Embracing the Age of Distribution

Age of Distribution
Photo credit: Lindsey Reay

The Good Ole Days

When I was growing up as a kid, I’d come down to the kitchen every morning for breakfast, and a fresh copy of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal would be spread on the table. My dad would have retrieved them from the bottom of our driveway. By my first bite of cereal, he would already be halfway through section A of the Times.

I would dive right into the Sports section and start reading up on last night’s games. My favorite part was the Stats. I’d analyze box scores and league standings, with particular interest in the MLB and NBA. Back then, the Yankees were a dynasty and the Knicks were formidable, so there was plenty of quality New York sports content to sift through.

My mom worked a ton (God bless her), and did most of her reading in the evenings and over the weekend. She would stack previous editions of the NYT and WSJ in a basket next to her reading chair. Many times, the newspapers would pile up like a mountain. Then on a lazy Sunday, she’d read through the past month’s worth of news, all in one sitting.

Change Ahead

How times have changed in the world of journalism. All within the past fifteen years, thanks to technological advancements pioneered through the World Wide Web and mobile devices, media and news organizations have repeatedly seen their distribution models change drastically.

Historically, a news organization’s (not considering TV-focused news entities such as CNN) sole distribution model was delivered through a combination of print formats like newspapers and/or magazines. People like my parents would subscribe to papers such as the Times and/or the Journal, and cheerfully walk to the bottom of their driveway each morning to access content. And while you may still see the occasional print newspaper or magazine (and perhaps even purchase a copy), consumers now access news content almost exclusively through digital formats. To that end, my parents cancelled from print editions of the NYT and WSJ a few years ago, and they now access these reputable news sources through digital mediums (mainly desktops & laptops).

The evolution of digital publishing (at least for this post’s context) began with the advent of the newspaper’s website, such as nytimes.com. To this day, nytimes.com serves as a digital rendition (or homepage) of the traditional print newspaper. Building a well-performing and aesthetically-pleasing website is no easy task. It requires hiring a team of engineers and developers to implement complex technologies like content management systems, advertising solutions, paywalls, etc..

Legacy publishers must have felt relieved once they had their websites functioning properly. Instead of walking down the driveway, readers could now instantly access their newspapers’ content on their computers, and find more news and stories than they could possibly consume. The best part of this was that publishers could serve ads seemingly everywhere on the site; below, beside and inside news articles. Eventually, the article itself became the advertisement (see: native advertising).

Enter: Mobile and Social

Then came Steve Jobs’ iPhone, and the mass adoption of mobile devices (or “smartphones” as we used to call them), which flipped the media world upside down (yet again). Websites that performed well on desktops and laptops didn’t perform well on mobile devices. So again, the engineers were tasked with saving their company’s distribution model, and soon began delivering mobile-responsive websites. 

Meanwhile, social media platforms were exploding in popularity. Facebook, which started as a network for college students, quickly ballooned into a global network with over 1.6 billion monthly active users. And while users continue to access Facebook (and other social networks like Twitter) via desktop, the key area of user growth (especially for Facebook) has been through mobile. As of Q4 2015, of Facebook’s 1.59 billion monthly active users, 1.31 billion users access via mobile.

With the massive growth of social media came a resulting shift in the publisher’s distribution model. Talk to any digital publisher these days, and they’ll quickly acknowledge that social media networks (primarily Facebook, by a landslide) has in effect become the modern homepage. Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla that has upended journalism and digital media. Writes Emily Bell, Director for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, Facebook is eating the world.

As a result, Facebook has emerged as the dominant platform in terms of publisher referral traffic. Algorithms engineered by Silicon Valley behemoths now dictate what content users will see, with little action required from the end-user. Further, over the past few months, Facebook has unleashed Instant Articles, a mobile-only, article format that is native to their all-powerful mobile app. So when a publisher posts an Instant Article that NYT posts to Facebook, the user never leaves Facebook’s walled garden to visit the article page on nytimes.com, but rather consumes the content within the app. Not only is Facebook orchestrating their content’s delivery to users through their News Feed, they’re also hosting the publisher’s content. This part terrifies publishers, who in effect are no longer managing their largest distribution channel.

Beyond Facebook, there’s a slew of additional distribution channels that publishers are now producing content for, in an effort to reach untapped audiences. Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Vine, Medium and Tumblr are the top platforms, each of which presents unique opportunities and challenges. Which brings us to the paramount challenge that publishers face today: how to embrace, execute, and monetize a mobile-first, cross-channel distribution model.

The Distributed Publishing Model

Fast Company recently published a feature on Jonah Peretti and BuzzFeed’s progressive, cross-platform distribution model. BuzzFeed has helped pioneer this model, where they create and publish unique content across a multitude of channels. While BuzzFeed’s homepage, buzzfeed.com, continues to attract north of 80M monthly unique visitors, their editorial efforts are now directed nearly everywhere except their website, with “as much as 75% of BuzzFeed’s content is now published somewhere else.” That “somewhere else” includes 30+ global platform, ranging from their dozens of Facebook pages (BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed Animals, Tasty, etc.) to platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, just to name the top destinations.

For legacy publishers that have kept the lights on by producing article-based content that is monetized through their website, the fully-distributed model may be too radical for many to embrace, at least for now. It requires not only a significant investment in their editorial teams, but also as a giant leap of faith that platforms like Facebook will look out for publishers’ interests.

The most important challenge for publishers is monetization. Should they choose to create and natively distribute content to formats such as Instant Articles, Instagram or Snapchat, is there a clear path to monetize? With a single tweak in Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, a publisher that becomes overly-reliant on monetization through Instant Articles, may suddenly find themselves with little traffic to monetize.

The Wall Street Journal now published natively to their owned Snapchat channel, in a well-calculated effort to capture the attention of a millennial audience that may not turn to WSJ for their news (paywall issues aside). WSJ does currently serve ads within Snapchat, so there is a direction towards scalable monetization.

Media upstart NowThis takes the distributed model to the extreme, where they don’t publish any content to a website, but rather distribute short-form videos natively across  Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Kik, YouTube, Instagram, Vine and Snapchat. Trumpeting the future of distributed content, NowThis’ Chairman Kenneth Lerer is placing his bets on distributed, short-form video content:

“Short-form social video is the sweet spot of the digital content industry and NowThis sits as one of the leaders of the distributed video content model. With Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and others leading the way, video content is the future of the digital content business.”

An Unclear Future for Publishers

As the digital media landscape evolves into an Age of Distribution, expect publishers to now focus heavily on adapting their brand (and business) to the distributed model. There are hundreds of variables to master in the distribution game, with endless nuances and updates across editorial, monetization, tracking, and measurement. By enacting a creative and iterative approach, publishers of all sizes can adapt the model that progressive, new media companies like BuzzFeed and NowThis have so successfully pioneered.

On one hand, while it’s exciting to watch the distributed model scale across platforms, it remains unclear as to what the ramifications will be for the digital media industry at large. Facebook is making a fortune by keeping users within their walled garden, then all but forcing publishers and brands to pay for your attention. At this rate, it’s may just be a matter of time before the economic realities of operating an online website become unsustainable. Says Bell, predicting a near-apocalyptic digital media landscape:

“The temptation for publishers to go “all in” on distributed platforms, and just start creating journalism and stories that work on the social Web, is getting stronger. I can imagine we will see news companies totally abandoning production capacity, technology capacity, and even advertising departments, and delegating it all to third-party platforms in an attempt to stay afloat… Even maintaining a website could be abandoned in favor of hyperdistribution.”

Indeed, massive change has happened within digital media, and will continue to come quickly. The age of distribution is here to stay. New media companies like BuzzFeed and NowThis have helped build the model, and are setting the bar high. Now we watch the imitators flock in waves, while those who are too slow – or unwilling – to adapt, will falter and crumble.

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