We Ran the Odds: Publishers Will Always Lose Against Social Networks
There’s something to be said about candy-coated houses nestled deep in the forest.
Anything too good to be true is usually a trap. It’s time publishers accepted this about Facebook.
The power scale has tipped quickly from news media to social media. Research shows 62% of Americans get news on social media, with 66% of that group reading news from Facebook. That number is growing every year, meaning less people go directly to publishers to consume content.
It’s a complicated position for publishers, especially as Facebook reluctantly accepts its role as a media company. But there’s no denying that access to users gives Facebook a lot of leverage that it isn’t afraid to flex. We’re seeing this now with the latest focus on video and paywalls.
The Danger With Video
Facebook’s latest focus has been encouraging publishers to share more video. Most weren’t prepared for the social network’s pivot—publishers saw reach and referrals plummet as users’ news feeds were optimized for video.
So, they chose to adapt. Entire newsrooms were fired to make way for video teams. Staff and editors that focused on prose were educated on the new importance of video. Journalists were shoved in front of smartphones to take advantage of new live video notifications.
Newsrooms changed their strategy because Facebook told them to. The worst part is Facebook’s move was grounded in creating more ad space and not because of user demand for video. But no one can force users to watch something they don’t want to, especially if it autoplays with audio and has pre- and mid-roll ads. (Publishers also need to learn this hard lesson about video on owned properties.)
If Facebook’s bet on video doesn’t pay off and it decides to incentivize 360 videos or Oculus integration or anything else, publishers will be the one to lose.
Subscribing to a Dismal Future
Recent murmurings say Facebook is planning publisher subscriptions as a carrot to the stick of video. Most news organizations are desperate for any form of revenue after being bled dry by pricing on open exchanges and disappearing traffic to low-quality competitors.
Many even see this as proof that Facebook is looking out for publishers. But it’ll actually have the opposite effect, creating even more publisher dependence on Facebook. In the test phase, payments and user data will stay on publisher websites. But if this changes, publishes lose even more control along with evaporating brand recognition.
Facebook will have the authority to change subscription policy as it sees fit, just like it optimized native video over externally hosted ones and curbed page reach to earn more from boosted posts. Who can predict that commission won’t swell to 70% right after publishers go all-in on the system? Or, what happens if Facebook decides to cut the program altogether like Medium did to its native ads, eliminating a revenue source for media?
Publishers should be cautious about building a house on rented land and trusting external properties to have their best interests in mind.
How Publishers Can Balance Dependence On Facebook
Publishers know what users want more than any social network. Ones creating high-quality content for their target audiences will win, regardless of what Facebook or Google or Snapchat dreams up next.
Now more than ever, it’s key to build owned properties instead of sinking futures into platforms with unknowable and shifting priorities. Owned resources with strong content will always lead to engaged, loyal audiences which in turn translates to high-quality, relevant advertisers.
Consider Vox or The Outline, two newer publishers that have a substantial presence on social media but don’t bank their futures on it. Instead, both manage websites with high-quality content (primarily written) and custom ad units that are designed for maximum audience engagement.
Larger publishers should take a hint from their younger competitors. That is, before they lose track of the crumb trail back to safety.