November 22, 2022

We Can’t Depend on Platforms Anymore

Whether publishers realize it or not, we may be reaching the end of an era of our overreliance on social platforms. Due to how the economy is weakening and specific platforms undergoing fascinating ownership changes, platforms are becoming far more unpredictable for us.

On Friday, CBS News announced that it would be halting its Twitter activity. According to Variety:

“In light of the uncertainty around Twitter and out of an abundance of caution, CBS News is pausing its activity on the social media site as it continues to monitor the platform,” Jonathan Vigliotti, CBS News national correspondent, said in a report about the latest chaos at the company on the “CBS Evening News” Friday.

This was short-lived. According to a tweet, CBS News said:

“After pausing for much of the weekend to assess the security concerns, CBS News and Stations is resuming its activity on Twitter as we continue to monitor the situation.”

There’s nothing overly surprising here. The media world doesn’t know what to do with Twitter right now. But it never has. Media companies share on Twitter because everyone else also shares on Twitter. But does it drive traffic or revenue? I suspect that it has been dropping over the years. But it’s now a lot more confusing. Will the usage of Twitter rise once Elon Musk has finished whatever he calls this period of time? Or will it continue to flounder? It’s hard to say.

And it’s not just Twitter. Meta (Facebook) announced two weeks ago that it was letting go of 11,000 people. According to NiemanLab:

The Meta Journalism Project Accelerator’s David Grant, a program manager, and Dorrine Mendoza, who led local news partnerships for the platform, were both laid off. Other journalism-adjacent positions eliminated include the head of news partnerships for South East Asia, a program manager for news, two program managers for news integrity, and multiple news communications jobs.

This is only the next step in Facebook’s plan to minimize news on its platform. According to NiemanLab:

But things really ramped up after the election. Facebook traffic to publishers began declining rapidly; in just 16 months, Slate’s Facebook traffic dropped from 28 million to 3.6 million. Publishers started citing “unreliable” Facebook traffic when they announced layoffs. Some more Facebook-reliant operations shut down altogether. A Facebook exec told publishers directly: “We are not interested in talking to you about your traffic…That is the old world and there is no going back.”

Publishers just weren’t that interesting to the platforms. It makes sense. To properly monetize content, publishers needed to get the traffic from the platforms onto their owned and operated. But this ran counter to what Facebook wanted because it meant users were leaving its platform. An ad business was competing with another ad business.

Even news aggregators are struggling to be as helpful to publishers as they used to be. According to Digiday:

Traffic driven by news aggregators — as a percent of total traffic referred by social, search and links — has gone down from from 18-20% in 2020 to about 14% in 2022, according to Chartbeat data, which analyzed aggregators including Apple News, Google News, SmartNews, Yahoo News, News360, Newsbreak, Flipboard, Upday, MSN, Feedly, NewsNow, Newzit, Drudge Report, Press Explorer, Inoreader, Ground News and Pocket. 

This is obviously more of a user interest problem than anything, but even here, publishers cannot depend on them like we used to. It’s just not as effective a source of traffic.

And please, for the love of everything, do not get me started on Mastodon. This is not going to become a new source of traffic for anyone.

A few tropes have come up throughout the three years I have been writing A Media Operator. And I want to reiterate another one today: traffic from these platforms will never completely stop, but you will never be in control of it, and their dependability will ebb and flow.

Whether we’re talking about social, SEO, or aggregators, that’s true. However, as much as we may try, we do not control what goes into traffic driving to our sites. Therefore, we should spend less time trying to game these platforms and more time doing whatever we can to convert these users to our owned and operated properties.

This is why I have long believed every media company should start as a newsletter. From the beginning, you are building something you control. While we can’t control if platforms change their inbox strategies—or Apple introducing MPP—the simple fact that we can push content gives us a significant leg up. Of course, blasting out a tweet doesn’t guarantee anyone can see it. And good luck if you think Facebook will send you traffic these days.

The game must be converting the traffic into an owned audience. I love SEO. It’s where I got my start. But I’m not deluded into thinking I can depend on Google forever. Keyword interest changes and upstarts attempt to capture the top positioning. But if I convert users from Google into an owned audience, I become less reliant as time goes on.

I started this by saying we couldn’t depend on platforms anymore. Maybe we never could. But for a solid decade, many media operators thought they could build a sustainable business on the backs of the platforms. Those days are dying. Owned audiences are the future like they always should have been.

Paid subscribers are more likely to subscribe to more

One of the criticisms I’ve received about an advertising business is that it’s less predictable than subscriptions. However, the same economic climate that might make advertisers pull back is also one that might have consumers rethinking their subscriptions.

According to Toolkits:

Recent research we conducted in partnership with National Research Group found that 19% of U.S. consumers are currently subscribed to at least one digital publication. Among that group, 29% said they plan to cancel subscriptions by the end of the year, while a smaller portion (27%) expect their subscription tally to increase.

The research also found that the more subscriptions people hold, the more they want: Among respondents who hold five or more subscriptions, 44% said they plan to add more by year’s end. By contrast, 30% of respondents with two to five subscriptions said they plan to add more, dipping to just 14% for those who currently subscribe to a single publication.

Both of these data points are indeed very interesting. First, contraction is common sense. People are feeling the pinch of losing their jobs and inflation. Paying for content becomes a lower priority compared to feeding the family.

However, I find the second paragraph even more impactful: 44% plan to add more by year’s end for users with five or more subscriptions.

While not apples to apples, we found something similar at Morning Brew. As users subscribed to more newsletters, they became more engaged with all of them. It ran counter to our hypothesis that more emails would overwhelm. On the contrary, people who sought out more engaged with more content.

It’s a potentially similar scenario with these paying subscribers. As users get used to paying for content, converting them to pay for more content becomes easier.

But how does this help publishers? There are two ways. First, if you can create a persona of the user likely to pay for content, you can become smarter with your marketing. Second, as you start creating new products, you might be able to convince them to pay more for the bundle. For example, this is how The New York Times is attempting to grow its subscription revenue.

But, bringing it back to the first point, no business model is perfect when economic times are rough. Whether it’s advertisers or consumers pulling spending, publishers still make less money.

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