Third-party distribution channels are increasingly prominent part of the digital publishing landscape, but instead of rejecting channels that don't offer full ownership and control, many publishers are embracing them.

Case in point: Snapchat Discover, an exclusive, invite-only offering, has major publishers clamoring for the ability to participate.

And the publishers that are a part of Snapchat Discover are taking their participation seriously.

For example, Refinery29, a digital publisher targeting women, has a team dedicated to producing Snapchat Discover content seven days a week.

Why would publishers invest so heavily to produce content distributed exclusively on channels they don't own? It's the reach and engagement, silly. 

Refinery29's Snapchat

Services like Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram have become bonafide content destinations and instead of trying to funnel their audiences on these platforms to owned properties, more and more publishers are working to deliver their content directly to their audiences wherever they want to consume it.

Obviously, there are reasons to question the wisdom of this.

Long-term, it's not clear that publishers are creating value for themselves. Instead, it could be argued, they're building up the third-party platforms and could eventually be disposed of.

The fact that Snapchat has kicked off and swapped out Snapchat Discover partners is evidence of this.

But it's not all doom and gloom for publishers...

Perhaps aware of their conundrum, they're pushing back and forcing their third-party partners to make concessions.

For instance, when Facebook was prepping Instant Articles, which distributes publisher content directly on Facebook, the world's largest social network tried to lure publishers with a seemingly sweet revenue share deal.

And now Facebook is making changes to Instant Articles to keep publishers happy. 

As The Wall Street Journal's Jack Marshall detailed, the company will allow publishers to add more ads to their Instant Articles content.

Going forward, publishers can insert one ad for every 350 words; previously it was one ad for every 500 words. 

Facebook will also allow publishers to sell Facebook-specific ads. Previously, it required publishers to group Instant Articles inventory with the rest of their inventory.

Another major concession is that Facebook is giving publishers the ability to control the links that appear at the bottom of their Instant Articles, raising hopes that they might be able to use Instant Articles to drive traffic to their owned properties, or to sponsors.

Michael Reckhow, a Facebook product manager, hinted that the social network could make additional changes as it evaluates publisher feedback, but some publishers are already pleased. 

Joe Speiser from LittleThings.com told The Wall Street Journal:

We’re looking at how we can increase the amount we’re publishing to Instant Articles. This is a big enough change that we feel comfortable testing a bigger percentage of our content.

Elsewhere, publishers are standing up and removing their content from third-party channels when they believe their interests aren't being served.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal's Mike Shields, some publishers, including ESPN, Rodale and Shape Magazine, have pulled their content from AOL On, one of the internet's largest video syndication networks.

According to Shields, these publishers have been troubled by a lack of transparency and were not always pleased with the places their content was displayed.

Ashkan Karbasfrooshan, of video publisher WatchMojo, told Shields that publishers "get frustrated when they realize there is not much scale and not a lot of true viewing by an engaged audience."

In response to complaints and publisher defections, AOL says it will be transitioning to a new platform in 2016 that will give publishers greater transparency and control.

Can publishers negotiate enough to win?

While publishers should be encouraged by the fact that powerful third-party distribution channels are listening to their complaints and concerns, and giving in to some of their demands, it's still not clear that publishers can win in a world where the more and more of their audiences aren't really their audiences.

Unfortunately, even if they are able to negotiate better terms, publishers will eventually have to grapple with the possibility that without audiences of their own, they could become little more than outsource content creators for the Facebooks and Snapchats of the world.

Patricio Robles

Published 10 December, 2015 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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