How publishers must adapt to multiple content discovery options

Last week, companies including Google, Facebook and NetShelter introduced new products and services that, while unrelated, all promise to be new vehicles for web content discovery. And with so many new offerings coming to market, content companies must evaluate whether and how to best use services like news reader apps (Google Currents and mobile Flipboard), social sharing mechanisms, etc., to achieve objectives like audience acquisition, content engagement and revenue.

None of these new initiatives actually pays syndication fees for content, and making money off them depends on publishers doing their own advertising within the frameworks of the apps or sites, or securing revenue sharing. In many cases, even where they enable the consumption of full articles or videos, it’s best to think of these new products and services primarily as discovery tools and concentrate on driving audiences back to the actual sites. It’s there that content owners have more control over monetization.

News readers worth testing

Right now news readers are low-risk/low-reward options for content owners due to their relatively low adoption. For example, this summer Flipboard was growing fast but still had only 2.5 million users. At that point it wasn’t generating any revenue, but has since rolled out an advertising program with key publisher partners like Conde Nast and Dow Jones. Figures on how those revenues are split are hard to come by, but the ads are magazine-classy and likely command a higher-than-average CPM compared with traditional websites. That’s promising, but won’t be exciting until Flipboard quadruples its audience.

Flipboard’s new mobile app, meanwhile, is getting rave reviews. But while that may bode well for content discovery, mobile display advertising — as opposed to search — is barely off the ground and Flipboard hasn’t solidified its mobile ad offerings yet. Similarly, Google’s brand new Currents news reader doesn’t offer advertising — mobile or otherwise. The company is promising to work on a payments scheme for premium content in the future, so publishers should use Currents for discovery rather than revenue.

Facebook promotion starts to pay off

Facebook is becoming an important traffic driver for content sites, whether from its own site or indirectly through its distributed Connect services. Last week it introduced a Subscribe button for Connect that’s a lot like Twitter’s “Follow” concept: Publishers can establish Subscribe buttons on their own sites that enable Facebook users to receive updates from content authors without having to establish a confirmed, two-way “friend” relationship. Subscribing is relatively new to Facebook’s own site, but it seems to be catching on and should prove popular off-site as well.

Updates appearing in Facebook news feeds, meanwhile, drive user engagement with content, as shown by Yahoo’s smart deployment of a Facebook app that takes advantage of the new “frictionless sharing” that auto-posts user activity updates. While media companies like The Washington Post and News Corp. are posting full articles in their Facebook apps, Yahoo posts snippets that drive users to its own site. Last week, Yahoo reported 10 million participants and a sixfold increase in Facebook referrals, along with new, younger audience usage.

Other companies are putting full content on Facebook. News Corp.’s The Daily and the Wall Street Journal house site promotions and ads in their Facebook apps, including units that are much bigger and feature more rich-media interaction (likely generating much higher CPMs) than the ad units Facebook itself offers. The Washington Post’s Facebook app does not have any advertising right now and often shows a user more third-party content through its personalized Trove aggregation feature than content from the Post. While this may be useful for building brand awareness, it feels like the Post is missing an opportunity to engage with its own articles and drive users to its own site, where they can take advantage of Trove personalization.

Advertising as discovery

Last week, NetShelter Technology Media introduced a new advertising format that simultaneously syndicates content (Samsung is the official sponsor). The ad network operates across a collection of otherwise-unrelated technology blogs, analyzes articles across the network and pulls them into the expandable ad when they’re relevant. It’s like a sponsored “related content” module that will help smaller sites participate in bigger ad buys as traffic circulates across the network. NetShelter wants to charge premium rates for this unit: It’s hoping to hit a $35 CPM target, though that sounds high to me.

These new discovery vehicles reinforce the need for content companies to think of themselves as networks or even platforms, as my colleague Mathew Ingram says, rather than simply site developers. They must distribute their own content through APIs and syndication, at the same time aggregating, curating and monetizing on and off their home sites. But the ones that can adapt these new programming and distribution techniques will be leaders in an increasingly digital-first era.

Question of the week

Should publishers distribute their full content or offer only highlights?
Relevant Analyst
P1040724

David Card

VP Research Gigaom Research

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