The recent merger of 17-month-old Recode with Vox Media, owners of The Verge, coupled with the recent demise of GigaOm, another respected tech industry publication, raises the question of survival for independent publications with niche audiences. In actuality, the idea of trade industry networks that support niche publications isn’t new; print publications long ago combined into industry networks the size of IDG or AdvancePublications. Perhaps the little guy can’t survive alone.
In fact, Vox Media itself, which is venture-funded, may end up being part of Comcast, which was an investor in both Recode and Vox.
The push toward larger and larger digital media networks is driven by the changing vagaries of the advertising market. This year alone publishers have had to re-design their sites for viewability as large marketing budgets like those of GroupM began to insist on 100% viewability as a metric. Just as publishers got slightly comfortable with the concept of being paid only for viewable impressions rather than impressions served, another change came over the horizon: Facebook’s trial with nine publishers who will publish directly to the Facebook site rather than on their own. This product, called Instant Articles by Facebook, is being tested by sites that include Buzzfeed, NBC News, Atlantic, the New York Times, and National Geographic.
On the face of it, giving up traffic to Facebook seems counterproductive or at least counterintuitive. However, if you think about the fact that Facebook and Google already control 80% of the digital advertising dollars, you can see why a publisher might consider it, especially in the beginning when publishers are being allowed to keep all of the ad revenue they generate on Facebook’s site. No one, by the way, thinks this will last.
The best analysis of why publishing on Facebook was inevitable for even the biggest independent publishers is given by Newsosaur:
Superior mobile prowess.In addition to the sheer size of its audience, Facebook has mastered the art and science of mobile publishing better than almost anyone. In the first quarter of this year, the company reported, 65% of its traffic and 73% of its ad revenues came from such highly optimized mobile sites as its Paper app.
Superior audience engagement. Based on the amount of time people spend on Facebook, it is fair to say its users are considerably more passionate about the service than the visitors to a typical news site. According to Alexa.Com, the average user spends 18.4 minutes per day on Facebook, as compared with 9.5 minutes at the New York Times, 6.4 minutes at NBC News and 5.4 minutes at BuzzFeed.
Superior customer data.Because enthusiastic users frequently and liberally update the site with a plethora of personal data, Facebook knows more intimate and accurate details about more people than any company in the world. The information is updated dynamically in real time, as people report everything from their favorite new song to the jeans they want to buy to the fact they will have a baby in six months.
Superior ad intelligence.Facebook enables advertisers to target messages with heretofore unprecedented precision, thanks not only to the rich information supplied by users but also by analyzing information captured from the friends in their networks. The ad-intel is supplemented with location data acquired from Facebook’s popular mobile services.
Superior content targeting. In the same way data is used to target commercial messages, Facebook has the capability to match the right content with the right user by monitoring her searches and media consumption. If Facebook sees that someone likes cooking Italian food, it can slip relevant recipes from the NYT food page into her news feed, paired conveniently with an ad for a pasta maker. When Facebook recognizes that a bride is planning a honeymoon in Florida, it can send her travel videos embedded with customized hotel offers.
The Newsosaur blog is written by Alan Mutter, a former journalist, editor, and CEO of several tech startups, who now serves as a consultant to the media industry. Because of his position at the intersection of media and technology, he probably has the best perspective on what’s ahead for publishers — even the Buzzfeeds of the world.