It’s been a long time coming. But 2023 has signaled that it’s finally time for publishers to reconsider the volatile, often one-sided, relationship that many of them have with some of the biggest tech platforms.
Media companies have been impacted by multiple developments over the past year, as platforms have progressively deprioritized news, canceled or reduced their news-related programs and products, or made the presence of news content on their platforms much less user-friendly.
These moves are the latest in a long line of changes that have pulled the rug out from underneath the feet of content creators. And while the tech tide may again turn in the favor of media companies, history tends to repeat itself. Publishers, therefore, should be wary about how warmly they embrace any future overtures from our tech overlords, as well as rushing headlong into the next new thing. Too often some publishers have dived into new initiatives like Mastodon or WhatsApp Channels, without a clear strategy or goals (content, engagement, monetization) in mind.
As a result, the current situation is an opportunity to pause, take stock, and reset these dynamics.
What this means for you: 7 key principles for 2024 (and beyond)
With that in mind, here are seven recommendations for publishers as they reassess what their relationships with platform providers should look like.
1. Platform diversification is essential
Over-dependence on individual platforms for revenue – or referral traffic – is risky. Sudden switches in platform priorities can quickly leave creative partners in the lurch. Outlets like LittleThings, Mic and BuzzFeed (to name but three) have all paid the price for putting too many eggs in a single platform basket. Avoiding this fate means that diversification is crucial.
So, where should publishers place their bets? The answer will vary. However, all publishers should consider reducing their reliance on the trusted trifecta of Facebook, Twitter/X and even Google Search.
The past year has reinforced this need, following precipitous drops in traffic from Google, Facebook and X. And as more audiences turn to Generative AI tools like Chat GPT for answers to their questions, attribution and referral traffic look set to take a further beating.
As Adrienne LaFrance, the executive editor of The Atlantic, recently told The New York Times, “the disruption to an already difficult business model is real.”
2. Spot and tap into shifts in audience behavior
In response to the current wave of disruption, media companies should reconsider platforms that they’ve previously perhaps overlooked or underinvested in.
When it comes to scale, YouTube is the 300lb gorilla in the room. With 2.5 billion users it’s the second most active social network in the world. In the USA 26% of adults regularly get news on YouTube, just behind Facebook (30%). Yet, arguably, many media companies (not just news providers) undervalue the platform.
TikTok’s popularity – especially with younger audiences – makes it a platform few media companies can afford to ignore. Since launching in the U.S. in August 2018, TikTok has grown to 80 million monthly active users. Globally 1.1 billion use the platform each month.
Subsequently, in the past year, The New York Times and the BBC launched news accounts on TikTok, having previously resisted pressure to do so. Part of the rationale for this, per the Pew Research Center, is that “the share of U.S. adults who say they regularly get news from TikTok has more than quadrupled, from 3% in 2020 to 14% in 2023.” That increases to nearly a third (32%) of those aged 18-29 years old, a figure that excludes non-news use.
TikTok and YouTube are also part of wider shifts in search habits, as users head directly to different platforms to look for answers to specific questions.
The migration from conventional search engines (especially among younger consumers) is being further accelerated by the adoption of Generative AI. That has implications for media companies’ AI strategies, as well as ensuring that they are producing content, and optimizing for search, on the platforms that their target audiences are using.
3. Understand that audiences are also diversified
Diversification is also seen in our wider media habits. On average, the world’s 4.89 billion social media users engage with seven different social networks every month.
However, audiences do not use platforms in the same way or for the same purposes, and publisher strategies need to reflect this.
The rise of TikTok, for example, has led to an investment in more vertical video content. After pioneering short videos, its algorithms – and users – increasingly embrace longer material, opening up fresh opportunities for publishers.
In contrast, other vertical-led channels, like Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts, and Snapchat, continue to favor shorter video content. Reels account for 20% of the time spent on Instagram. YouTube Shorts has 1.5 billion monthly active users. These findings cannot be ignored.
Meanwhile, the rise of Smart TVs has led to more than 700 million hours of YouTube videos being consumed on TV screens every day. That’s encouraging more horizontal content, as publishers and creators focus on this trend.
Collectively, this means that publishers will need to deploy different strategies and content propositions to tap into these audiences. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
4. You can’t, and shouldn’t be, everywhere
Just because you can be on a platform doesn’t mean that you should be. Resources are finite, so determining the best fit requires careful analysis of demographics and usage habits.
The BBC argued TikTok wasn’t initially the right platform for them. They were also worried about spreading themselves too thin. At a time of continued layoffs – with more than 20,000 media jobs lost this year alone – that concern will resonate with many companies.
As Platformer’s Casey Newton recently told CNN. “Every day, more brands are waking up to the reality that Twitter is dead and X is a cesspool… The global town square is now dispersed across many different platforms, and increasingly the most relevant conversations are taking place elsewhere.”
5. Go niche, or go home
Many of these conversations take place in smaller online communities and some publishers may see the value in exploring these more niche networks.
Platforms like Twitch or Reddit are not for everyone, but their users are loyal and spend a lot of time on site. Recognizing this, last year The Washington Post appointed angel mendoza as their redditor in chief.
It’s worth noting that more Americans claim to obtain their news from Twitch than Snapchat, and Twitch’s reach for news is on a par with LinkedIn. And with over a quarter of Americans saying they regularly get their news on Nextdoor, this presents interesting questions for local news outlets and specialist information providers about how they can – and should – be engaging with the platforms.
These types of networks may go under the radar of many publishers, yet their reach – and the engagement of the communities on them – may mean they’re worth another look.
6. Recalibrate what “success” looks like
As money and traffic from tech platforms dry up, metrics beyond clicks and views become more salient.
Historically, some publishers have financially benefited from page views on different social networks. Facebook reported in 2017 that it was paying out more than $1 million per day to publishers as a result of Instant Articles. However, that stream dried up as the company shifted focus to the creator economy.
Off-site referrals have also been important. A Deloitte study from 2019 found that across several major European markets, platforms drove 61% of visits to publishers’ websites and an estimated 6.2% of publishers’ total revenues.
But with money and traffic drying up, brand awareness and engagement may be better indicators.
Although TikTok has partnered with marquee publishers like Condé Nast, DotDash Meredith and NBCU, many companies find it a difficult platform to monetize. It is also a platform that many users don’t swipe away from, meaning that traditional clickthrough models just aren’t applicable.
7. Focus on building direct relationships with audiences
With third-party referrals and revenues declining, audience relationship-building is paramount.
That can take many forms. Many publishers are focused on their own products – like newsletters and podcasts – as well as capturing first-party data. They’re also looking to reduce churn, upsell existing subscribers and attract others through bundling.
It also means leveraging specific external platforms to foster community and loyalty.
GQ’s launch on Discord is part of this trend. The move enables them to engage with micro communities, often existing subscribers, around topics like fashion and everything Web3. “The way that we are thinking about it is we are throwing a party, GQ is the host, Discord is the venue and you are invited,” explained Joel Pavelski, GQ’s executive director of global audience development and social media.
We can expect more media companies to embrace these engagement strategies, leveraging specific (not necessarily mainstream) platforms to create greater loyalty.
Media companies find themselves at a crossroads in 2024. Traffic referrals from tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter/X have dwindled, underscoring the need for publishers to pivot their platform strategies. To do this, they must diversify and reimagine relationships with their audiences and tech partners.
Publishers can no longer rely on traffic and revenues from many of the platforms they have partnered heavily with in the past. A fresh approach means moving into new spaces, adapting their content and SEO strategies around evolving consumer behaviors, and thinking carefully about where to allocate their resources.
Larger and niche platforms offer distinct opportunities, but success in this new era will likely look different from the past. Subscriptions, memberships, native advertising, and exclusive content access, might play a greater role in these settings. And in some cases, building brand awareness and loyalty may be the primary goal.
Whatever the approach, the strategic challenge is the same: to reduce dependence on a small core group of third-party platforms and to approach new platform relationships with the benefit of hard-won wisdom. Referrals and third-party-derived revenues may not be as viable as they once were. As a result, publishers must diversify their reach and build direct connections with their audiences in a plethora of different spaces and places. In doing so, publishers need to blend scale and niche to establish a more resilient and adaptable presence across the digital ecosystem.
The time to begin implementing this model is now.