Treating Publishers’ Facebook Addiction

Real talk for a second: Whenever you hear me griping about the myriad things Facebook doesn’t do well, either for users or for its publisher partners, I’m probably subconsciously trying to convince myself of something. I’m a social media addict, and I suppose I have been ever since the Geocities era. I’d like to get away from Facebook, but it scratches an itch nothing else on the web does.

The stakes of publishers’ Facebook “addiction” are substantially different, and I don’t want to make light of them, especially in the wake of the platform’s news feed algorithm changes, threatening to demote news-related posts. If I were to get off Facebook immediately (erm… again), there would be no negative impact to my own revenue. Heck, it might even be beneficial to my earnings—it might allow me to focus on things that are ultimately more beneficial to me. Now that I think about it, though, can’t publishers say the same thing?

In short, Facebook serves this need that all publishers have. They need to pump their content out into some centralized conduit where users customarily go to discover and read or watch new content. Otherwise, they’re all sort of scattered points around the internet that users go to intentionally or accidentally, but not so much incidentally, the way a social media platform enables.

Intentional Engagement

But Facebook has never been as good at that kind of discovery as publishers or advertisers might hope—users are engaged, but it’s not always a deep or intentional engagement. Vox Media Chairman and CEO Jim Bankoff said as much in a blog post last week. The Facebook news feed algorithm is not great for building “brand-loyal audiences,” he wrote, because it enables users to consume content “through serendipity, not intent.” And beyond that, Bankoff wrote, there’s no sustainable monetization model for “in-depth video,” so there’s little incentive for a company like Vox to go hard in developing and promoting video for Facebook. Much like how I realized my Facebook posts and comments were becoming “my Russian novel,” and I took a break from the news feed to focus on writing an actual novel, Bankoff said Vox is going to divert video programming from Facebook to OTT and linear TV—Netflix, big broadcast networks.

That’s an important pivot for any publisher. The media industry is years past the point of figuring out how to measure social media impact. By now, we can say that if something isn’t working, it might be more the platform’s fault, less a measurement problem. And also, just because Facebook’s adoption among users is as close to universal as anything is in digital media, that doesn’t mean it’s universally supportive of all publisher goals and initiatives. It’s not. Premium publishers are annoyed that they’ve been expected to jump through all these technical hoops (new products, new strategies, all subject to change on a whim) to work with Facebook. Why not take a break to focus on monetization strategies you’re confident will bear fruit?

That said, there’s no clear long-term fix on the table for that centralized conduit of attention, and that’s problematic. Take branded content. My colleague Gavin Dunaway has said recently that “branded content is the new premium advertising,” and generally I agree with him. Publishers need to focus on the intersection of “biggest payoff” and “best UX,” and branded content is often right there. Now, social media has proven to be a good way to drive traffic to branded content. So even if publishers ramp up their branded/sponsored initiatives—if traffic drops off, advertisers will start questioning their investments in those initiatives. It’s a conundrum, but I expect it’s one we’ll try to solve at the upcoming Publisher Forum—Adam Hua of CitizenNet will be talking about the branded content boom, including social media’s ever-evolving role in distribution.

There’s has to be something to satisfy people’s desire to discover relevant, quality content, which would also serve publishers’ desire for fresh traffic. Maybe that thing can still be Facebook, or maybe it’ll be something else. Before search engines, the joke was that the internet is great, but you can’t find anything on it. That problem didn’t last long, and I’d expect this current problem we’re talking about won’t either.