With falling print subscription and sales rates, publishers are increasingly relying on digital to make up the shortfall in their bottom lines. But the digital space is not without its own challenges. Beyond the task of growing their online audience, publishers have to contend with issues surrounding viewability and fraudulent clicks impacting the value of their inventory.
As tough as the digital world might be, there are plenty of tools available to help publishers succeed. But as an evolving field, the digital publishing industry has yet to discover the unanticipated side-effects of some of the medicines they've been taking. Several of the strategies used to survive thus far may actually -- in their current incarnation -- be doing more harm than good. Below are three things purporting to help publishers survive and succeed in a digital age, but which may only be serving as a short term fix to a much larger issue.
With distribution a key element to driving publisher success, social media initially seemed like the perfect platform -- highly targeted outreach that was also scalable. Between volunteered data on likes and dislikes, huge organic reach, and captive/engaged eyeballs, social media served publishers well. Giant social networks with huge user bases would provide a platform for digital publishers to connect with and get in front of their audience in a context where they were already conditioned to share, comment, and like -- in short, where they were wired to engage.
But with Facebook lowering organic reach and other platforms failing to live up to their distributive potential, social media now seems to be holding hostage the same audience they once provided access to. Publishers who receive the majority of their referral traffic from Facebook are facing a grim reality where the communities they spent time and effort building are no longer seeing their content. If publishers want to succeed long-term they need to start growing and nurturing communities of readers and fans on their own sites as opposed to on external platforms. Social media will always be an important way for publishers to reach new readers/users, but as new social technologies evolve and the social possibilities of websites improve for readers, these external platforms have ceased to be the only place for users to engage and interact with content.
For revenue-strapped publishers, content recommendation was an ingenious way of sharing the attention of users to help everyone make more money -- and the basic assumption behind it is correct. It is foolish to assume that in today's content-saturated world you can keep a reader's interest indefinitely. By acknowledging that they will want to move on at some point, and helping them to do that, publishers are able to drive revenue from a site exit that was going to happen anyway.
But the new revenue publishers receive comes at the cost of losing a chance to build a strong and engaged community of site visitors. While a certain amount of bounce is to be expected, by directing users off-site, content recommendation is slowly cannibalizing publishers' brand communities. Prompting users to click away from your content may bring in a slice of revenue, but won't build your reader's relationship with your brand and your content in the long run. Content recommendation that is more heavily biased towards recirculating traffic to other articles from the same publisher may decrease the amount of money coming in every month, but will have long-term benefits on a publisher's bottom line.
While they may have fallen out of favor with some publishers recently (both Bloomberg and Reuters have removed the comment section from their sites entirely), comments remain one of the most effective means of driving engagement on-site -- an increasingly important goal as the viewability debate heats up. Comments are a core component of driving the kind of conversation around your content that marks true engagement, as well as increasing the amount of user-generated content on your site -- crucial for a good SEO ranking. They make readers feel as though they have a voice when it comes to the content and issues they care about, and serve to strengthen the relationship between a publisher and a reader.
However, the comment section is also a prime target for trolls, leaving publishers with no choice but to disable comments entirely, or spend time and money supervising and moderating every comment made. If we want comments to work as they can -- and should -- publishers will need to find effective means of empowering their own community to take care of trolls themselves.
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