Publishers are constantly struggling to find audience and prominence in our increasingly digital world. As consumer usage of social networks and their preference to receive news via friends or contacts across social media increases, this puts publishers in the position of continually finding ways to stay in front of their audiences via these media.
This makes the major social networks heavy hitters in the publishing world, whether they intended that or not. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and many others have found unique ways to address this, and capitalize on their new place as news sources.
Facebook has tried several things, including its Instant Articles feature which, while initially rolled out to only nine publishers, is now available to all publishers. Instant Articles provide an opportunity for the media industry to publish directly to Facebook, and many, such as Gawker's CEO Nick Denton, have not only embraced it, but said it's preferable to any current alternatives. Facebook also recently started working with several news companies to produce live-streaming videos.
In early June, however, a series of changes were started that have not been received so well from publishers. Facebook made an announcement that it was planning continued changes to its algorithm, and that this would reduce the amount of links to content sites that would show in the news feed. Instead, content posts from individual users such as friends and family will be increasingly prioritized.
News and content sites have benefited greatly from shares on social media, as many receive a majority of traffic from Facebook or Twitter, as well as some other networks. So any change to the visibility that their posts will receive on a network as large as Facebook has large implications. All marketers have been feeling these changes from Facebook over the last several years, but this most recent change may have the greatest impact.
Publishers are challenged because this problem is not going to simply go away. Trends in behavior and usage of the internet seem to be continually shifting away from paying for news and content in general. Obviously, there are notable exceptions to this, but they are generally the exception, not the rule.
In addition, Facebook is in a constant battle to increase the amount of native content it has, and this move, as well as its Instant Articles feature, aims to reduce the amount of third party links and off-site clicks the network has on a daily basis.
It seems that there is already a noticeable decline in exposure for content sites in Facebook users' news feeds. For example, SocialFlow recently analyzed the reach of publisher stories, and found that they had already dropped 42 percent. This decline in reach may fluctuate over time as Facebook makes adjustments, but no past trends seem to point to it making major upward gains at any point. If anything, organic reach for all marketers (not just publishers) seems set to continually decrease.
Facebook's explanation and rationale make this sound more consumer-driven, which means the change is to make sure that the social network does not simply exist as a content distribution platform. Instead, its primary purpose is to be a tool to connect people with each other. While this may be the major reason, it's no coincidence that these changes also are going to affect the cost of advertising on the platform.
These changes have already sent waves of frustration through the news industry, including The New York Times, which rightfully point out that, whether Facebook's philosophy positions it as a news channel or not, that is the role it has come to play.
Why this doesn't work for publishers
While Instant Articles can be a good thing, and is obviously well-regarded by some, the idea of Facebook wanting to "own" all of its content is not a good thing for publishers. Even the shared revenue model it has built in takes money away from those creating content.
While smaller publishers may switch to a model that more closely resembles a non-profit, this is not optimal for large publications or content creators. Facebook is essentially demanding that publishers adopt their platform or pay like any other brand that wants its content seen.
Either way, this doesn't seem to be anything that will change any time soon. Publishers need to deal with these changes and have a plan to continue to roll with new changes as they occur.
What do publishers do?
While Facebook's changes were announced already, the modifications will continue to roll out over time, so we may not have seen the full extent of their impact just yet.
Simply waiting for Facebook to fade in usage and popularity isn't really an option. While social media habits ebb and flow over time, it's clear that Facebook isn't going anywhere anytime soon, with even 70 percent of Gen Z using it in 2016.
Embracing Instant Articles is one way to deal with this. Since Facebook seems more likely to embrace native content than non-native third party links, it stands to reason that using this platform gives publishers a better chance of getting their content seen. Also, because Facebook has a revenue stream through an advertising share with publishers who sell advertising through Facebook, it also means that Instant Articles may be a viable platform for a while.
Eventually, publishers will also begin to cave and start to pay to get more traffic, especially if they continue to rely on social networks for their primary source of traffic. While this may sound like a problem that only relates to publishers, keep in mind that when there is suddenly an influx of publishers paying for advertising, this will drive up the costs for everyone.
Beyond Facebook, this may also open opportunities for other networks like Twitter to begin to capitalize on this change. While Twitter is having its own struggles with everything from user growth to stock prices, there could be a chance for the network to offer an alternative to publishers. After all, Twitter is still the de facto place to get real-time news according to many.
As Facebook continually shifts and changes its algorithms, publishers will need to continue to modify their approaches. While the full extent of the algorithm changes have yet to be seen, it's clear that content creators will need to behave more like brands in order to have their links be seen, and to drive the traffic they need.
We also know that while initial reactions to any change on Facebook are almost always negative, new opportunities may arise for publishers as time goes on. In the meantime, Facebook doesn't seem to be working well for publishers.