Facebook to Publishers: Feed Me, Seymour

facebook_logo.pngFacebook has made official a move that’s been hinted at and rumored for a few months now: It’s making the appeal to media companies to fully host their content on Facebook itself as opposed to using it as simply a platform through which to drive traffic and readers elsewhere. The social network has lined up The New York Times, Buzzfeed and National Geographic as the initial list of partners who are going to be trying this out.

One of the main points Facebook is using in their argument is that load times are, particularly on mobile where so many people are consuming an increasing amount of content, pretty slow taking nearly 10 seconds to go from Facebook itself to the page that’s been linked to. Becoming a full-fledged publishing platform for that material, it’s argued cuts down on that load time significantly and will provide a better user experience. And for agreeing to this the publisher in question gets a share of the ads that Facebook will sell against that content.

This is, in my considered opinion, a sucker’s bet and a deal only someone who has been intentionally not paying attention over the last five years would make. Here’s why:

First: Facebook has never made any move that has not been primarily to its own benefit, specifically to the benefit of its advertising sales division. That’s not a bad thing, it’s how all companies work. But the way that its going about reaching this goal is not only upending many existing business models (again, not in and of itself a negate thing) but also seems to be threatening the very idea of an independent business model for media companies. It has systematically and methodically pulled the football out from in front of media producers on such a regular basis that these media companies are searching for any whiff of potential help and all too often are failing to realize that the helping hand being offered is the same one that just slapped them.

Second: No doubt this natively-published content will get preferred treatment in the Newsfeed algorithm, giving further lie to the repeated statements by Facebook executives that the Newsfeed is agnostic and that there’s no editorial judgment behind what people see, it going unsaid (by both those executives and the news organizations who are too timid to call them out) that the Newsfeed is designed by humans who are, at some level, exercising some form of editorial judgement. These Facebook-hosted posts will show up more frequently to people and see a higher level of engagement, which will then by used by Facebook to explain why they showed up more often. It’s circular logic that no one has the nerve to scream about, pointing to the fact that there has to be an inciting incident, these things don’t just happen magically in a way that always seems to prove Facebook’s thesis.

Third: Facebook has changed the goal posts on media publishers so many times it’s hard to imagine they all don’t have bruised tailbones from falling on their ass so often. First it promised huge reach numbers to brands and publishers who built up their audience there, then it limited reach, something it continues to do under the pretense of there being so much content published by brands and individuals that they can’t possibly display everything. First it told brands and publishers to use more photos in their posts to see higher engagement, then it said that photo posts were “overly promotional” and would be downgraded in the Newsfeed algorithm. First it said posts should have a clear call-to-action, then it said posts with that call-to-action were, again, “overly promotional” and would be similarly filtered heavily. The list goes on and on.

Fourth: While media companies in particular are fighting for staunch the bleeding that is happening with their online ad revenue it may be attractive to get a percentage of something rather than a whole nothing. But that’s absolutely not true. If Facebook is able to so nicely target ads against content and track where revenue is being produced how come it hasn’t been doing that all along? So be clear, if it can show that X ad performed at Y level and brought in Z revenue against a media organization’s content, why hasn’t it been sharing a percentage of that revenue for years?

Fifth: It’s more damage to the open web. It’s hard to imagine these stories will be indexed by Google or other search engines and, even outside of that, Facebook can do whatever it wants with them. That content might be owned by National Geographic but it’s managed by Facebook and that’s who will control access to it. Facebook doesn’t want you using Google or Yahoo or Bing or anything else; It wants you to only use Facebook. It’s the company store that everyone has to buy from and where prices are 60% higher than what you’d pay anywhere else, if you even had that choice.

Sixth: The long term – and even short term – damage that’s going to be done to current and future brand loyalty in the eyes of the audience cannot be over-stated. What connection is being built to The New York Times, for example, if it’s all just appearing as part of the Facebook Newsfeed? None. It’s just more content. It’s no better or worse than what came before it, which could be anything from a friend’s vacation photos to a “Which Verse of ‘Smelly Cat’ Most Defines Your Monday” quiz? The entire idea of an owned brand channel – whether we’re talking about a newspaper, a magazine, a website, a TV channel or anything else – is that the brand itself has some level of control over what surrounds any individual story or other item.

It’s that last item that has me most concerned about the direction Facebook would lead the entire media industry down. Right now, for better or worse, we live in a system that is defined by channels. Not just TV channels but “channels” in the sense of any packaging of information in a way designed to bring efficiencies of scale to distribution and delivery. Even as we hear about more and more stand-alone on-demand video services that operate outside the traditional bucketing of cable packages, we’re still dealing with the distributors, not the producers. So it’s not, for instance, 20th Century Fox the production house that is launching an OTT streaming service, it’s CBS. So the producer is still largely behind-the-scenes, peeking out only as the end credits roll. It’s still that secondary layer of distributor that we primarily deal with. It’s similar for movies.

Facebook, though, wants to eliminate that system entirely and become something of an uber-distributor. So it may be, for instance, Scripps Howard that produces the story and The New York Times that distributes it. But none of those matter because the primary user activity and interaction is with and through Facebook. And in this scenario the middle man – The New York Times – becomes an unnecessary choke point.

Some people have this move by Facebook actually has precedent with services like Netflix and Spotify but I think those analogies fall apart pretty easily. Let’s look at music first, for which there have traditionally been one of two ways to consume (I’m intentionally ignoring some nuance here, I’ll admit). Either

A) Someone listens to an entire album, the packaging of which is designed to a self-contained and specifically constructed experience (i.e. by a single artist), or;

B) Someone listens to the radio (Spotify playlists, Pandora channels and such would also apply here), which aggregates material from across any and all distributors (the labels) into a curated sampling experience

What Facebook is doing is neither of these. It doesn’t want to offer a level playing field like radio does that allows what people like to rise to the top and it doesn’t offer a packaged experience for single-topic material in the way that a record offers a self-contained package of a single artist’s work. Instead if very clearly wants to dictate the rules of what will and won’t be allowed to even compete on the field and it mixes in the content from everywhere into an indecipherable hash that says more about the reader and their network than any intentions the original producer had in mind.

That’s the real danger here for media companies and brand publishers: That they are no longer in control of their own destiny. They may be willing to take the $.05 cents that Facebook offers them in ad revenue because they can’t be sure they’ll be able to get the $.30 they really want a month from now. But it’s not just about that $.30; It’s about that as well as the $.45 they are missing out on by being able to recommend stories on their own site. It’s about the $15 they’re sacrificing over the next year because someone decided their content was so good they became a loyal reader and, while that reader might still balk at a subscription, they bought a t-shirt or recommended the site to a friend or any of a number of other behaviors that have long-term value. It’s hard to make the value proposition for not just the reader to attach any sense of loyalty to a news brand that is just another in a string of posts they saw on Facebook while waiting for a bus. It’s hard to make the value proposition to writers and other producers who all but disappear from the equation as bylines and other personal identifiers are quickly discarded.

Facebook will do what’s best for Facebook. That’s their right. But publishers and media companies would be wise to look beyond the next week and beyond such limited stats as “engagement” and “time spent” and see that they are sacrificing an order of magnitude more than they could ever hope to gain. This is bad for them, it’s bad for the reader, who will no longer get access to the value inherent in *real* editorial judgment being exercised along with much more, and its bad for the entire state of media production, distribution and consumption. Publishers would be wise to, when Facebook rings their doorbell, hide in the basement while figuring out how to out-flank them with the strengths they alone possess.

Sunsetting Social Media Channels « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli

Sometimes a channel — a Facebook page, a Twitter account, or even a blog — needs to be mothballed in some manner. The program goals may have shifted, for example, or maybe the audience never reached critical mass. But even if you have to take a channel out of the regular editorial mix, you may not need to wipe it out completely. You have several options for shifting resources away from a channel that no longer fits with your strategic vision.

via Sunsetting Social Media Channels « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli.

I forgot to link to this the other day but I wrote this for PNConnect Digital Essentials, a regular report that’s put together of digital trends, deep-dive perspectives and so on. It’s really good stuff.

Should You Use This Word? It Decreases Your Effectiveness | Psychology Today

Eliminating shoulds toward yourself will enable you to stay personally empowered.  Eliminating shoulds directed toward others will block the inappropriate sense of entitlement that provokes anger in both you and in others.

via Should You Use This Word? It Decreases Your Effectiveness | Psychology Today.

Duplass on the virtues and advantages of VOD

“God bless VOD,” Duplass said. “This is a great thing for independent film. Please don’t reject VOD. Please don’t be afraid of it. Please don’t be attached to your early films playing at theaters. You will have no more money to make movies.”

Duplass’ talk, which was told in the second person, was instructional about how to break into the business. Duplass not only touched on acting, directing and producing — he first came to SXSW with 2005’s “The Puffy Chair,” which he made with his brother Jay — but also the expanding role of television.

via SXSW: Mark Duplass Tells Young Directors to Embrace VOD | Variety.

Committing fully to corporate blogging is the only way to see its value

RSS-feed-iconGenerally when an industry blog – in just about any industry – covers breaking company news it happens in one of three ways:

  1. The story links to an on-domain blog post from the company, citing it as the source of the news
  2. The story references the news as coming from a company blog post but, for some reason, doesn’t link to it
  3. The story references the news as coming from the company but doesn’t specify whether that means a blog post, an email press release or carrier pigeon

The first is great, at least as far as we think about corporate content publishing programs. The corporate blog – the “hub” in the “hub and spoke” model we evangelize – has become a source for media and other interested parties to get their news from. It has done what it needs to do and while there may be separate press outreach to add context, the blog is often the source of the news.

The second shows an odd evolution in online media. Namely, that it’s adopting many of the virtues and traits that were once evinced by legacy media. In this case specifically we’re talking about “not linking out.” 10+ years ago one of the key differentiators between old and new media was in the approach to linking. The first and second generation of blog publishers understood that links were indeed love and that linking to someone else’s post or story didn’t detract from their own, it added to it. It was a way of substantiating your own point of view, by linking to supporting points or to a post you disagreed with. But slowly those blogs became fiefdoms of their own, many being bought up by bigger media companies. And the focus shifted from making sure people got the best information and went to the original source to linking to archives, topic pages and so on. So the link went not to a source elsewhere but to all that site’s previous coverage of the company so additional page views could be gathered.

The third is actually (despite the obvious diatribe I just went on) the bigger point that I want to make: That companies are often not just missing pitches but not even steeping up to the plate. By which I mean they either don’t have a corporate blog of their own or aren’t utilizing it to get the full value from it.

“Own your news” is a frequently-repeated phrase as we advise clients that once you have the production workflow in place the incremental costs of each post are minimal. In other words, publishing nine posts a week doesn’t cost much, if any, more than publishing five posts a week. So put it all up on the corporate blog, letting it serve as a complete archive of news and announcements. This creates an archive both for on-domain and general search and easily allows for resurfacing of news later on in connection with something else.

The recent study of corporate social media usage among Inc 500 companies by The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth showed blog adoption had dropped from 2013’s 52% – its three year peak – to just 46%, only slightly above 2012’s 44%. That almost has to mean that not only did few, if any companies start new blogs but some who had been running them shut them down. And I have to wonder how many of those who shut them down never really fully committed to the idea to begin with, always acting with one foot fully and the other foot mostly out of the pool.

Tactics usually only work when they’re fully executed, which only comes when everyone is on board. Watching corporate blogging take a hit like this is disappointing since I truly believe it makes the most sense in the evolving media world. There are multiple ways to execute the idea, but having an owned on-domain source for all corporate news is the only long-term hedge to place against the managed networks that will fall in and out of fashion, often faster than a company and its publishing program can keep up.

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