystem and generate positive press in these times of bots, misinformation and election meddling.
The good news is that both Facebook and Google are now taking clear steps to help drive subscriptions for publishers. Facebook will take a 0% cut on subscriptions they drive through their app on Android and Apple devices, while launching a new Local News Subscription Accelerator. And Google has upped the ante with plans to help publishers identify potential subscribers by sharing more data. The bad news is that there is a long road ahead to making these initiatives work.
Facebook Makes Peace with Apple, Launches Accelerator
Facebook’s News Feed tweaks — most recently, to downgrade publishers’ posts in favor of content from friends and family — have long influenced the kinds of stories Facebook users see. Because people are used to the free-flowing nature of news in the Facebook News Feed, the social giant had been loath to introduce friction.
But after mounting criticism, Facebook has been developing ways to drive subscriptions from its app. And best of all, its support for paywalls will not include taking a cut of revenues from publishers. Instead, Facebook will show users five free articles and then direct them to the paywall on the publishers’ site. That means 100% of subscription revenue goes to publishers – and they get to keep all the data about users as well.
It wasn’t an easy task to pull off on iOS, because Apple is notoriously stubborn about waiving the 30% “Apple tax” it takes from any monetary transactions in apps. But after some tough-knuckled negotiation, Facebook’s Campbell Brown announced at the Code Media confab that Apple caved in and would waive the fee.
Not only that, but Facebook also recently announced a Local News Subscription Accelerator with 12 metro dailies getting training support for a three-month trial. It’s nice that the social giant is putting $3 million into the effort, and partnering with the Lenfest Institute. The big question is whether that work will scale to help more publishers.
Google Leading the Way So Far
While Facebook has made a lot of progress lately, Google, in comparison, has been more consistently friendly to publishers: At the recent Digital News Initiative summit in Amsterdam, for example, Google announced it would help identify which kinds of users would be attracted to which publications. The company also said it would ease the process of subscribing within Google. It also plans offer users a tailored search experience based on their subscriptions. This push to support subscriptions is one that Google has been working on for over a year. At the International Paid Content Summit in Berlin, publishers also touted Google’s efforts in distributing digital subscriptions. A survey among summit participants revealed Google shows much more “cooperative behavior” than Facebook.
Google also recently surpassed Facebook as the internet’s top referral source for publishers, a status that takes on significance for both Google and publishers given Facebook’s decision to de-emphasize news. A friendlier Google in the midst of News Feed shifts can help offset what publishers might lose with Facebook’s algorithmic changes. Coupled with access to Google’s coveted data insights — which publishers want and Google controls — working the publisher-Google relationship is indeed enticing for both parties. If Google wants to win favor with publishers, now is as good a time as ever.
Sharing the Wealth
Ultimately, though, whether Google or Facebook will do better in driving subscriptions is not as important for publishers as whether the two will really commit to the process. Because Facebook and Google together account for such a huge chunk of the attention for internet users, publishers must stay focused on working with both of them, along with other players like Twitter, Snapchat and LinkedIn.
It’s surely a positive that both Facebook and Google are taking big steps in driving subscriptions, and perhaps their rivalry could help push them even more. And while they surely dominate in online advertising, it’s incumbent upon them to make sure the news ecosystem is healthy and thriving. If digital ads are getting sucked up by the duopoly and subscriptions are becoming an important source of revenues for publishers (both for-profit and non-profit), then publishers will need to insist on better data, better leads, and a transparent funnel that helps them survive and thrive.
Since the algorithm change, here are some of the most common questions I’ve encountered in talks with publishers:
Why did Facebook make the decision to de-prioritize publisher content in its Feed?
As many entrepreneurs are, I see Mark Zuckerberg as someone who takes his business personally. While I don’t think he’d act against his own best interests, I do think his decision in some ways was a reaction to the polarization that the news can create. This way, Facebook is not choosing a side, or subjectively deciding which news is ‘appropriate’ and ‘real.’ It looks like they’re disengaging.
Are there specific ad formats/publisher inventory you believe will be hurt the most by Facebook’s decision?
It’s not so much about ad format, in my opinion. Facebook’s big appeal to publishers was the benefit of strong audience development and the convenience of content distribution. These will be the main things that disrupt publishers the most. Facebook actively courted publishers for years on end, promising them audience and shared revenue. This shift could be quite the loss for the publishers who relied heavily on the platform for audience development.
What 2-3 platforms could rise up to support publishers in the absence of Facebook?
I believe that Snapchat and Twitter both have the potential to benefit from Facebook’s shift. That being said, Snapchat is certainly the platform that will benefit the most. Their publisher-focused Discover Channels are central to the platform. Especially with the most recent interface update, Discover Channels are positioned in a way that is meant to drive as much user traffic as possible. Snapchat has certainly jumped into the lead role in providing a solution to publishers who were thrown off by Facebook’s changes. They are a publisher-friendly platform on the market right now.
Should publishers forget about third-party distribution and refocus on building engagement/audience on-site?
Publishers are always working to build on-site audiences. But of course, that’s much easier said than done. These third-party distribution platforms—like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat—help identify and grab that audience, making it easier to build those communities back on-site. The issue for some publishers is that they become too comfortable with third-party platforms and, in turn, rely too heavily on them. There will always be a happy medium for both, though, as third parties remain a great tool for audience engagement and content distribution.
Facebook’s shift has certainly stirred up some uncertainty among publishers, regarding whether or not third-party distribution platforms are a reliable tool, and if the risk outweighs the rewards. These publishers will ultimately find comfort in the publisher-friendly models of other third parties, specifically Snapchat—but they will also invest more time and resources into building core communities on-site.
And it’s not just a way for NBC to increase its social footprint and beat criticism of #NBCFail memes of years past, when viewers were unable to access solid coverage because of tape delays and commercial interruptions. With less people watching linear TV broadcasts, multi-platform viewership on digital and social is likely going up, and NBC is pushing hard into different platforms to stay ahead of the curve. It’s a way to engage advertisers and audiences — especially younger audiences — for the future.
Here’s a look at how NBC and other publishers will take on the Winter Games this year.
NBC Goes All-In on Social
This tweet has already gathered 45,000 retweets and nearly 124,000 likes as of writing:
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 12, 2018
The tweet from NBC Olympics is just one example of a social strategy that appears to be working: Push content online right away. Research out of the Rio Olympics from 2016 reflected skyrocketing numbers for social viewership, and there was no reason to anticipate those figures would decline.
So, NBC is seizing control over the narrative of the Olympics. It’s broadcasting the games live for the first time, streaming clips on Facebook, posting videos on YouTube and Twitter, and investing heavily in a Snapchat presence that also includes hiring BuzzFeed to produce a daily, Olympics-themed Snapchat Discover channel. NBC and Snapchat struck a partnership — one of several, as NBCUniversal invested $500 million in Snap Inc. when Snap went public last year — to broadcast exclusive content on Snapchat.
That Snap had a solid earnings call right ahead of the Opening Ceremony this year also gives the company an extra boost of recognition. Snap may be suffering the fallout from Instagram and Facebook copying some of its core features, but it has long pitched itself as a “complementary, second-screen platform for live and linear TV,” as Digiday’s Sahil Patel wrote. And that’s a selling point when you think about the ways linear TV habits are changing.
Publishers, Take Note
Alongside NBC’s huge push into social distribution, a few publishers are also engaging audiences in new ways to boost their own metrics down the line. The New York Times, for example, announced a “live messenger experience” with the Times’ deputy sports editor, Sam Manchester, where he’ll be messaging directly with audiences who want a closer, behind-the-scenes, personal take on the Olympics.
With different mediums for consumption — and therefore disparate methods for measuring consumption — Discovery Communications is consolidating data from linear broadcasts, digital platforms, and social media engagement metrics, to get a better picture of who’s tuning in and who is tuning out of watching the Winter Olympics. Discovery has the rights to broadcast the Games across Europe and will share these results with their clients and partners. While no measurement approach is perfect, it’s a huge step to prepare for a future where understanding metrics can make or break an editorial or ad strategy. It’s not a question of whether other publishers will follow suit, but when.
What conversation about distribution can take place without acknowledging the influence of large gatekeepers like Google? Google’s search algorithm has long been key in ensuring people can actually find all the content publishers are putting out there. This year, Google is filtering live video, VR video, and YouTube video into its search results. It’ll offer users location-specific updates about a country’s rankings and other top news stories from the Olympics. And subscribers to YouTube TV can stream over 50 hours of live video coverage, including VR content.
Let’s be clear: The efforts in social viewing and highlight reels for the Winter Olympics this year are not a one-off endeavor. Insights gleaned from how it pans out this year will help better cater to multi-platform consumption in the future — not just for the Olympics, but for all content moving online and on social. And as live events lose their luster on linear TV, more publishers will consider ways to move to social viewing while still driving revenues along with attention.
Facebook and Google generate the most distributed-content revenue for publishers outside of Over-the-Top (OTT). However, together they account for less than 30% of the total distributed content revenue and represent only 5% of the total average digital revenue for publishers. Overall revenues from distributed content grew from 14% in last year’s report and now represent 16% of the surveyed publishers’ digital revenues.
Additional Key Findings
- Monetization of distributed content for H2 2016 and H1 2017 represented an estimated $10.1 million and $10 million average revenue. For companies providing data for both H1 2016 (last year’s report) and H1 2017 for this report, distributed content revenue grew by an estimated 37% year-over-year.
- Video, consistent with last year, represents 85% of the total, $8.3 million in 1H 2017, driven by TV/cable companies’ OTT monetization. The remaining 15% cuts across social media, Google AMP and syndication.
- Facebook generated the most revenue for publishers, capturing $1.3 million (50% of social platform revenue) in H2 2016 and $1.5 million (59% of social platform revenue) in H1 2017.
- Out of the specific third-party platforms tracked, publishers are active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. However, for monetization purposes, publishers are still most active on Facebook and YouTube.
Despite the challenges, DCN found that publishers remain active across a range of channels distributing and monetizing content off their sites at levels relatively consistent with last year’s findings. Still, publishers remain cautious about increasing staffing for distributed content monetization.
1. Concentrate negotiation at the executive level of your company management; do not leave negotiations to lower-level management and/or individual brands or businesses.
2. Focus on products that leverage your core business, are replicable, get new money, and have the potential to scale.
3. Negotiate for business requirements that support scaling in partnership agreements:
- ad server integration;
- third-party measurement integration;
- management reports (e.g. roll-ups by publisher and/or marketer);
- and-data for advertising and subscription monetization.
4. Test and measure content consumption and monetization through both advertising and subscription on third-party platforms and compare results to on-site metrics to inform monetization strategies.
5. Centralize responsibilities or use active cross-functional teams for managing third-party partnerships.
Advertising is the most common form of monetization of content distributed on third-party platforms, with more than 85% of total average revenue sold directly by publishers. While distributed content remains an essential part of publishers’ strategic plans, the revenues earned do not match publishers’ investment. Importantly, publishers will continue to participate and test to find the best value and revenue model for their premium content.