News publishers need to stop being someone else's bitch
Publishers used to have it easy. They controlled a scarce resource and packaged it up on a daily basis for distribution to the news-hungry masses.
And then along came the internet.
Information became abundant and instantly available via smartphones. Publishers and media organisations were caught napping while Facebook, Google, Apple and others created better online experiences for news consumers.
They did such a good job that many publishers are now reliant on these giant digital distributors to get their journalism in front of a significant online audience.
The resulting relationship prompted the satirical website The Onion to write a piece with the headline 'Media organisations make pilgrimage to Facebook headquarters to lay content at foot of Mark Zuckerberg'.
But how unbalanced is the relationship? A report from the International News Media Association called 'Evaluating Distributed Content in the News Media Ecosystem' aims to find out.
The report's author is Grzegorz Piechota, a former news editor of Gazeta Wyborcza (the biggest quality newspaper in Poland) and a 2016 Nieman fellow at Harvard.
"There's a reason Google, Facebook, and Apple line up at publishers' doors and ask for news," Piechota says. "As a content category, the news passes the famous Silicon Valley 'toothbrush test'. It is something people use once or twice a day, as it makes their life better. An average US consumer spends 44 minutes per day on Facebook alone. News apps? All they get is four minutes a day, according to analytics company Flurry."
The report provides detailed profiles of the latest products designed to distribute news content - Apple News, Axel Springer's Upday, Facebook's Instant Articles, Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages, Snapchat's Discover Channels and Twitter's Moments. The report also offers publishers some top-level guidance for handling these platforms.
"I believe it's high time we expand the debate on social media from our newsrooms or marketing departments to boardrooms," Piechota says. "Today's decisions on business dealings with Facebook or Google shape the company's future business models. You basically can't leave it to this 'young person doing Facebook in our newsroom' - which I've heard in so many different newsrooms worldwide.
"Publishers should think about platforms as fishing places where you can find large, engaged audiences and build a relationship with them by providing content. Then offer these users some other services off-platform. No publisher's strategy will be complete without a clear plan to take users out of the platform and bring them to the publisher's turf for monetisation."
Piechota's report also provides some practical advice. He suggests that platform relations is a full-time job and not something to be foisted on an already overburdened newsroom or marketing team. He also advises that the publishers whose content enjoys the biggest reach on news distribution platforms have dedicated teams of up to 10 people to produce and repurpose content.
And he recommends that publishers ditch views and impressions for a more business-orientated metric: the ratio of lifetime value of a customer to acquisition cost. The lifetime value of a customer would include all contributions to revenue (ad impressions, paid subscriptions, or other paid products and services), while customer acquisition cost would include marketing costs, social content development and social media staff.
But Piechota cautions publishers against building businesses solely on the services offered by the distribution giants. Not only are these platforms focused on creating value for their own shareholders, but minor changes to algorithms or tweaks to products can also have a huge knock-on effect for others who operate in their ecosystem.
The report suggests that the news industry needs Facebookologists today, just as western political powers needed Sovietologists during the Cold War to decode the announcements of the Moscow politburo.
The report opens with a cautionary tale in the form of a quote from Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist, who invested in social gaming company Zynga.
"Don't be a Google bitch, don't be a Facebook bitch, and don't be a Twitter bitch. Be your own bitch," said Wilson, whose wisdom is hard-earned.
Zynga was Facebook's top business partner until the relationship ended in March 2013. By July of that year, Zynga had reportedly lost nearly half its user base.
Sunday Indo Business