In January, Facebook introduced algorithm changes to its News Feed, prioritizing the content that friends and family share and comment on, while de
-emphasizing content from publishers and brands. The changes shifted expectations and strategies for content owners who’ve long valued Facebook for both traffic and engagement.
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.