Circulation volume is just one of the smaller tensions in a multidimensional, complex relationship between social networks and mass media.
I like to look at what is not being discussed. What is the bigger framework that explains this disruption and makes it predictable. Because understanding that framework helps structure a better, deeper, more strategic response, rather than a reactive tactic. And where media publishers strategies on social networks are concerned, the recent announcement has important context.
I recently had a conversation with our CMO, Sharon Gelbaum-Shpan, to answer some questions she had about the topic. My key point? Distribution is only part of the puzzle. Here’s a quick summary, with the full conversation to follow:
1. Cross promotion & brand displacement
This pertains to the fact that Facebook and YouTube will promote related items based on keywords, not necessarily the creator. That means that when a media company attracts an audience to watch its content, a competitor’s content will be promoted on the back of that investment. Even more dangerous is the fact that those keywords would be sold to the highest bidder, allowing for targeted and highly focused brand and loyalty displacement.
2. Talents, reporters, and celebrities own most of the equity, while media companies carry most of the investment
As media companies invest in content, they develop and promote talents, reporters and celebrities. Audiences flock to their social media profiles and follow them, making those talents the direct owners of those audiences. As the new owners of the audience, these individuals see their value increase, all at the expense of the media companies who are disrupted by introducing yet another proxy between them and their audiences.
3. Market share with strategic accounts - a fundamental ticking bomb
The sales departments at media companies, Facebook, and YouTube all compete for the same accounts for players at the multinational, national and local levels. When at the end of the day social networks have a richness of data and no shortage of eyeballs and premium content to offer, media companies must balance what they keep exclusive on their own branded platforms vs what they offer up to the social networks in exchange for the wide distribution. It becomes harder and harder to make the case for premium value as media companies mistakenly trade-off user-ownership for the number of views.
Read on for the full conversation.Sharon Gelbaum-Shpan : So, Jonathan, everybody’s talking about it - what do you think of the recent paradigm-shifting announcement from Facebook?
Jonathan Laor: Facebook really didn’t change anything about the paradigm. Facebook is a social network, not a media distribution network, so this is not really that surprising, it’s just a return to roots of sorts. Obviously distribution is being affected by these changes, but the discussion around distribution of media items through the newsfeed is really just a little piece of it.
SGS: Just a little piece of it? What are the other pieces then, besides distribution?
JL: There are three additional key issues for media companies to address in how they strategize moving forward: promotion, relationship building, and branding.
SGS: So is there a right way for companies to use Facebook to achieve their goals?
JL: I would say we should all strive to use social media in a smarter way. At Applicaster, we get to work with so many different clients from different verticals including TV, radio, publishing, and sports, and each of them depends on Facebook to varying degrees. In the media business, reality is continually changing and attention spans are short, so the reach of distribution that Facebook offered was too tempting to ignore. But some people saw this coming and were able to use Facebook “as intended” - as a platform to promote their own entities and interests.
SGS: That’s interesting - can you give me an example?
JL: Well, last week I received a push notification for a live event from Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube Facebook page. When I opened the page, it was a live stream of dough rising. Literally that. For minutes, the dough slowly rose, and thousands of viewers from around the world congregated to watch. Within seconds, an unmoderated conversation began between the viewers, about bread, recipes, tips, nutrition and more. It was really astonishing to see. Jamie Oliver combines various strategies to content creation and audience engagement. Social networks are used for promotion and discussion: through constant brand awareness and engagement campaigns, Jamie Oliver generates continuous traffic into his rich proprietary properties such as his website and apps, through which he creates his own user database, mailing list, push notification relationships, strong daily/weekly habits, and meaningful media to sell. Jamie Oliver’s brand truly embodies a multi-platform strategy that is not about ubiquity, but rather about synergy and specialization. I think it’s truly a great case to look at.SGS: And how important is that relationship with fans? Does it need to be direct? Isn’t Facebook an adequate platform for communication, even if it’s indirect?
JL: Nothing could be more valuable than direct communication with users - that’s how you attain and maintain brand loyalty. On the 99% Invisible podcast with Roman Mars I heard a story that is applicable here. There was an undertaker named Strowger in the late 19th century who discovered one of his competitors had been taking advantage of a flawed system: the competitor’s wife worked as a switchboard operator and had been rerouting calls meant for Strowger to her husband’s office instead! Strowger became determined to remove the middleman - middlewoman in this case - that was interrupting his direct communication with his customers, and so he invented an automatic telephone switch. The undertaker-turned-inventor’s creation, the Strowger switch, became the standard switch for decades afterwards.
SGS: Okay... and how exactly is this 100-year-old story related to what we’re talking about?
JL: Because that switchboard is Facebook - a platform for communication, but one that doesn’t necessarily have your best interests in mind. They both serve as biased middlemen who are just as likely to redirect your traffic to other destinations as they are to send them to you. That’s obviously not what you want from your promotional tool. Think about it. What happens when you watch a Facebook video? More specifically, what happens immediately after you watch a video on Facebook?
SGS: Another video starts automatically?
JL: Exactly - but who chooses this video? Facebook’s algorithms. And what kind of video do they typically select? A “related” video, which isn’t necessarily from the same source, and is very often from a competing source. That means that video content on Facebook is actually encouraging brand displacement, even if unintentionally.
SGS: Okay, I think I get that - but what do you mean by brand displacement?
JL: Think about shopping on Amazon. Pampers and Huggies used to own the market on diapers, right? They both then utilized Amazon as a platform to sell their products, and that worked well. Then Amazon started selling their own brand of diapers, and now when you say “Alexa, add diapers to my shopping list” which diapers do you think she chooses? Alexa is that switchboard operator, and she is displacing long established brands simply because she has become the point between Pampers/Huggies and their customers. Without direct communication, brand displacement should be considered an inevitability, not just a possibility. That’s what’s happening with Facebook right now.
SGS: Got it. Direct communication is good, brand displacement is bad. So, is good content enough by itself?
JL: Is the recipe for Coke enough by itself? No - you have to market your brand, invest in the relationship, and then nurture nurture nurture that relationship. Coke has been the biggest cola brand in the world for decades, and they have a great deal of brand loyalty among their customers, but they have only maintained that through constant nurturing of their relationship with their consumers. The same is true for media companies - good content is obviously the starting point, but it’s not enough by itself. It needs to be as easy to consume as possible, which today means it needs to be ubiquitous and constant. Like Coke, which is everywhere.SGS: Okay, “be like Coke” seems like a worthy aspiration, but audiences are fickle - are they worth the investment?
JL: If you're not investing in your audience, you're in the wrong business. Why does Kim Kardashian post photos everyday that are essentially repeats of every other photo she's already shared? She knows that if she disappears for any amount of time, she might disappear completely. Those daily photos? That’s Kim nurturing her relationship with her fans. It’s an investment, but one that she has decided is worthwhile, and her millions of followers and fans suggest that she’s right.
SGS: Sure, but Kim is probably more of an influencer than she is a content creator at this point - is it possible to have a loyal audiencebeyond Instagram followers?
JL: Absolutely - if done right. I think you may be underestimating Kim’s rise to stardom, but let’s look at some other examples of loyal audiences, more overtly in the “content” business. Glenn Beck made a similar move by leveraging the fame and following he garnered during his time on Fox News into launching his own platform. Bill Simmons did the same, going from ESPN to his own platforms, first Grantland, now The Ringer. Dan Patrick and Rich Eisen also made it big at ESPN before eventually moving on to DirecTV, and many of their current fans have followed them. Each of these personalities has a fiercely loyal audience that followed them. That’s the result of building strong relationships with fans.
SGS: Okay, so individuals can get loyal fans, but what about companies?
JL: Again, if done right, audience loyalty is absolutely attainable. Condé Nast, the New York Times, and countless other publishers deal with fairly regular turnover among their staff, yet through their investment in branding and quality of offering they have established loyalty to their brands, irrespective of the individuals working behind those brands.
SGS: So how can media executives future-proof themselves against this kind of disruption in the future?
JL: Well, I would say that step one is to retake and own the relationship with the audience. As much as I would love to go into more detail, I’m happier to defer to the media professionals in your upcoming conversations. Remember that Applicaster was built to help bridge the gap between technologists and media companies. Top-notch media execs were an instrumental piece for us to bring in and work with our internal vision for tech, and that’s why I’m so proud of the team that we’ve built. This is an important time for media companies to be investing in owned audiences and owned properties, before brand power is further diminished and entry barriers increase with social networks making media discovery harder.
SGS: That sounds like a good plan!