The Platform Era is Dead. Long Live The Homepage!
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How do you grow an audience? Ask any media professional who has been working in and around audience development for the past 10-15 years, they’ll likely tell you, “Facebook, Twitter, Google…” The platforms would be where we built our traffic.
Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, the platform era is dead.
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Now let’s jump in…
We have known for some time that the era of getting free traffic from major platforms was at an end. It has been written ad nauseam about BuzzFeed’s business failing in big part because Facebook reprioritized its algorithm away from viral content.
Press Gazette got data from Chartbeat and Similarweb that shows just how stark the drop off is.
For 1,350 global publishers included in Chartbeat’s data, 27% of page views coming from external, search and social in January 2018 came from Facebook (2 billion page views). In April 2023, this was down to 11% (1.5 billion).
Across 486 small publishers (i.e. those with less than 10,000 average daily page views) included in the Chartbeat data, Facebook referral traffic in April represented just 2% of its volume at the start of 2018. For the largest publishers (over 100,000 average daily page views) this was down 24%, while for medium-sized outlets (between 10,000 and 100,000 average daily page views), the fall was 46%.
That is a massive drop for small publishers. Is it any wonder that smaller local news outlets have seen traffic crater? Imagine getting 1,000 daily page views from Facebook and seeing that drop to 20 over the years. That would be gutting.
But even the large outlets have seen big drops. Using Similarweb data, Press Gazette reports:
- NYT went from 3.5m to 688k visits
- Vice went from 1.1m to 255.7k visits
- BBC went from 8.3m to 1.8m visits
And the list goes on.
A few weeks ago, I talked about how Twitter was blocking some Substack links. While this was short lived, it demonstrated another example of how the platforms were becoming increasingly antagonistic with content creators.
But this has happened for years. When I interviewed Sean Griffey, CEO of Industry Dive, he talked about an early growth driver they used.
As I said a second ago, what works today won’t work tomorrow. The thing that really helped us eight years ago, LinkedIn was one of them. We built LinkedIn groups and got into LinkedIn groups quite a bit in 2012, and 2013. They drove really targeted audiences then. They don’t now, just because of how LinkedIn has prioritized groups versus other parts of their platform. Those things change. They disappear and you just have to be ready to pounce on the good ones when you find them.
LinkedIn changed its priority and so Industry Dive lost a driver of traffic.
And then there is all of this talk about AI-based search engines. As I wrote:
But the issue with these AI tools is that they are not nearly as mutualistic. On the contrary, there are parasitic elements to them. AI comes, learns, and then leaves, providing the knowledge to readers without needing to direct people to the publications. Even if it provides sources, the intent of these chat-based platforms is to not have the user leave.
Every major platform either doesn’t find much value in publisher content—Facebook—or it has figured out a way to keep more of the traffic on its own property—AI-based search. In all of these cases, the publisher is going to see less traffic.
This, by the way, is why I am so pessimistic about the upcoming launch of The Messenger. According to Axios:
The Messenger, a well-funded news startup founded by longtime media entrepreneur Jimmy Finkelstein, will launch in beta with 200 employees on May 15, the company’s president Richard Beckman told Axios. Two-thirds of that headcount will be newsroom employees.
By the numbers: Beckman expects core news and politics to represent roughly 35–40% of the company’s traffic and newsroom headcount.
The company is hoping to bring in $100 million in revenue in 2024, which would be an enormous feat considering most media startups take years to grow to that scale. The majority of the company’s revenue will come from digital advertising, which will be sold to marketers directly and in an automated fashion.
This is the most preposterous launch plan I have ever seen in my entire life. How are they going to get $100 million in revenue next year? Yes, it’ll be a political year, so budgets will be greater. But advertising requires eyeballs. How is The Messenger going to get those eyeballs?
If we look at a recent story about The Messenger published in The New York Times:
To build its digital audience, the company has hired Neetzan Zimmerman, who has been a digital traffic maven at The Hill and Gawker Media, and is expecting more than 100 million monthly readers — an ambitious goal that would make it one of the most-read digital publications in the United States.
$100 million. 100 million monthly readers. These numbers are all made up. There is no way to get to 100 million monthly readers in such a short period of time when the platform era is dead. It’s not going to happen. But this piece isn’t about The Messenger’s preposterous numbers.
In my title, I write, “The Platform Era is Dead. Long Live the Homepage!” I’ve been thinking about this concept of the homepage ever since I analyzed the direct traffic across different publications when writing about BuzzFeed News’ demise.
Long live the homepage is another way to say that brand matters. If people are typing in your URL, it’s because they are seeking you out. Being sought after is a great indication that you’ve got loyalty with your readers.
For years, I’ve heard people say, “the side door is what matters more than the homepage” or “the story page is the homepage.” I’ve even said these things because the path for users to find our sites was by interacting with a single story from a platform. A large percentage of people weren’t coming to our sites directly; they were finding individual stories on other platforms. But this is also why these users had such a weak connection to our brands; they got the content they wanted and then left without any deeper interaction.
Now, though, in this era of decreased dependence on platforms, our homepage will matter. If we have successfully built a strong brand with great content—the kind people would miss if it disappeared—people will visit our homepages. They will tell other people about it. Referral traffic will become increasingly important.
In many respects, this is what media looked like before the platforms. It was slower growing. You built your brand. It was niche. You focused on a specific topic. Your sellers knew the material. Your audience development team knew the material. And who the reader was mattered. I don’t intend for this to sound nostalgic (I’m not old enough to have operated in that era). But it certainly sounds better than platforms controlling who reads my content.
The platform era is dead. But that’s okay. There are viable paths to growth even without them. It’s just going to take time. Media is hard.
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