Online publishers are facing a looming dilemma: Is the loss of direct control over the reader’s experience worth an increase in traffic and attention?
Apple, Google and Facebook believe the answer is an unequivocal “yes,” and each has entered the distributed content publishing arena with a method to permit publishers to customize content for more attractive and faster display on mobile devices.
Apple would like you to use its flexible and deeply integrated Apple News Format; Facebook is very bullish on Instant Articles, now also integrated into Messenger; and Google is downright evangelistic about Accelerated Mobile Pages present.
Publishing articles via social networks and other aggregation sites and apps can definitely increase traffic and reader interaction, but that interaction takes place on on the social network itself rather than the publisher’s website. It’s not so much that there is a high price to pay to participate, it’s that no one knows what that price tag will ultimately be—and in fact, that price tag may look very different for large publishers than it does for small ones.
The concept is simple: Publishers format their stories in each tech giant’s format and those stories are served directly from the servers and apps of those companies, essentially bypassing the website (and much of the advertising, design and additional functionality) of the publisher. The publisher gets their content displayed extremely quickly, usually with some sort of mark indicating to readers that it’s fast and optimized for mobile, and possibly even priority access or promotion, especially in the case of Apple News.
All these features may have thrown a garland over the horns of the dilemma, but it’s made them no less sharp.
If, say, The New York Times publishes articles into Facebook using Facebook Instant Articles, and readers interact with that content only within Facebook, what will happen to the readership of the nytimes.com site over the next 10 years? Or even just two? Now ask the same questions about smaller entities, like The (Sonora, CA) Union Democrat, which gets 420,000 page views a month?
The growing primacy of mobile device uses has only increased this trend. A mobile Facebook user has a better experience if they stay within Facebook, rather than jumping between app to browser repeatedly, and the same holds true for any social media app. Apple has begun to push news content into its device search results, which it can only do with Apple News content.
Consider, for example, Now This, a news resource (it’s hard even to know what to call it…) that dumped having any site at all in favor of placing the news it reports directly where readers are: Facebook, Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Youtube and Snapchat. Is a publisher still a publisher if it has no publication? For some, all page views are created equal, whether they happen in Apple’s iPhone search, a Facebook feed, or in a tweet—but some of these platforms have limited advertising options, and some have none at all.
There’s one more consideration: When you publish on another firm’s platform, they can set restrictions on what you can publish. Both Facebook and Apple include an application and/or review process for content.
Though these technology giants tout distributed content publishing as an exciting opportunity that no publisher should miss out on—more readers, better looking content, additional advertising models—the jury is still out for most publishers.
Don’t forget: The biggest companies used to be in oil; now the giants are in technology. When you play with Google, Apple, and Facebook, you’re playing in the big leagues.