The Publisher Piglets and the Trough of Disillusionment

This is a piece that I wrote for this blog in December 2014.  It has since been picked up by Media Briefing.  The revised version that appeared on that site can be seen by clicking here on Media Briefing.

Newspaper and magazine publishers have adopted many tactics for survival in these disrupted days.  Some tactics seem more worthwhile than others but using Facebook to drive traffic to newsbrand sites and the production of apps they can charge for are two tactics built of brick, not straw.  Or so it seemed.  In fact, for either tactic to remain worthwhile in 2015 publishers will need to provide something extra – a wow factor.

An apt analogy recently appeared in The Atlantic, Digital-media companies have grown reliant on Facebook’s powerful distribution capabilities. They are piglets at the sow, squealing amongst their siblings for sustenance, by which I mean readers”.

There are too many content sources and it is becoming a desperate scramble. Facebook has so much content now that it is increasingly hard for publishers to stand out. Reach is suffering.

For Facebook, user devices and revenues are increasingly mobile. This changes the nature and amount of content they can push to people.   At the same time Facebook has found itself carrying more content than ever. Something has to give.

Felix Salmon, senior editor at Fusion, explains the dilemma well, Facebook’s algorithm is already working overtime on trying to slim down a virtually infinite range of possible News Feed posts to a much smaller number. A significant chunk of the NewsFeed is already ads, so in order to make it into the News Feed if you’re not an ad, you need to be really, really good. Like, one close friend announcing her engagement, or a video of another friend pouring a bucket of ice water over her head, or a long and hilarious comment thread on a third friend’s status update. What’s not really, really good? A link to some random website which has a user experience which Facebook can’t control, and which is probably suboptimal on mobile”.

Put another way, news companies will start to feel like they are being forced from the sow’s teat.

A solution publishers will turn to will be high quality video production. Video might help their content stand out but it is expensive to produce and publishers are relatively new to this highly competitive arena.

They will look for other ways to add the wow factor to their work. A standout example is the Washington Post’s Truthteller experiment, which aims to be the Shazam of political speeches, checking the facts in political speeches in real time. That’s a grand ambition. It certainly has a wow factor.

It is not just the Facebook problem that publishers will try to solve with wow factor solutions. The app issue is one they will try to address that way too.

Shailesh Prakash, CIO of the Washington Post describes the issue thus, “We should pay attention to m-web because if we as legacy print companies are not careful, m-web will do to web in terms of revenues what web did to print because monetisation is so much harder. So should we focus on apps? The app side is where the engagement is but M-web is not too expensive from a design and engineering perspective. Apps are very expensive. How do you bridge that gap? We believe that video is one opportunity. Sell-through rates are extremely high. CPMs are extremely high. We are constantly being asked to do more video. This is a trend I think is here to stay”.

A few years ago apps were hoped to be the future saviour of print legacy businesses. As “saviour” suggests, there was much hype around apps and what they could bring.

Luke Bilton, head of content at UBM believes that publisher apps have passed the peak of inflated expectations and have entered the trough of disillusionment. He writes. According to the PPA’s Digital Subscriptions Uncovered report, digital magazines have a similar level of importance in the circulation mix as the Spar retail group. So while magazine apps have many advantages – particularly as international bolt-ons to existing print products – perhaps the amount of time and column inches spent by publishers on a fairly niche channel is starting to look misjudged”.

Tim Cain, the MD of the Association of Online Publishing, noted in his Autumn Conference address that publishers have reduced their prioritisation of paid for apps in favour of the exploration of other potential revenue streams.  He based his comments on the findings of the AOP Content and Trends Census which asks publishers where their priorities lie each year.  Bilton might see that drop in faith as proof that apps (paid for apps, at least) are sliding into the trough of disillusionment.

In 2015 expect to see news publishers trying to find new ways to standout on a mobile Facebook and, for those determindly prioritising app subscription, eye-catching attempts to make those apps irresistible. Video will play a big role but publishers will also look for the wow factor elsewhere. Put it another way, expect the publisher piggies to go to market with some attention-grabbing ideas. Woe betide the little piggy who has none.

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