March 25, 2015 Last Updated 10:15 am

Facebook just the latest digital venture to lure publishers with their audiences

Contrary to claims in the NYT, publishers have often been willing to trade content in exchange for added audience reach and the promise of incremental ad dollars

The mosquito season will be upon us here in flyover country and it will be time for me to put out my bug zapper, plug it in, and enjoy a summer of popping sounds as the little critters just can’t help themselves be attracted to the bright, shiny light.

It is, it feels to me, much like media companies and social networks like Facebook.

Word is that The New York Times and other media outlets are attracted to Facebook’s offer to host their content, sell the advertising around that content, and eventually send along a few dollars in compensation. That bright, shiny light is, of course, Facebook’s massive audience and the lure of incremental dollars with few costs attached.

bugzapper-300“Such a plan would represent a leap of faith for news organizations accustomed to keeping their readers within their own ecosystems, as well as accumulating valuable data on them,” the Times own story on the move states.

But actually nothing could be further from the truth. Newspapers and magazines have been lured by third party distribution such as this for a long time – think “Flipboard” or other apps. And the web itself was, at first, just another distribution channel as most websites were launched back in the day when analytics were rare, and publishers just put their content up online for free, lucky to get any information at all on who was reading their stories, where they came from, etc.

The late David Carr also remembered previous efforts to attract publishers when he broke the news in the NYT of Facebook’s charm tour.

“It reminds me very much of those times when other digital behemoths tried to persuade content providers into letting them host the publishers’ content,” Carr wrote in October. “In the early days, when AOL was dominant, the service preyed on the publishers’ fear that if they didn’t put their content inside the walled garden of AOL, their content would be invisible. That strategy benefited AOL in the short run, but no one prospered in the long run.”

So, why do it? What is the attraction?

“Facebook has become a place to see and discover interesting things via our peers. However, those interesting things have always had to originate from somewhere outside of the Facebook environment” said Ken Wisnefski, CEO of the internet marketer, WebiMax. “By originating that influential content on Facebook itself, the social platform eliminates, by some degree, the need for its users to go searching anywhere else for content.”

Many publishers still have a problem understanding that different mediums require different products. For the NYT, their goal is to promote the NYT brand, on every medium. Rather than create new brands that fit the requirements of the new mediums, they want the old brand to be “extended”. Brand extension remains a popular buzzword for legacy media companies, a term that always makes me cringe.

Social networks like Facebook, on the other hand, are not an old brands that figured out the web, they are relatively new brands, created specifically to succeed in a new environment.

Facebook-Paper-App-150John Battle asks some good questions about the Facebook proposition, such as “Do you have full and unfettered access to reader data?” and “Do you have control over your core product, so you can craft your reader’s experience as an expression of your brand?”

Jeff Jarvis, on his BuzzMachine website, says it is all about data. “I have one bit of advice: Don’t do it without the data, people.”

But I would like to come at it from an advertiser’s point of view. Do I need to spend my ad dollars on the NYT website when I know that I am reaching NYT readers through my Facebook buy? In fact, doesn’t this significantly make my ad scheduling easier by allowing me to eliminate a number of buys for one centralized buy?

Many media outlets today get surprised in sales calls when they try and sell advertiser directly. They open up their laptop to show the advertiser their website and find (to their horror) that the advertiser is already on their site, but through Google.

Publishers place Google ads on their site for the incremental dollars Google sends their way, even though Google’s own sales team is selling ads to many of the same customers the media brand is approaching, but at few lower prices.

TNM does this, too. Several ad spots here are taken up by Google who deliver digital publishing ads occasionally (as well as ads for Russian dating services and the occasional underwear ad – don’t ask me why). Is it worth it for the publisher? It is for TNM because we don’t have a sales team (though if you’d like to represent TNM and App Publisher we’re open to talking to you). But is it worth it for the larger publisher? Are the few dollars that come in worth the loss of potential business from direct sales? Most say “Yes”.

Ben Thompson thinks that Facebook offers publishers a solution, a lifeline in his words, to their mobile advertising problems.

“I believe the vast majority of publications, particular newspapers and older online-only outfits, are in serious trouble on mobile,” Thompson writes on his Stratechery website. “Not only does their chosen business model (display ads) monetize incredibly poorly, but the incentives that model creates work against those sites becoming destinations capable of supporting effective native advertising.”

Publishers created the Google monster, just as they created Flipboard. They probably can’t be blamed (or credited) with the rise of Facebook, but whether becoming just another newsroom for the social network will be a good move is debatable.

But Facebook will get its media partners. Make no mistake about it. There will be media companies that will sign up, lured by the bright, shiny lights of the billions of Facebook users out there – and maybe the terms of the deals will work for those who sign up.

But I wonder if they think their situation on Facebook will be any different than it is on the web itself, or in Google’s search engine. We’ll soon see, as there is simply no way to avoid being attracted to the deal Facebook is offering. (Zap.)

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