In the future, we may remember 2015 as the year when content fragmentation hit the mainstream. Facebook Instant Articles (or Facebook IA in the interest of brevity), Snapchat Discover, Apple News, Twitter Moments, and Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) have hit the market within weeks or months of each other, making it abundantly clear that the battle for professional content is only just beginning. If you are a publisher, there is enough complexity here to make your head spin, especially when you consider these different technologies and initiatives are only superficially similar: start looking under the hood and you will soon discover that they are significantly different.
Leaving aside the purely technical aspects (there is ample information available on the web), we identified three key differentiators between the four initiatives we are looking at here:
- Corporate goals: What is it exactly that each company wants to achieve? How do these goals impact publishers?
- Core Audience: What is the core audience for each technology? What is its impact on editorial strategy?
- Information consumption profiles of users: There are many different patterns for information consumption, and each one of the four technologies targets a different one. What does that mean for publishers?
Properly evaluating these differences is essential for publishers to understand their potential impact on the future of the content landscape, and to decide which distributed content partners to choose, and how to address these new distribution channels in terms of editorial strategy.
Let’s start with the corporate goal that drives these developments.
Facebook’s central aim is to avoid users leaving the social networking site when they examine a news item. In ideal terms, Facebook would like to become a walled garden, a mini-internet inside Facebook that no user would ever need to depart.
The benefits are obvious: the longer a user stays on the site, the more data Facebook collects, and the more precisely it can target the ads which serve as its main source of revenue. Motivating publishers to provide compelling content that will remain within the Facebook environment is essential to that goal. (In a similar move, Facebook is now experimenting with its own, site-specific video hub.)
This is all very nice in principle, but Facebook faces one significant hurdle: the sheer volume and the unqualified nature of Facebook posts. Even with hundreds of publishers providing content in Instant Article format, the articles are likely to be drowned out by a constant flow of millions of posts that users put up.
And from a publisher’s perspective, unless a Facebook user intentionally goes to their Facebook page, the decision who actually gets to see his content solely depends on Facebook’s algorithms. So as far as targeting a specific audience goes, providing content to Facebook is essentially a shot in the dark.
That being said, it is obvious that Facebook is fully aware of the importance of quality content, and it is highly likely that the company is already working on a more structured approach to information presentation that would cater to users who are actually trying to get coherent information, not only bite-size chunks.
- Key competitors: Google (in terms of mobile advertising), Twitter (as key news source)
- Key strength: Size of user base
- Key challenges: The vast volume and unqualified nature of Facebook posts.
Apple is increasingly vocal about the fact that it doesn’t collect or monetise user data, which sets it apart from all the other players in this lineup. Apple is in a constant battle to prove the value of iOS as a platform and as an all-inclusive user environment. Providing content from highly valued sources therefore becomes part of the overall iPhone/iPad value proposition, and a distinct differentiator over Android. And as an Apple-labelled product, the News app should benefit from a certain halo effect over competing products such as Flipboard.
That being said, Apple is fighting an uphill battle: whereas Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have millions of users, Apple is literally starting from scratch. Even if the News app turns out to be a runaway success (and that’s a big if), it could take a while before Apple can provide a significant reader base for the publishers that adopt their platform. In addition, Apple is trying to lure publishers into using its iAds advertising platform, thus escaping adblockers. But in terms of digital advertising, Apple is a distant also-ran compared to Google and Facebook, having less than 3 percent market share of the US mobile advertising market, according to eMarketer.
- Key competitors: Google (Android), Facebook, Flipboard and other content apps
- Key strength: Impressive number of publishing groups as partners, no data-mining
- Key challenges: Traffic and mobile advertising.
Twitter is in a crucial phase of its development. While 300-plus million users are nothing to sneer at, Twitter has yet to prove that it can manage to grow beyond the current user base. And while it is quite clear that Twitter is the place where breaking news happens, it has not managed to attract the same kind of leisurely social media use that has propelled Facebook to more than a billion daily active users. Twitter is useful, but it doesn’t have the entertainment factor Facebook has, and the investment community wants to see proof that Twitter can expand its user base significantly.
A first step in that direction is Twitter’s Moments feature, a curated selection of trending topics, presented in a magazine-like fashion, and created with a small number of selected publishing partners on the basis of the information they post on Twitter. As it is stands today, Moments is certainly a promising first step, yet its integration with the rest of Twitter is clumsy and potentially confusing,
- Key competitors: Facebook
- Key strength: Widely used as a news discovery tool
- Key challenges: Growth of user base, ease of information discovery for inexperienced users
Google has its own set of challenges. The main Achilles heel of the company is its incapacity to create a significant social media presence. Google+ is more or less on life support, having failed to attract a significant following, and Google is in an entrenched battle with Facebook for the highly lucrative mobile advertising market. This means that while Google AMP looks on the surface as a pure technology play, aiming at accelerating the access to mobile web content, it is very clearly aimed at undermining Facebook’s Instant Article feature.
How and to what extent Google AMP will be implemented to big publishers is still an open question. There is however little doubt that Google AMP is going to play a major role in content distribution, since most WordPress sites (and that includes many professional online publications) can use the technology just by adding a plug-in to their WordPress installation.
- Key competitors: Facebook
- Key strength: Market position, impressive number of partners, opening up Google AMP to millions of WordPress sites
- Key challenges: Losing traffic and advertising revenue to Facebook
Snapchat is in a curious position: wildly popular with millennials, the app that allows users to send self-destructing messages is only rarely used by adults (the median age of Snapchat users is 18, compared to 40 for Facebook).
Snapchat Discover significantly differs from other content offerings in the field since the company arbitrarily limits access to the Discover feature to a fixed number of partners (15 as of this writing), and content available there is heavily skewed towards a teen audience. That being said, partners of the Discover program announce very impressive traffic figures: Buzzfeed founder Noah Peretti stated that after just a few months, and with no promotional efforts, Buzzfeed is getting almost 25 percent of its traffic from Snapchat.
On the other hand, advertising on Discover is subpar, and even overall traffic numbers are not that spectacular, according to Advertising Age.
- Key competitors: Facebook
- Key strength: Popularity with millennials
- Key challenges: Aging of user base, sudden popularity of competing system
The value proposition
One thing seems to be certain: everybody wants content, and preferably content that comes from a well-respected source. This is not in itself very surprising: considering the ever-growing glut of social media content and marketing material that has hit the web, content from highly respected sources has become a must for the big players in social media.
What is more surprising is that all this is happening, more or less, at the same time: In a way, what we are witnessing with the recent wave of distributed content is eerily similar to the early days of the web when suddenly publishers realised that the internet was about to become a vehicle for content, and raced to provide their information for free. And given how important social media sites have become as drivers of traffic, publishers’ knee-jerk reaction to distributed content (“Oh my god, I cannot miss this boat”) is quite understandable.
But there is one thing that is not quite clear, and which needs to be analysed on a one-by-one basis, and that is the actual value proposition of each one of these initiatives. If we set aside Snapchat for the time being (interesting only if you are directly targeting millennials, and in any case not currently open to a wide range of publishers) and Twitter (Moments is for the time being much more about saving Twitter than about bringing in publishing partners, and on top of that it isn’t available around the world yet), that leaves us with Facebook, Google and Apple.
Let’s look at Apple first: Apple News is a fairly straightforward value proposition (and that may be the reason why Apple has the most complete list of big-name publishing groups in its line-up): News is an app, which, as soon as you enter it, presents you only with content created for it. There is no pollution through a social news feed as with Facebook or Twitter; more importantly, adblockers won’t work inside News.
In addition, Apple does not collect or sell any user data. Publishers have the choice of just posting a slug for an article and then diverting traffic to their own site, or to put up a complete story, including ads if they like (Just like Facebook, Apple will leave publishers 100 percent of the revenues for ads not provided by Apple). This means that for a publisher, the decision to go for Apple News will only depend on the traffic and exposure they can expect. In any case, the ticket for entry is low: providing an RSS feed for News should not be a major challenge, and it is a good way to test the waters.
The downside is of course that we currently have no idea how successful Apple’s News app is going to be – so far, it’s too early for real-world usage statistics, but since Apple is starting from zero market penetration, it will take time before the app can provide serious traffic and/or exposure (especially since News is so far only available to users in the US).
Facebook IA and Google AMP present a much more complex situation – or at least a more difficult arbitration.
Both companies offer publishers some sort of deal with the devil; play by our rules, and your readers on mobile (the only ones anybody seems to care about these days) will never have to wait for your stories to be displayed—but in exchange, you lose control over the reader, who is not on your site any more but in our environment. (To be fair, it is not quite clear yet how this will play out with Google AMP: since it is just a technology framework that accelerates the display of individual pages by pre-caching and optimising portions of them, it should, in theory, be possible to use AMP on a wide range of connected pages, not only on simple stories. But on the downside, AMP will definitely limit the use of scripts and ad-frameworks that don’t come from Google).
As far as Facebook goes, engagement with native content is significantly higher than with content on sites outside of Facebook. But that does not necessarily mean having to adopt Instant Articles just to develop a reasonably sophisticated social media strategy (which of course should be in place already.) The real question, in the end, is one that can only be answered through experience and over time: what is the right balance between finding engagement and protecting the brand? What is more useful: to have more people read one story, but lose the context, or to have less readers, but being able to present them with the extended content environment a publisher’s website presents? At what point does completely uncontrolled content fragmentation become detrimental to the brand? Only carefully planned experimentation will make it possible to find the right answer.
And Google AMP? Even if Google is going after Facebook, the situation is quite different for publishers: Facebook brings the promise of higher engagement on mobile devices, Google promises better display performance, but has not (at least not yet) made public any intention of creating a dedicated content environment built on AMP.
There can be little doubt that we are at the beginning of profound transformations in the content market place. In the next article in this series, we will look at different aspects of the target audience for the different distributed content initiatives.
UPDATE (3 December): the other two parts in this series have now been published and can be found here:
After 10 years at the helm of a leading European technology magazine, Andreas Pfeiffer founded Pfeiffer Consulting in 1998, with the aim to provide market-specific research and consulting to media producers and technology providers. Through his site Pfeiffer Report he offers in-depth analysis of emerging media, publishing and technology trends. Pfeiffer is a frequent speaker at international events for the publishing and media community, and his insights have been quoted in newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and Wired.” @pfeifferreport