Editorial Strategies

Far from Home: The Distributed Content Landscape — Part 2

Andreas Pfeiffer | November 02, 2015

Major Points

Distributed Content in general and Facebook Instand Articles in particular announce potentially significant changes in the way news will be distributed.

The fact that social networks will act less as drivers of traffic and more as content providers could seriously impact publishers.

The majority of Facebook users do not actively seek out news on the social network, but discover it accidentally. Twitter is used predominantly do discover and share news.

When I started researching distributed content, I had the sneaking suspicion that, to some extent, this was the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Not in the sense of distributed content being (as it has been said) the “end of publishing as we know it”, but rather that the arrival of extreme content fragmentation is the event that the media industry needed in order to finally start seriously questioning some easy assumptions about publishing: digital vs “traditional” media, aggregation vs. curation, brand identity, metrics of engagement, not to mention a long overdue look at the differences between editorial vision and business acumen…

The basic problem with distributed content in general — and Facebook Instant Articles in particular

Facebook (clearly the 800-pound Gorilla in the current distributed content lineup) touts its Instant Articles feature as an original attempt to accelerate the display of news items on smartphones; Right now, however, the real benefit for publishers is not yet clear: while first statistics from partners in the program tend to show that articles presented in this format get shared more often on Facebook than link-based news, independent analysis shows that there is so far no clear impact of Instant Articles.

In any case, Instant Articles underscore one of the issues with distributed content. Over the past few years, Facebook has become one of the most important drivers of traffic for publishers. Having a strong presence on Facebook is of course vital for publishers around the globe; adopting Instant Articles should therefore be an improvement to something that already works in their favor. But there is a problem: by adopting the new format, publishers might actually be depriving themselves of a major source of traffic. Since readers do not have to go to a publisher’s website to read an article, they may have absolutely no idea who provides the information they are ingesting. Even worse, Facebook could skew their algorithms to favor Instant Articles over outgoing links, or favor a certain kind of story over another, considered more appropriate for the Facebook audience. Will it happen? It’s too early to tell. Can you trust Facebook? I don’t think so. It’s certainly something to reckon with.

And that’s not all: Facebook is about to extend its content offering with it’s soon-to-be-released Notify app, which will provide Twitter-like notifications from several dozen publishers and media companies, increasing Facebook’s footprint in the digital media space even more, positioning it mid-way between a content aggregators à la Apple News or Flipboard and a social media platform like Twitter. (More on Facebook Notify in the 3d installment of this report).

As far as Instant articles is concerned, there is one more thing to think about: right now, Instant Articles is limited to smartphones (it currently doesn’t even work on tablets). But should it prove successful, Facebook could well extend the feature to its desktop version. Despite the rise of mobile, web browsers on Mac and PC are still a very strong platform, especially for more in-depth news consumption; extending Instant Articles to the desktop would effectively lock publishers into Facebook, with increasingly limited means of driving traffic back to their website.

As long as you stick with superficial metrics, this may not seem problematic: if all you care about is how many people have glanced at an article, and how many ad-impressions you have generated, all is fine. But that may prove to be shortsighted approach: in terms of revenue, the vast majority of publishers have an ever-increasing need to diversify their activities, to include video, podcasts, and events, among others, in their product-mix. Yet this diversification carries a great risk of diluting the brand identity, especially for smaller publishers. And in terms of presenting a coherent image, the necessity of driving traffic back to the main website should not be dismissed.

A content strategy for fragmented content

The implications of this content fragmentation could be far-reaching: as long as all you do is present a headline and maybe a picture with a link, you can accompany the reader to your website, you are in your own, fine-tuned content environment. Once you have adopted one of the distributed content platforms, on the other hand, you are not publishing for your website anymore, you are publishing for Facebook, for Snapchat, for Apple News; and even if these formats allow for personalization, you are still working within the content logic of each platform. It is too early to see how this will play out over time—but it’s most certainly something that needs to be taken into account.

What does this mean? Simply that publishers will have to put in place a two-pronged strategy for distributed content: on one hand to produce content that excels within the constraints of each platform — especially since there will be ample competition – and an equally sophisticated strategy for driving traffic back to the mothership, a concerted effort of presenting a brand and making it shine in an environment that has not been built to support this.

It will be a challenge.

Understanding the core audience of each platform

In the first part of this report we focussed on the corporate strategies of the main distributed content providers. Today we will look more closely at their core audience, which varies significantly between Facebook, Twitter and news aggregation apps such as Apple News. (We are not including Google AMP in this roundup: since, at least for the time being, it is not tied to any concrete content initiative on behalf of Google, we can only speculate about how it will reach an audience. Most likely, it will never be recognizable to mobile users at all, noticeable only in the effect it has on the display of content.)

Let’s proceed by elimination:

Snapchat Discover

Core Audience: 18-25

Core audience activity: communicating with friends of same age group, recreational sharing

General bias of information: amusing, entertaining

Statistics put the average age of a Snapchat user at somewhere between 18 and 25, significantly lower than any of the other platforms analyzed here. Snapchat is a must for brands who want to market to millennials. The Discover feature is currently limited to 15 partners including Vice and Buzzfeed, but also more traditional media groups such as National Geographic or CNN. For the lucky few who are part of that short list, Snapchat is an excellent way of exposing their content to an audience which, most likely, has never paid any attention to traditional media brands — but this also obliges publishers to format their content in a very age- and attention-specific way.

Browsing content on Discover is certainly entertaining: it is some sort of laboratory for testing what makes content appealing to a teen audience — but that is also the biggest shortcoming, since it limits the content to a very specific audience, and makes it practically unusable on other platforms. In any case, for most publishers, Snapchat is not an option for the time being, and unless the company drastically changes its model of working with media companies, this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. (But of course that doesn’t mean publishers shouldn’t pay close attention to the platform)

Apple News

Core Audience: N/A

Core audience activity: keeping up to date with selected topics and news sources

General bias of information: user selection of interests and news sources

Apple’s news app targets a completely different audience from Snapchat and Facebook Instant Articles: it is first and foremost a content environment, a reader application that pulls news from a vast array of news sources, ranging from highly respected to relatively unknown. For a news junkie, the News app is an embarrassment of riches, offering in a single place a fairly mind-boggling quantity of content. The app exists both on iPhone and iPad; the latter offering a more sophisticated, magazine-like display of the information. The downside of this vast amount of content is that one can easily feel swamped, wishing for a more structured and organized display, that would help prioritizing information or organizing news sources.

While there is literally no data available about the Apple News audience right now, it seems safe to assume that the app will appeal generally to a slightly older audience than Twitter for instance: Twitter users are interested in breaking news; Apple’s app, on the other hand, displays information that has already been digested and formatted by news organizations. It is aimed at users who want to stay current, but prefer the contained environment of an information app to the significant amount of ambient noise of social media feeds. How big this audience will actually be is a matter of speculation right now — in any case, the pool of iOS devices that will have access to the app is at least several hundred million. It will be interesting see if and how Apple chooses to actively market the News app.

Twitter Moments

Core Audience: 25-55

Core audience activity: sharing of information that is perceived as timely and important

General bias of information: breaking news, up-to-date information

Twitter’s Moments is a rather bold attempt to turn an environment that is dominated by small snippets of information into a content platform that is useful and attractive even if you are not a hardcore Twitter user. And unlike the other distributed content initiatives examined here, it works not only on the mobile app, but also on a desktop browser (although it is in both cases currently still limited to the US). Moments also differs from Instant Articles or Apple’s News app in that it repackages information that is already present on the social network. Right now, Twitter only presents a relatively small selection of trending topics as Moments, and while it has received some favorable reviews, it is still more a technology demonstration than a feature that publishers can use, and although the company has also hinted at the arrival of aggregation tools that would allow publishers to produce more immersive content for the Twitter timeline, details are still rare.

That being said, the salient point here is a different one: will Twitter Moments manage to grow a substantial user base outside of the current crop of Twitter users? And if it does, what user profile will it attract? The real problem the company is facing is that the social network works very well within the constraints of its current implementation — yet is aeons away from providing the sort of recreational social media environment that has made the success of Facebook.

For publishers in any case, there is no urgent reason to change their current way of using Twitter because of Moments. Currently, Twitter is clearly leading in terms of news access: according to research from Pew, 59% of users follow breaking news on Twitter, almost the double of Facebook users. In other words, if Twitter manages to grow its user base through Moments and similar initiatives, it will be something that builds on top of already existing Twitter activity — not a replacement of it.

Facebook Instant Articles

Core Audience: 30-60

Core audience activity: positive self-representation, recreational sharing

General bias of information: amusing, entertaining

Which leaves us with Facebook — and when it comes to the crunch, the promise (and menace) of Instant Articles is really what the whole distributed content kerfuffle is all about.

And there is so much more here than meets the eye. Through Instant Articles, Facebook is pushing very hard to become a dominant player in digital media. It is building that push on a strong reputation for driving traffic. Facebook is seizing this opportunity, combined with the well-documented trend towards news-access on mobile devices, to construct what, at least at the current point in time, could be considered some sort of bluff.

A bluff? How could that be? Haven’t all the statistics shown that Facebook is the major provider of news for over 60% of the population?

Well, not exactly.

The devil is in the details

There is a lot to be said about information consumption and social media, and many notions that are pushed around by the media need further examination to truly grasp what the data is actually saying. The most prominent example for this is the oft-repeated statement that, according to research, Facebook has become the primary source of news, since, apparently, 63% of the population now get their news from the well-known social network. At the source of this bold statement that sent ripples of anxiety through the media industry is a simple data point from an (indispensable) study by the Pew Research Center that often has been somewhat carelessly quoted.

Let’s go to the source. In that report, 63% of respondents agreed to the statement (emphasis mine): “Do you ever get news or news headlines on Facebook? By news we mean information about events and issues that involve more than just your friends or family.” In short, what is documented here is NOT that Facebook has become the major news-source, but that 63% of Facebook users agree that they sometimes come across information on Facebook that is not purely social. Even more interesting: to the follow-up question about the importance of Facebook in news-gathering, only 4% of respondents said “Facebook is the most important way I get news”; 36% replied “Facebook is an important way I get news, but not the most important”, while 60% stated “Facebook is not a very important way I get news”. Finally, the vast majority of Facebook users (a whopping 72%) state that they rarely or never post information about news. (The topline results of the research are available here. They are very interesting indeed…)

Just to be clear about this, I’m not trying to imply that social networks aren’t important in news distribution — of course they are. Nor am I saying that one should disregard the growing importance of social networks in the information economy. However, if you are a publisher trying to develop an editorial strategy that includes distributed content, it is absolutely essential to resist quick assumptions, to look at the available data in detail — and to plan accordingly.

Basically, without exaggerating too much one could say that what Facebook is doing is to use implied oversimplification to make publishers feel that they are doing themselves a favor by entering Instant Articles’ walled garden. And maybe in some respects they are – speedy display of pages sure beats waiting for complex pages to load, especially when they are riddled with ads and scripts. But the truth is that, unlike Twitter, Facebook is an environment that encourages a certain type of self-indulgent information exchange that is mainly self-representational. Information posted on Facebook has a certain distinct bias, which comes from the fact that users prefer to share positive things rather than negative ones, spectacular ones rather than less obviously interesting ones. Which in turn drives a certain kind of traffic. Most importantly, In their majority, users do not go to Facebook to find information: according to research by Reuters, 57% of Facebook user say they mostly see news while they are there for other reasons. (By comparison, 62% of Twitter users go there to get news, and 85% say they click on news links on the platform). Finally, again according to Reuters, on average only 10% of users say that social media is their preferred way of getting news.

I’m not suggesting publishers shouldn’t have a good look at Facebook’s latest initiative. Depending on the metrics they favor to analyze engagement, Instant Articles may be a great deal for them. However, I think it is essential to understand that the reality of news consumption is much more complex and nuanced than what certain umbrella statements are trying to make us believe. And as far as distributed content is concerned, it’s important to find out what is really going on, to test the waters, and to experiment before making major commitments.

This is the second part of a three-part report. In the last installment we will look at information acquisition patterns and their impact on editorial strategies, and we will look what lies beyond distributed content for publishers


American Press Institute:

Pew Research Center:

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism: