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When word first leaked that Facebook was approaching publishers to put content directly on the platform, many were skeptical. There were the usual fears of loss of control and uncertain prospects for monetization.
And, to be fair, many of those questions remain unanswered. But as Facebook, Google and Snapchat have moved content directly on their platforms, publishers like BuzzFeed and Bleacher Report have eagerly jumped at the chance of reaching audiences directly on the platforms where they’re spending the most time.
“2016 is the year that, as a publisher, if you’re not embracing the content-everywhere approach and you’re not coming up with a way to have conversations with advertisers about how you’re going to bake their brands in content on these platforms, 2017 is going to roll around and you’ll be in trouble,” he said. “We are OK sacrificing some of those more traditional audience metrics this year in order to build a strategy that we know is way healthier for the brand, way healthier for our revenue down the road.”
Rory Brown was employee 12 at sports publishing upstart Bleacher Report. The company is now over 300 people and a cornerstone piece of Turner’s digital media strategy.
Bleacher Report was ahead of the game on audience development.
Bleacher Report did not grow without its share of critics. Some bemoaned the site’s reliance on aggregation and mastery of the dark arts of search-engine optimization. What they missed, Brown said, is that Bleacher Report was focused not just on producing content but on getting it to audiences, a basic strategy that many publishers were late to adopt.
“Five years ago, that was search, the main pipeline to get people to your site,” he said. “A big misconception was that we were creating 25 articles a day about LeBron James when we were really focused on the long-tail traffic. It’s a supply-and-demand game: We were noticing in October, for the Cleveland Browns, folks were interested in draft predictions in April. We created content then around the draft.”
Platforms require hedging
The knock on distributed strategy is publishers can become over-reliant on a platform. That’s why Bleacher Report has a “hedging” strategy of not over-emphasizing one platform too much. That can mean bringing in traffic through search, social and apps but also going out to platforms.
“We don’t go all-in on one audience channel,” Brown said. “We like to hedge. It’s smart from a business perspective. You want to own as much of your audience as possible, but you also have to realize the audience will come from a number of different channels.”
Bleacher Report wants a “managing editor” for each platform.
Not all platforms are created equal. Bleacher Report is in the midst of having its editorial leaders come up with a “mission statement” for each platform and has identified a “managing editor” assigned to specific platforms like Instagram. On Instagram, users like to be wowed. On Twitter, people want breaking news — with a healthy dose of snark, Brown said.
“If we can differentiate those platform experiences in the right way, we can start to craft content experiences that are maybe built for the same person, but they’re in a different mindset depending on the platform they’re on.”
Bleacher Report’s app has been downloaded 15 million times.
Compared to many publishers, Bleacher Report made an early bet on mobile, seeing its audience shift in that direction. That has allowed it to amass 15 million downloads of its Team Streams app. Its strategy relied on converting search traffic to email newsletters and then to the app, Brown said.
“The current media wars are not going to be won on direct audience numbers,” he said. “Brand is the big winner. We’ve got to reach as many people as we possibly can, and the best way to do that is creating content that might live on Bleacher Report but lives in a number of places as well.”
Facebook is not about referral traffic anymore.
Facebook looms large for all publishers. Bleacher Report is no longer focused on getting traffic back from Facebook, however. Instead, it is using Facebook to build up its video distribution — it’s more important for video than YouTube, Brown said — and more through Instant Articles.
“We’re doing a number of things that get our content in front of as many people as possible and is easy to watch, easy to read,” Brown said.
Social interactions are the new uniques.
The relevance of a site’s comScore numbers is dwindling, Brown believes. With publishers focused on pushing content directly on platforms, how many people land on a destination site is often not the most important barometer of success. Instead, Bleacher Report is tracking social interactions: views, likes and shares.
“We compare ourselves not just to other sports publishers but to all publishers,” he said. “We’re very interested to see how Bleacher Report compares to Fox News during the election cycle. At the end of the day, we’re competing for time, and we’re not just competing for time with ESPN.”