Media companies are moving their publications to Medium, but from where I’m sitting, it’s not obvious what they stand to gain from abandoning their sites and dropping all of their content into a third party platform like Medium or Facebook.
Small, independent publishing outfits obviously have something to gain as they search for readers, but for large-scale publishers there isn’t much benefit. Today, calling a platform home is a dangerous proposition, especially if your core business is focused on publishing online and earning profits through advertising.
Potential growth in readership will always be exciting to media companies, but by moving publications to platforms, they’re losing direct access to the only valuable commodity they control: a marketable audience that advertisers want to reach. Losing direct access to an audience means losing access to the segment-able data media companies are currently using to sell advertisements. Once that data is gone, getting it back is going to be tricky.
On the one hand, publishers are gaining access to new audiences, but on the other hand media companies are losing both advertising autonomy and their loyal readerships.
We’ve seen this all play out before though.
Rinse & Repeat
Historically, the platform cycle has followed a fairly predictable path: platforms emerge, publishing companies embrace them, and then somewhere down the line the fledgling platform gets sold to a massive tech company. Once a platform is acquired, the purchaser then desperately tries to integrate it into their road map but ultimately fails. The product begins to stagnate. Audiences leave. Publishing companies then gravitate towards something new, something better.
Don’t believe me? Check out this brief history of publishing platforms beginning in the mid-90s.
“Under Construction” banners were so hot in the 90s. Since we’ve come full circle on platforms, maybe we can enjoy a renaissance.
Angelfire launched in 1996 and then sold to WhoWhere in 1997. GeoCities, around since 2004, picked up the torch from Angelfire but was then sold to Yahoo! in 1998. Blogger then launched in 1999 but was sold to Google in 2003. WordPress launched in 2003. Tumblr launched in 2007 and then sold to Yahoo! in 2012.
So far, the only major publishing platform online that’s launched and remained independently owned is WordPress. The rest? Sold off.
When it comes to managed publishing platforms online, sooner or later a platform will sell. Once that happens, what’s left for publishers who have adopted the platform as their full-time home? Not a whole lot, likely. They’re forced to pick up and move.
Trading Autonomy For Advertising Dollars And Eyeballs
If publishers know they stand a chance of being left out in the cold once a platform sells or the technology is retired, what’s driving the mass platform migration? The hope of advertising dollars and a couple of extra eyeballs.
Publishers are handing over their readership to platforms freely, hoping that an increase in audience growth will also increase their publication’s earning potential. The industry needs to ask if it’s worth giving up access to all first-party data for, or if losing direct access to readers is worth the increase in ad revenue.
Not exactly a ton of potential for publishers looking to Facebook’s Instant Articles, that’s for sure. Guess that means black markets are the only option moving forward for serious publishers.
In order to get to the bottom of that question, however, publishers need to be honest about the relationship between publishing platform (Medium, Facebook, etc.) and publisher (The AWL, Monday Note, etc.). As it stands today, these publishing platforms are simply loaning readers to publishers, not helping publications grow an audience. The difference is nuanced, but it’s an important distinction to make. It’s also something no one is talking about, yet. Platforms are actively collecting a publisher’s readership and up-cycling them to loyal platform users. Cumulatively, publishers are now providing platforms with more users than platforms are delivering to publishers.
Still, there’s value being exchanged in this equation. Publishers can offload the sale of advertising to platforms which are currently much better positioned to bundle up users and sell them to marketers looking for deep targeting campaigns.
Somewhere along the way, publishers have stopped competing with other publishers for ad revenue. Today, publishers are fighting directly with social platforms for a buck.
Consider the following quote:
“In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising will go to Google or Facebook, said Brian Nowak, a Morgan Stanley analyst. — NYT.
In the short term, the allure of moving to platforms must be strong, and the temptation not easily overcome. But the end result should be quite alarming for publishers. The distinct lack of direct access to user information, and draconian advertising policies are designed and implemented to remove earning potential from publishers.
The Odds Have Been Stacked Against Publishers For A Long Time
Recently, Apple’s tried to do the ethical thing by letting publishers push content to Apple News while still having the ability to direct readers from Apple News to a publisher’s source material. Data around Apple News growth and platform success has been relatively sparse, but many journalists have noted a lag in these areas.
That struggle is partially at the feet of Apple and the Apple News experience it developed, but it’s also largely systemic of the ecosystem consumers have been living in for the last decade.
End users are now fully conditioned to stay in the app ecosystem. They rarely leave a platform to access content. Facebook knows this, and it’s why their team built Instant Article. Medium knows this, and it’s why the company platform has begun courting publishers asking them to publish directly.
The trend started long ago. It started with RSS applications, then once people moved to apps with better reading experiences (Readability, Instapaper, etc.), users began to abandon publishers’ webpages, instead doing all of their reading in-app. Of course, once the trend caught on, a host of other applications took off. Services like Flipboard and Flud and Pulse all jumped at the opportunity, and all convinced publishers to import content directly into their applications.
In some cases, applications were only including content excerpts, but it became evident rather quickly that both algorithms and audiences were favoring publications that imported entire articles into applications. The game changed back then, and during that platform evolution timeline, end users were encouraged to leave behind a publisher’s website and instead consume content within the confines of the beautiful, streamlined platform du jour.
That practice of importing content directly to a platform is fine, if publishers are treating platforms like syndication channels, simply delivering content in formats their audiences prefer. But now that both Facebook and Medium are forging into the future and advocating for a more siloed approach, the publishing industry needs to take a step back and start asking some difficult questions.
If the medium is the message then what are we being told about the future of publishing on the internet by Facebook and Medium? That message, when you break down the realities of moving to a platform for all of your publishing needs is pretty alarming.
Some publishers are already waking up to some pretty harsh realities:
“One publisher, which has been all in on Instant Articles, has seen a commensurate drop in direct traffic, since readers view Instant Articles without leaving the app. “It’s been a shift from bucket to bucket,” this publisher said. Another publisher said traffic from Facebook suddenly fell 25 percent in mid-March and hasn’t recovered.” — Digiday
Facebook’s in the business of growing Facebook, not helping publishers build audiences. It’s important to remember that. Ditto for other publishing platforms asking for content delivery exclusivity. Once publishers cross the threshold, it’s going to be difficult to leave with readership levels intact.
“NewsWhip, which tracks how publishers are performing across major Internet platforms, says the rate at which links to outside websites are shared on Facebook, compared with videos and Instant Articles, has declined.” — NYT.
Even if publishers are willing to give Facebook access to their content, there’s no guarantee a platform will then return the favor by giving publishers traffic to their websites. Enough evidence now exists to suggest that this isn’t a two-way street. Sorry. It seems that there’s only one way for media companies to make up the difference in lost article engagement.
“‘People are going to have to buy traffic from Facebook to level out the peaks and valleys,’ one of the publishers said. ‘“Long story short, they’re putting a vice around people’s necks.” — Digiday
The value in moving to a platform full-time is becoming less clear by the minute. Given the aforementioned quotes, it seems that platforms are collecting users, providing better content experiences, and no longer directing readers to the source material.
With that in mind, it seems that the value exchange between publisher and platform now breaks down like this:
- Platforms now publish content in entirety.
- Publishers are directing readers directly to platforms instead of owned websites.
- Platforms turn those readers into platform users.
- Platforms sell targeted advertising to marketers.
- Publishers get a megaphone for their content, but lose access to important readership data.
- A slice of the advertising money is then passed on to publishers, with the platform taking a substantial cut.
Sound about right?
If this all goes south (it will, as all publishing platforms eventually wither), what happens when a publication decides to leave one platform for another? Will the new audience gleaned from platforms like Medium or Facebook make the journey to a new platform with publishers? Or will they decide to move on to something new?
A few users may follow publishers, but there’s little evidence to suggest that readers are guaranteed to move with a publication from one platform to the next.
Social publishing platforms have long since encouraged readers to embrace platform reclusivity. The problem for publishers who have made the jump to publishing directly on platforms is that once a platform convinces a reader to jump ship, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever return home. Media companies then not only losing their readership, but they also losing access to the information and data they need to sell advertisements. If the platform experiment doesn’t work out, media companies seriously run the risk of cannibalizing revenue.