November 11, 2014 Last Updated 10:53 am

Tuesday column: News media distribution – the fall of brands and rise of social

Media need to adopt a multi-channel distribution, analyze consumption data, and fine-tune their strategy, allocating more resources to best-performing channels

According to the latest digital news report published by the Reuters Institute, at the beginning of 2014 about 50% of readers still accessed news via individual brands. I think this percentage will halve in the next three years because of modest brand loyalty and powerful competitive strategies.

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Brand loyalty: Although a recent report by Pew Research Center found that legacy media still has a lead over pure digital players in terms of recognition and trust, the digital environment has clearly eroded brand loyalty. Earlier this year a report by Parse.ly stated that on average only 11% of readers return to a news site within 30 days. This number matters because, at a time when information is all too readily available, fewer and fewer non-loyal readers will access news sites directly.

2e4d4fbCompetitive strategies: The channels that will drive distribution provide readers with the best relevancy and personalisation; in other words, matching users’ preferences with the right type of content. While legacy brands know their content better than anyone else, search engines, social networks and even aggregators capture more and more readers’ attention because they know their audience better (eg through personal data, favourites, cookies etc) and pick stories from a wide variety of non-proprietary content.

Other factors, such as the increasing use of mobile devices which favour social media and aggregators, as well as the ageing of the first digital generations, will contribute to this trend. A terrific article recently published by The New York Times talks about how Facebook is advancing “a fundamental change in how people consume journalism”, continuing a trend which started years ago with the rise of search engines – “the great unbundling”. In other words, publishers now predominantly reach readers through individual pieces rather than complete editions of newspapers or magazines.

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What does this mean for brands? Distribution strategies should depend on the type of media, with one big distinction based on the time sensitivity of news. This is because social media and aggregators generate an overwhelming majority of page views only for a limited period of time after an article is added to their feeds.

Digital newspapers, which feature time-sensitive news, need to strengthen their social exposure, working extremely hard on referral programmes and helping news feeds break down their content as accurately as possible. More disruptively, traditional brands could integrate aggregation features into their product, leveraging their highest competence – the ability to curate news.

At the other end, media brands with lifestyle or seasonal content, which has a longer shelf life, should focus more on optimising their content for search engines because most of their non-loyal readers will come from the likes of Google, Yandex and Baidu.

All media need to adopt a multi-channel distribution, analyse consumption data and fine-tune their strategy, allocating more resources to best-performing channels. Converting new readers into subscribers is the ultimate goal because they are the ones who will visit repeatedly and spend three times more time on site than non-subscribers. Plus, as a side benefit, individual brands would also reduce their dependency on external distribution providers.

Davide Ruggiero is a former entrepreneur with a management consulting background. When he is not deeply engaged in the digital media industry he can often be found playing with his two kids or skiing off-piste.

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