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Straight Talk Media & Entertainment

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Traffic from Facebook to many of the world’s largest publishers has fallen dramatically this year, according to a Digiday article. There are several intriguing theories as to why, but the bigger story is that no one really knows – and what that means for media businesses ever-reliant on third-party platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, and Spotify.

The article cites data from an analytics vendor called SimpleReach. It shows that so-called “referral” traffic generated by people clicking on links on Facebook that direct to the digital properties of the top 30 Facebook publishers – as defined by their reliance on the social network – fell 32% from January to October. Among the 10 most reliant, the drop was 43%, notes Digiday.

Life in the lap of the digital-media gods

Publishers have become increasingly reliant on third-party platforms to drive traffic, which drives reach, ad revenue, and paid subscriptions. It started when readers began to shift from publishers’ home pages to search engines, then to RSS readers and Google News-like aggregators, and now to social networks.

Other media sectors have been relatively isolated from this trend. Most people, for example, tend to log on to dedicated music and video apps and then choose what to listen to or watch from that app’s home page or search function.

But listeners and viewers will increasingly use the likes of Facebook and Twitter to discover and recommend all kinds of content. Social networks will become more entwined with consumers’ lives and app indexing technology will make searching for and directly linking to content within apps as easy as it is on the Web.

So Facebook giveth and Facebook taketh away

In other words, media businesses of all kinds should pay attention to the apparent drop in Facebook referral traffic. The reasons Digiday offers for the fall could have increasing relevance for music and video businesses in the near future:

  • Facebook wants media to live on Facebook. The social network wants to make its service stickier by encouraging content owners to post full articles and videos to its Instant Articles and Facebook Video offerings. Facebook claims such content is viewed and shared more than that linked within its social network, but it is hosted outside, and shares 100% of revenue from Instant Articles ads and 45% from Facebook Video with publishers. The downside for content providers is less control over the user experience and customer relationship – and the prospect that Facebook could change its commercial terms at any time.
  • Facebook will change its algorithms to suit its needs. Facebook frequently tweaks the technology that selects what appears in users’ feeds. In this instance, the theory is that Facebook’s latest tweak has favored articles and videos posted by consumers rather than brands, after becoming concerned that users were engaged enough with its platform. Again, the challenge for content providers is that they have little insight, warning, or say about these technical changes – especially as algorithms are the most secret of all sauces for the likes of Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Spotify.
  • Facebook wants brands to spend more on ads. One benefit for Facebook that could stem from the drop in referral traffic, notes Digiday, is in an increase in ad spend from publishers looking to push visits to their digital properties back up. The ability to exist for free on social networks and other open platforms has been a boon for media companies, especially those whose ad revenues are directly related to traffic. But, ultimately, Facebook controls how visible that presence is. It’s not so much that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but that Facebook can and will change what part of that lunch is free and what comes with a fee.

It’s not the first time such things have happened. Various companies have seen traffic fall as Google has changed its algorithms. Some startups have been wiped out entirely as the search engine, Twitter, and other platforms have changed the terms for access to the application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow third parties to tap into their various features, such as mapping, messaging, and analytics.

Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power

There could be more innocent explanations. Digiday suggests a number of reasons including: publishers posting fewer articles to Facebook; tried-and-tested techniques losing their impact; users sharing links more via text, email, and other means; or smaller publishers outperforming their larger rivals.

A statement from Facebook to Digiday doesn’t address whether referrals for the top 30 publishers have fallen, but claims that “referrals to the top 1,000 publishers are at the same level today as they were in January.”

The problem is no one really knows what’s going on – except perhaps Facebook which “doesn’t communicate directly with [publishers] about their traffic fluctuations” according to Digiday.

Similarly, Netflix is infamous for keeping a lid on its data. Even our most powerful studio clients complain that the streaming video provider will only share how many times their titles have been streamed in total and not as a percentage of overall viewing on its platform. This strengthens Netflix’s hand in negotiations for rights, as content owners have little sense of what value their wares bring to the streaming service.

And for all YouTube’s talk of democratizing TV, it wants to be the one in power. In a recent interview with CNN, the service’s chief business officer, Robert Kyncl predicts that there soon won’t be any media moguls like CNN’s Ted Turner or the Roberts family that founded Comcast. Their ascent to power was propelled by investing billions of dollars in cable and satellite to control a large proportion of the world’s TV – an advantage that no longer exists in a world where the Internet offers infinite shelf-space, Kyncl’s argument runs.

The dark side of this populist prediction would see YouTube, Facebook, et al become new kinds of moguls that own new bottlenecks in media. Those that invest time and money actually creating content would be mere serfs toiling away on their digital land, to draw an analogy with the low-level Microsoft employees in Douglas Coupland’s seminal 1995 novel, Microserfs.

From microserfs to future media masters

The good news is that media companies can employ a number of tactics to avoid that fate:

  • Stay true to your audience. That’s the advice of Matt Heiman, CEO of multiplatform network, Diagonal View. His point? Ultimately, social platforms and algorithms will only be as dominant as their ability to direct users to content they value.
  • Support emerging platforms. Growing competition between YouTube, Facebook, and Snapchat and emerging startups will only drive their desire to please companies that own and control the best content and talent.
  • Push for better terms. Media companies should play the competing platforms off against each to demand a better share of revenues, greater access to data, and more control over monetization and the user experience.

Ultimately, YouTube is wrong about the future of media moguls. While owning satellite or cable networks is no longer enough to succeed, the future will belong to companies that can create and master distributing great content across multiple platforms, whether they are those they own or YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, or any number of as-yet unknown platforms.

Straight Talk is a weekly briefing from the desk of the Chief Research Officer. To receive this newsletter by email, please contact us.

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