Did news publishers make a mistake in adopting “platforms” and specifically Facebook in a big way in the first place? I helped lead a major, prioritized Facebook push at a previous employer, and my answer is “no.” Drawing that conclusion is taking away the wrong lesson from the experience. Here’s why.
In the wake of Facebook’s announcements of changes to its focus and algorithms, we are now hearing accounts of precipitous drop-offs in Facebook referral traffic from publishers. It seems no one is immune, although some are getting hit harder than others, and we don’t know for how long this will continue (previous tweaks have seen subsequent traffic rebounds). But it does feel like something fundamental has shifted in the relationship between Facebook and news publishers.
Did news publishers make a mistake in embracing “platforms” and specifically Facebook in a big way in the first place? I helped lead a major, prioritized Facebook push at a previous employer, and my answer is “no.” Drawing that conclusion is taking away the wrong lesson from the experience. Facebook was a rising tide at that time more than five years ago, and five years of high visibility and reach, audience engagement, referral traffic … and cross-promoted TV tune-in was an opportunity that could not — and should not — have been ignored.
Even on the revenue side, while direct Facebook monetization was difficult, a lot of revenue was realized from monetizing the referral traffic it generated. Five years in the digital age is 30 years in analog/legacy media time, and publishers have to be nimble enough to catch these waves.
So no, the strategic mistake was not in taking full advantage of everything Facebook had to offer, the mistake was doing that instead of other things that would comprise a holistic strategy for this non-linear, data-driven and interactive multimedia era.
For example, failing to invest in owned platforms in a way that would capture users arriving from Facebook and engaging them (more engagement per visit, mechanisms to drive repeat visits, etc.). As Troy Young of Hearst put it recently: “Facebook doesn’t owe [you] anything,” and it never has. We did this to ourselves.
For most publishers, especially on the local front, we made sporadic or half-hearted efforts at best. We failed to lay a foundation that could support us without the help of Facebook and other platforms. Facebook employed a simple playbook for engaging users via likes and commenting that we were happy to cede to them and didn’t even try to replicate on our own platforms.
Now we are hearing of news publishers pivoting focus from Facebook to YouTube, or even taking another look at Pinterest. Great, but those are tactics, not strategy.
A strategy would encompass original multimedia content acquisition and production tailored to various distribution outlets and audiences. It would include a high prioritization on user data acquisition and applications and CRM.
And on the revenue side, developing multiple revenue streams to buttress ad sales, and within ad sales, multiple products.
Designing and executing a coherent strategy for this environment is hard … but not impossible. The few companies that took this stuff more seriously five years ago are five years closer to the inflection point than those who didn’t.
A large, robust first-party database to inform all aspects of your business from programming, to promotion to sales cannot be pulled together overnight. It’s not too late but it is past time to develop not a “digital strategy,” but an enterprise-level strategy.
Identify all the pieces, invest in them and don’t expect instant ROI. Also understand that content, audience engagement, first-party data and its applications, full-spectrum distribution and multi-pronged revenue streams are inter-locking elements of a strategy that feed off of each other and need sustained commitments to growth.
The investment that should have been made, and needs to be made, was not just money. It’s also time. And it’s expertise — staffing. The brutal truth is, digital media is a lot more complicated than legacy media. It was more complicated five years ago, and exponentially more so now.
Many of the core functions required are not organizationally supported at legacy outlets, or are being performed by staffers with multiple responsibilities where highly specialized expertise and focus are mandatory. Your digital lead understands this — they need support now from CEOs and CFOs.
I have written here before (http://www.netnewscheck.com/article/51079/how-to-build-your-digitalage-newsroom) that with a zero-based approach to fiscal planning, the dollar cost of this enterprise transformation is likely not nearly as high as it might seem, but it requires a thorough bottom-up approach.
Done smartly and with the right leaders in place, positive ROI doesn’t have to take a long time — but the true inflection point will. Deal with it and realize that the longer you wait, the more complicated and more expensive it will become.
If you want a “digital” strategy that pays off with a major impact on your overall P&L in five years, you must start yesterday. Dabbling in one-off initiatives or chasing the latest shiny objects at the expense of core objectives — or in others words, failing to have a strategy — is not just a recipe for failure anymore. It is a recipe for disaster.
Ron Stitt is an executive in residence at Progress a Partners and a strategic adviser to companies in the media, digital media and martech sectors.