When Facebook announced in January that it was changing its News feed algorithm, publishers’ consternation turned to “outrage,” in the words of Stratechery’s Ben Thompson.
That’s because many of the best-known publications have built significant portions of their businesses on Facebook.
When Facebook said “jump,” publishers asked “how high?” – even hiring and firing to change how they produced content to accommodate the platform’s tweaks and maintain their stream of eyeballs.
With the latest change, though, no amount of jumping is likely to keep publishers from losing significant traffic and revenue. Facebook says it will “prioritize posts from friends and family over public content … including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses.”
But for publishers there may be a silver lining. Facebook’s move could spur them to cultivate and nurture a valuable community rather than play the Facebook algorithm game.
“It’s a baseline wakeup call,” says Christian Hendricks, president of the Local Media Consortium, a group of locally oriented publishers banded together to achieve scale, improve revenues, and reduce expenses.
These are the steps you can take to get on the path to publisher success.
Get real data on real people.
Marketers and publishers know that first-party data – proprietary information on the people visiting a media property along with their interactions – is gold.
Publishers need to secure that data and use it to continually serve and delight those people with content they adore and will share. They can then attract more people with similar profiles and use those streams of ever-burgeoning data to increase revenues from advertising, subscriptions, and other streams.
Capture email addresses.
To some in the industry, first-party data means first-party cookies. But cookies, as good as they can be, are problematic.
They do not represent an actual person. One person can be responsible for multiple cookies, and one cookie can represent multiple people. Cookies are not consistent across browsers or devices, become corrupted, and expire over time.
What publishers need is not cookies but to know who is actually visiting and enjoying their content. One of the best identifiers around is an email address, which more accurately represents an actual person.
“Everybody gets an email address and keeps it as long as possible,” Hendricks notes. “I, as a publisher, can tie it across multiple devices and browsers to get a profile off the individual associated with that address,” he adds.
Email is an open standard that has been around for decades. It’s accessible on every personal screen through multiple clients and the web. It’s a flexible and powerful direct communication tool. And with email addresses, the publisher – not a third-party platform – owns the database and can correlate that data to other information.
Publishers who have a user’s email address can correlate that email to website visits to further enrich their data about an individual’s path through the site, then enhance the experience with great content to encourage them to keep coming back for more and become a loyal visitor, maybe even a subscriber.
Spend wisely on marketing.
Spending money on eyeballs alone is not necessarily fruitful. “You show me something based on a clickthrough rate, that’s inefficient,” Hendricks says.
But marketing that leads to capture of emails, as above, can bear big returns over time.
Publishers can offer enticing newsletters, which, when opened regularly, are a great way to drive more traffic, and are also a vehicle to increase revenue from advertising and commerce.
Use the open web.
Some publishers are tempted to build apps in hopes people will download and keep opening them. But while app use is rising, news apps don’t show up in the top ten most popular, according to Tech Crunch.
“People don’t consume media by going from app to app to app,” Hendriks says. “They use the open web, and go according to their own cadence.”
The open web today, with HTML5 code bases that can incorporate responsive and Progressive Web techniques, allows app-like functionality, easy navigation, seamless clickthroughs from email, and inexpensive tracking.
If you can capture cellphone numbers – perhaps by offering information or entertainment via text message – you have another powerful data point that’s associated with a single individual.
Publishers historically have been notorious lone wolves. That worked in an era of protected geographies and ink-on-paper distribution.
Today, publishers need scale, and the way to get there is often through banding together to attract advertisers interested in broad reach across publications, and to negotiate better deals with vendors.
Use social media correctly.
Social media platforms are just that: social. They are designed to be used to communicate, to help people have more of the kinds of content they want, and to engage them in ways they find useful – not to spam them with click bait.
“Play the instrument the way it’s supposed to be played,” Hendricks says.
Facebook can still be a valid tool in a publisher’s arsenal. Consumers can share stories and can give a publication “see-first” priority in their Newsfeeds. But the days of successfully gaming the giant’s algorithms look like they’re coming to an end.
As Fatherly COO Michael Wertheim told Digiday: “Facebook is always going to change its algorithm, and any publisher who puts all of its chips in Facebook for traffic is playing a dangerous game.”
Let’s hope Facebook’s most recent big change is the kick in the pants publishers need to create a lasting path to financial viability and long-term success.