“The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.
Today's column is written by Allison Mezzafonte, senior vice president of operations at Bauer Xcel Media.
I recently had the uneasy feeling that history was repeating itself.
In 2007, publishers lamented the insidious connection between paid and organic search on Google. As one article on balancing paid and organic search put it, “exposure begets exposure.”
This time around, the concern is about Facebook. Some publishers may have noted a sharp increase in the amount of paid traffic on Facebook in 2016, following a previously successful track record of rapid organic growth.
How have publishers become reliant on something so costly, so quickly?
A New Focus On Audience (And Revenue) Over Traffic
Only Facebook knows exactly why it has become costlier for publishers, but it is up to publishers to change their strategy toward their own bottom lines.
The goal of media companies for too long has been impression volume, which has gotten our industry in trouble time and again, from overreliance on Facebook or Google and shoddy click-bait strategies to nonviewable impressions.
Traffic goals favor uninvested eyeballs over true fans of the content, which creates a vicious cycle of less differentiation and lower demand. A focus on different metrics, such as overall revenue and target audience reach, is the key to healthier distribution.
At a recent event, Hulu VP Peter Naylor said, “Double down on what you do best, and don’t try to be like everyone else.” Too few publishers heed this advice in the heat of the moment.
One way I’ve seen positive change happen is by looking at audience metrics such as share of voice and engagement of key target audiences over traffic metrics like impressions and page views. Facebook makes it too easy to simply buy your way to volume, but it doesn’t have the same impact when it comes to real audience interaction or revenue growth.
Back To Basics
If we agree we’re building an audience and not just a bunch of impressions, then publishers should also look back at tried-and-true engagement tactics with a different lens. Publishers can’t forget that a big percentage of their business is actually best served with things they’ve got at their fingertips, but have neglected recently.
Google, ironically, has become a relatively underused distribution partner over the past couple of years. Unless you’re a reference content publisher with a deep reliance on SEO, chances are you’ve put search equity on the back burner in favor of social scale.
As publishers have turned to Facebook for content distribution, Google has innovated in ways that haven’t been fully exploited. After comparing Facebook Instant Articles to Google AMP, for example, it’s clear that publishers can increase optimization on mobile in three ways – user experience, mobile search rankings and monetization – if they focus on AMP.
Publishers would also benefit from revisiting their search and site redistribution or recirculation strategy. Many sites have favored affiliate links and native advertising links over SEO and are paying the price. Actually removing some partners from the page can help. Not only that, but focusing the SEO strategy to align with the brand strategy can increase search rankings even more, for example by focusing on a single topic with related content linking across several parts of the site.
Picking New Friends
I’ve found that a focus on key audiences empowers publishers to mix big platform partners with targeted partnerships, such as Kik and muscal.ly, with much more of a balanced approach. This may lead to deeper partnerships with fewer concessions and more engagement. It creates a more durable relationship with target audiences and partners, and that matters more than traffic at scale.
This approach also helps publishers break away from the popular crowd and evaluate different options more fairly. It can begin to feel like anything that Facebook or Snapchat comes out with must somehow be worth doing, and everyone rushes to try it. While speed to market is sometimes critical when trying out new products from the big platforms, so is speed to analyze the results and pull back when it doesn’t work, as some publishers have done with Facebook Instant Articles.
At the same time, several publishers admitted that Twitter is contributing to major increases in video views and revenue. The company, which arguably fell in the shadow of other big social platforms, deserves a second look if it’s providing real value to publishers.
If a publisher broadcasts a lot of Facebook Live videos but fails to see a real lift on organic reach and engagement, that doesn’t bode well for long-term success. The bottom line is that there is no perfect solution or one-size-fits-all strategy and certainly no guarantees that a top source of traffic is going to stick around forever.
Instead of blaming Facebook for a rise in paid traffic, maybe publishers should thank them for providing a much-needed wake-up call and setting them on the road to recovery with a healthier distribution strategy.