June 3, 2016 Last Updated 2:06 pm

Obstacles to building successful online media properties do not go away as web traffic grows

Simply driving more online traffic won’t equate to more revenue when the value of the reader has falle due to the rise of comment trolls, and social media hate speech

The last time I agreed to be on a panel at an industry event (many moons ago), the topic was the secret to success online, or something like that. The panel was at a meeting being held in downtown Chicago and was held back when the magazine trade associations actually encouraged editors and sales professionals to get involved in the industry.

There were four or five of us on the panel and I listened as each of the other panelists gave their five minute introductory speech, which would then be followed by a Q&A. When it was my turn I smiled and said that native online publishers have known about what it takes to succeed online almost from day one, it was what made AOL so successful in the early days, and why they built their product around communities, forums, email.

The secret to success online is building online communities. Easy peasy.

How do you build an online community? OK, that was the hard part… and remains the hard part.

An online community is not defined by the total number of people who use a website or a section of it. It is a nebulous thing, one that is hard to define, and sometimes hard to see even when it exists. But there are good examples of it. Look at the SB Nation team blogs, for instance. Those are real communities of readers.

This subject came to mind this morning while reading a story on The Guardian website: Universe is expanding up to 9% faster than we thought, say scientists.

As I write this there are now exactly 1,500 comments on the story – a story that one might expect to have a dozen or less. Are Guardian readers so interested in science that they all flock to such a story?

Here are the last few comments that have been posted:

  • What complicated crap where being told**it’s worse than Cameron’s rubbish??
  • It’s not that the universe is expanding faster, our clocks are just running slower because our galaxy is falling into a really big black hole.
  • Peter’s Denial
  • See, we should have funded NASA in order to get to Alpha Centauri long ago. Now the darn thing is 9% farther away AND zooming away even faster than that egg head Einstein said. How are we going to be Star Children now?! Thanks Obama.

Anyone actually wanting to comment on the story knows their comment will get lost in the sea of trolls. Nonetheless, The Guardian, which adheres to a philosophy of the open web, keeps their stories open to all comers on the theory that the key to monetization online is larger and larger audiences.

I get it, and am sympathetic. But their own P&L shows that they are wrong.

Maybe it is because I used to work in B2B publishing for many years that I am skeptical of equating larger audiences with larger revenue. In B2B we know that it is the quality of the audience that trumps the quantity. We easily would steal advertising from larger competitors by proving that our audience was the advertiser’s target audience, and that the competition had so many readers that were not their customers that the advertiser was overpaying when they advertised elsewhere.**

Then we would undercut the larger competitors on price.

The same approach, unfortunately would then work for smaller competitors against us. (See, the idea that the web has forced the price and value of an audience down is absurd – this has been going on for years and predates web publishing.)

The problem of building an online community, though, is that much harder when the tools one uses – comment threads, forums, and the like – have less value when they are filled with trolls, hate speech and irrelevant comments. Moderating comment threads, something papers like the NYT does lightly, and others don’t do at all, is not a satisfactory solution as there is that balance between censorship and openness that no one seems to be able to get right.

Social media is making things that much worse. When the Anti-Defamation League feels they need to create a task force to look into what is happening to Jewish journalists who dare write about Donald Trump then you know you have a problem that is spreading.

I wish I had an answer to the problem that was as simple as my answer to that question posed almost two decades ago. Back when the answer was to build an online community, actually building one was far easier, assuming the publisher could get the cooperation of their editors (often hard to do as they would say their first priority was the print product). Then there was the problem of getting one’s prints sellers to begin selling digital.

Today, editors and sellers alike recognize the importance of their digital products, but are frustrated by the difficulties they are facing reaching readers and selling digital advertising at a fair price… and getting results.

Those 1,500+ comments on The Guardian’s story may have created a larger audience, but it won’t create sales lift for an advertiser. And though the paper will earn a few more pennies thanks to page views, the value of those page views continues to go down when more and more ad impressions come from commenters who are trolling a website. The value of an impression is falling, and it should.

Publishers are approaching this increasing problem in a number of ways:

  • Shutting down comments: this is being done by both metro newspapers and magazines. The problem with it is that some publishers have decided to drive the conversation to social media, but the problem may be even worse in that environment.
  • Paywalls: the paid content movement is pretty sure that readers should be forced to pay. The problem is that readers disagree. In Europe, there has been a bit more success in this area, but I am not convinced it works when content is limitless and a market is large. This approach also leads to the question about whether the publisher’s content really is worth paying for – publishers inevitably value the content being created far more than readers do. Only when the content has actual monetary value to the reader – such as business news, sales leads, etc. – has been proven that a paywall works (see the WSJ and some B2B websites).
  • Audience building: without any easy answers one approach is simply to concentrate exclusively on building traffic. The New York Times seems obsessed with this idea, but The Washington Post looks more committed to the concept. Tribune Publishing tronc looks to be going in this direction. And the major magazine companies have gone on a spending spree buying up little websites for the same reason (they are often concentrating on the number of millennial women they can reach).

I seriously doubt any one of these approaches will work for a large number of publishers, though maybe a few will find success with one of these strategies. The sales-oriented publisher in me tells me that publishing is far more complicated than the head executive having the secret sauce, but today’s media mogul seems to think that success is driven from the top, from the one person who has all the answers. Call it the Trump school of management.

I’ve always thought that the only place where the smartest person in the room was guaranteed to be the one in charge was in a kindergarten class room.

** By the way, we used the same technique when working at Hearst’s newspaper in Los Angeles. Our circulation was only a fifth the size of the Los Angeles Times, so we needed to find a way to prove to an advertiser to spend their dollars with us. The answer was usually to show that when you looked at their customer base we actually reached the same or more readers surrounding their store, in a small collection of zip codes nearby. Plus, we were cheaper that the Times. Of course, when that didn’t work, we simply relied on the “cheaper” part.

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