Publishers and social networks have an increasingly symbiotic relationship.
Publishers seek larger audiences and social networks seek the most engaging content to keep users in-app and provide the most compelling context for advertisements.
Is there a danger in this ever-deepening relationship between social media and publishers?
How is the relationship evolving?
Well, it’s evolving quickly at the moment as social networks are focusing on advertising that allows publishers to share in the spoils.
Just this year, launches and announcements include:
- Facebook Instant Articles, allowing immersive articles to be created for, and to load quickly within, Facebook.
- Twitter Moments, curated streams of tweets that will soon be edited by publishing partners.
- SnapChat Discover, giving publishers the opportunity to publish 24 hour ‘Stories’.
- Twitter’s new video strategy is set to serve pre-roll ads on publisher videos who are incentivised to create and share more.
- Facebook’s suggested videos, a similar strategy but with in-stream autoplay video ads between publisher content.
Should sharing be a means to an end?
The New York Times this week detailed its plans to double 2014’s digital revenue ($400m) by 2020.
In a memo as part of this release, the NYT talks about partnering with distributed platforms but insists ‘our clear focus remains on driving interested readers back to our platforms…’.
Given the NYT has a targeted increase in subscription revenue at the heart of its strategy, reaching an audience on social media is arguably pointless if it cannot be converted into return visits and ultimately paying subscribers.
The paper, however, still sees social media following as a sign of rude health and acknowledges its role in promoting the standard of NYT content to potential new users.
To this end, experimentation with social will continue.
The next generation of readers, both at home and particularly abroad, will be found on other platforms, where we must continue to be a leading voice.
We are poised to become the first publisher to boast 20 million Twitter followers and 10 million Facebook fans, a sign of the strength of both our journalism and brand.
We will continue experimenting to reach new readers offsite and in new formats, from Facebook Instant Articles to Apple News to Snapchat.
But our clear focus remains on driving interested readers back to our platforms where we can expose them to the full breadth of our work and help them build a lifetime relationship with The New York Times.
The memo also identifies younger age groups as a large part of the paper’s mobile audience and a group that, though difficult to engage, will be indicators of developing trends in media consumption.
…Moving forward we will be particularly focused on younger readers, who are already our largest category of readers — 40% of our mobile audience is under 35 years old — but who lag other groups in engagement.
Expanding these relationships isn’t just a matter of growing our audience; it will help us stay ahead of the curve.
Young readers were the first to shift to mobile and the first to embrace social platforms, and they have become reliable first indicators of major trends that ultimately affect our entire audience.
The message is clear, every activity undertaken by the NYT should be conducive to enshrining the paper’s reputation and increasing paid readership, either short term or long term.
Can new entrants maintain popularity and increase profit?
In that same NYT digital strategy memo, a broadside is issued at the new kids on the block:
In less than five years, The Times has succeeded in doubling its digital-only revenues to roughly $400 million last year. To put that figure in context, that was about as much as four of our highest-profile digital competitors — Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Vox Media and Gawker Media — reportedly earned last year combined.
BuzzFeed, perhaps the most famous publisher to have sprung out of the maturation of social media, is reported to have made $46m revenue in the first half of 2015, with $2.7m profit.
With these VC backed publishers generating such high viewer figures (BuzzFeed currently has over 200m uniques every month), with up to 75% coming from social media, can this be converted to sustainable levels of profit through native advertising activity alone?
Well, a host of high-profile investors are betting on it.
So, will this see a further split in business models?
Perhaps. NYT’s digital strategy memo gave a timely message to subscription publishers.
If advertising is your game, social media is your friend and you should do everything in your power to partner up with each network and make money for everyone.
That means clickbait headlines, lots of video, all the social ad products etc. And BuzzFeed would argue this is consistent with its brand and not a bad thing.
But, publishers aiming to build sustainable revenue from subscriptions need to handle the social trend with care.
Yes, reach and awareness are vital, but so is maintaining brand standards, setting an editorial agenda, creating long-form and investigative content and investing in one’s own platforms.
It’s this that will build deeper relationships with readers.