February 18, 2020

Oh Look, A Platform is Preparing to Dupe Pubs

It appears that European publishers are finally going to get their wish. According to The Wall Street Journal:

Google is in talks with publishers about paying a licensing fee for content in a news product, according to people familiar with the matter, a move that would mark a shift in the search giant’s relationship with news organizations.

Talks are early, and it isn’t known if agreements will be reached, the people said. Most of the publishers in talks with Google are outside the U.S., including in France and elsewhere in Europe, one of the people said.

Although we’re not sure how much money Google is offering and it’s only referred to as “a news product,” this is exactly what many larger publishers have been fighting Google on for a long time.

There are a couple things worth discussing here…

First, this is obviously in response to Article 11 in the European Union’s Copyright directive of late 2018. According to Wired:

The article intends to get news aggregator sites, such as Google News, to pay publishers for using snippets of their articles on their platforms. Press publications “may obtain fair and proportionate remuneration for the digital use of their press publications by information society service providers,” the Directive states.

No one is really sure how this one would work either. How much of an article has to be shared before a platform has to pay the publisher? The Directive states that platforms won’t have to pay if they’re sharing “mere hyperlinks which are accompanied by individual words,” but since most links are accompanied by more than a couple of words it seems that many platforms and news aggregators would fall foul of this rule.

Essentially, if Google wanted to link to a publisher’s website and include a short description of that story, Google would have to pay the publishers. For a long time, Google was adamantly against doing this. They even showed samples of what the SERPs would look like if publishers kept demanding money—they were completely bare and likely would have resulted in a drop in traffic because of clickthroughs plummeting.

If Google has changed its tune and is now starting to offer some money to publishers that want to be included in a news product, this must be grounds for celebration… Right?

Google might be offering money to publishers, but this is not something that should fundamentally alter the strategy of any publisher. The money, if there really is any money, will only come once and then it will never come again.

And here’s where the real risk lies for these publishers. Easy money, like the kind of money that platforms offer, is addictive. Publishers have been doing it for years. So, when a platform comes along and says that it’s going to pay for something, I get a little nervous.

But it’s more than just nervousness about the easy money. It’s also stupid money in that publishers start making really dumb mistakes when that money comes in.

Back in September, Cheddar’s Jon Steinberg did a fireside chat with Jessica Lessin of The Information. When discussing the Facebook News Tab, he said:

Always take the check. But you are never getting another check, so you either take the check and staff it in a way that you can do it and shut it down without hurting your people, or you figure out a way to make it self-sustainable.

Here’s what typically happens when a platform gives money. The media company takes that money and staffs up. Then, a couple years later, the money dries up because the platform got bored and, suddenly, the media company has a large team it can’t support, so it doesn’t the only thing it can: fires people.

Having watched my fair share of layoffs, let me tell you, there is nothing worse for morale than people thinking their jobs are at risk. Want to lose your absolute best talent? Have a bunch of layoffs because you thought the platforms were going to fund your operation for life.

But here’s the real reason this sort of a thing irritates me. Easy, stupid money is the kind of money that helps publishers get complacent.

Think about how lazy many of us got with programmatic advertising funding our lives. We didn’t need to own the monetization engine because ad tech would do it for us. Then that got yanked out from under us and we’ve started learning how to do it ourselves.

This is the same thing except with a different source of cash. I know publishers have been wanting to get paid from the platforms for a long time, but it won’t last forever. And in a few years, when Google gets bored, what will the publisher do then?

So, for those publishers that do get offered money for content, be very mindful of this. Don’t suddenly add a bunch of staff and do not get complacent. Keep the cash in a strategic reserve versus using it for operational reasons. And let’s come back to this in a few years. Once the “Google is evil” PR disaster ebbs, the money will dry up. The outcome will be publishers getting duped once again by the easy, stupid and lazy money from the platforms.

For those that don’t get picked, continue building your business the right way. Speaking of which…

Forming habits with your readers

There’s a good report out from Twipe about creating habit forming news products. The authors wrote:

– Understanding habits and adapting product offerings accordingly is now a key priority at all of the leading news organisations we interviewed.

– Habit formation takes time: on average 66 days before an automatic behaviour is ingrained in our brain.

– Habits can be formed through carefully designed Habit Loops: an iterative process requiring triggers, cues, actions, investment, craving and variable reward.

– Studies across the industry show that three reading activities per week is the tipping point where occasional engagement turns into predictable, habitual behaviour.

– Successful news organisations focus on understanding patterns and adapting content to fit readers’ daily lives.

Those fourth and fifth bullets are especially important to call out because I think they’re the key to successfully building a habit with your reader. Let’s tackle them independently…

There are a couple tactics—both long-term and short-term—that can help get users to go from passive to habitual.

Your trusty newsletter is a huge engagement tool. In this instance, we want to remind the reader on a regular basis that there is something worth reading on your site. You want to start getting them used to using your site for information. It starts slow, but as time goes on, readers start seeking out the newsletter. When that happens, you’ve formed a habit.

Paid advertising is also worth looking at. In this instance, we want to target readers who are dangling on the edge of conversion—or who have recently converted—and remind them about you. This is especially useful if you’ve just converted someone because the user is brought back to the site over and over, converting them to a long-term loyal reader.

The fifth bullet is really important and something that so many people get wrong. When we start building products, we tend to think about what we want versus what the user actually wants or needs. “Adapting content to fit readers’ daily lives” means building products for where the reader actually exists. We need to go where the reader is.

This can be difficult to figure out because it takes time. But it’s so important because it can be the difference between a successful or failing product launch. This means taking the time to talk to the reader. Do progressive polling and focus groups with your readers. Have conversations. Learn about what their needs are. From there, you can walk away with ideas on the best ways to engage and form habits with them.

In the report, the authors offered a variety of examples where this was done:


I encourage you to read the report to dive deeper into the left column labels.

But as you’re spending time reading the report, ask yourselves three important questions:

  1. Do you know how often your audience comes back to your site? If not, do you have the resources to start tracking that?
  2. Do you know where your audience likes to spend most of its time or what it is hoping to gain from news?
  3. Do you have someone on your team who can own habit-forming? While it is ultimately an organization-wide goal, there always needs to be someone accountable.

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, that’s fine. But start to think about them. For publishers that are not going to get complacent—like those that will get cash from Google—understanding as much about your reader as possible is the difference between failure and success.

Read the report and then let me know your thoughts.