2016 Year in Preview: The year publishers get smarter about platforms

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In November, Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp made headlines when he called Apple News a disappointment. A month in, the tech giant’s news aggregation app hadn’t lived up to its ad revenue promise.

It was a turning point for publishers in their relationship with the big tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Snapchat, and a sign of what’s to come. If 2015 was the year the publishers pushed caution aside and went all in on platforms, 2016 will be about tension and refinement.

The platforms need publishers’ content to keep users engaged, and keep advertisers paying to reach them, and the premium publishers know their content has value. So look for the platforms to make more concessions, as Facebook has been considering changes to ads on Instant Articles after constraints made it hard for publishers to sell ads. Snapchat is making it easier for publishers to get their Snapchat articles discovered outside of the closed messaging app.

Look for publishers to fine-tune their distribution approaches as they see where investment is paying off, too. Publishing on platforms will move from the shiny-object phase into the realm of hard-headed business decisions. Publishers will begin to get choosier — and to drive a harder bargain with platforms.

“It’s not a huge resource suck, but you can’t do everything at once,” Andrew Morse, GM of CNN Digital, recently said in explaining why CNN prioritized getting the publisher on Snapchat ahead of Facebook Instant Articles. “You have to phase things.”

The 2015 platform push started with Snapchat launching Discover, a news section populated by customized articles and videos from the likes of CNN, People and Comedy Central. Facebook got top-tier publishers including The New York Times and National Geographic to upload their articles directly to its app through its fast-loading Instant Articles feature. Google and Twitter responded with their own fast-articles tool, AMP, with The Washington Post, Vox Media and many others on board.

In their desire to pull in as many readers and keep them there as long as possible, the platforms need content people want to read, so they’ve courted the publishers.

The partnerships haven’t been without benefits to the publishers. Publishers are selling real ads in Snapchat, and they’re getting the chance to get in front of the app’s young users. Facebook Instant Articles have been getting more engagement than the articles publishers upload to Facebook’s news feed the old-fashioned way. And Apple News — well, you can’t win ’em all.

But the platforms’ ways and motives are mysterious and unknowable, which makes the relationship uneasy at best. Google and Facebook would fiddle with their dials and the traffic they’d send to publishers would disappear without warning, as it did with Facebook this year, resulting in traffic to top publishers falling 32 percent.

“The long-term sustainability and scalability of the revenue models of these partnerships is not clear to publishers, but I don’t think it has ever been in other distribution means,” said Kunal Gupta, CEO of Polar, a native ad distribution platform. Publishers may talk about keeping audiences in their own ecosystem, but that hasn’t worked out so well. “The revenue model of running display ads on a publisher’s website is being attacked by ad blockers, viewability and fraud,” Gupta said. As long as users prefer the experience on the platforms, publishers will have to increasingly distribute their content there, he said.

So don’t look for any major changes — like the platforms driving traffic back to publishers or publishers revolting en masse. They’re not disciplined enough, said Vivian Schiller, an ex-NPR and NBC News executive and head of news at Twitter. “This shotgun marriage will likely endure, even if it will never be a union of equals.”

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