To Ag­gre­gate, or Not to Ag­gre­gate, That is NOT the Ques­tion

The Insider - - CONTENT -

Look­ing back on 2015, if I were to ask you to de­scribe the last twelve months as “The Year of _________”, I ex­pect the rise in news ag­gre­ga­tion would be pretty close to top of mind.

Driven by the mantra, “Be ev­ery­where your read­ers are”, and the temp­ta­tion to reach bil­lions of eye­balls with­out the bur­den of build­ing a bet­ter user ex­pe­ri­ence, more and more pub­lish­ers are jump­ing on the news ag­gre­ga­tion band­wagon hop­ing to in­crease brand aware­ness, au­di­ence and rev­enues.

By ba­si­cally be­com­ing wire ser­vices for the Face­books of the world, pub­lish­ers are blindly trust­ing the proven-to-be un­trust­wor­thy and hand­ing over their crown jew­els (i.e. their con­tent) in a des­per­ate at­tempt to bol­ster their bot­tom lines. But so far, not even the big­gest pub­lish­ers in the world (e.g. The New York Times and The Wash­ing­ton Post) are see­ing much of an ROI.

Re­cently I read an ar­ti­cle (more of a rant ac­tu­ally) about how free plat­forms are eating pub­lish­ers. The au­thor ar­gued that pub­lish­ers are sell­ing their souls (and the fu­ture of the open web) to the likes of Face­book In­stant Ar­ti­cles, Ap­ple News, Twit­ter Mo­ments, Snapchat Dis­cover, Flip­board, LinkedIn Pulse and Google Ac­cel­er­ated Mo­bile Pages.

The fear of ad block­ers is ac­cel­er­at­ing this mass mi­gra­tion to these mostly mo­bile app plat­forms be­cause, as apps, they are as­sumed to be im­mune to ad block­ers. But how long will this high-priced pro­tec­tion last with new so­lu­tions that block ads in apps al­ready hit­ting the app stores? What guar­an­tees can these free ag­gre­ga­tors of­fer pub­lish­ers in terms of ad­ver­tis­ing reach with the ram­pant rise in ban­ner blind­ness and grow­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion of block­ing tech­nol­ogy? Where’s the rev­enue com­ing from then?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of con­tent ag­gre­ga­tion. Even fu­tur­ist, Ross Daw­son, the key­note speaker at last year’s World Congress said that trusted ag­gre­ga­tion, per­son­al­iza­tion and com­mu­nity are a large part of a suc­cess­ful news me­dia strat­egy – “trust” be­ing the op­er­a­tive word.

Free and paid ag­gre­ga­tors both give read­ers one-stop-shop so­lu­tions for con­tent that in­forms, ed­u­cates, en­ter­tains and en­gages them. It’s when the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the pub­lish­ers and ag­gre­ga­tors moves from sym­bi­otic to par­a­sitic that these friends turn into foes.

But who can you re­ally trust with your con­tent?

Proven fren­e­mies who will use it any­way they like, cu­rate and share it un­der their own rules, of­fer­ing no guar­an­tees of place­ment or pay­ment OR

A pub­lish­ing part­ner who com­mits to pay you ev­ery time your con­tent is read on their plat­form

The fact is not all con­tent ag­gre­ga­tors are cre­ated equal and pub­lish­ers need to un­der­stand the dif­fer­ences to make in­formed de­ci­sions on what con­tent they should dis­trib­ute on what plat­forms to max­i­mize au­di­ence reach and rev­enues.

PART­NER­ING WITH THOSE WILL­ING TO PAY TO PLAY

It wasn’t that long ago that there was only a hand­ful of paid con­tent ag­gre­ga­tors in the mar­ket. But in the last year or so, the num­ber of plat­forms has grown, in­tro­duc­ing new con­tent dis­cov­ery mech­a­nisms, chan­nels and busi­ness mod­els that de­liver value to both read­ers and pub­lish­ers. Here’s a sum­mary of the most no­table ones.

News­stands

There are a num­ber of plat­forms that of­fer ac­cess to full-con­tent mag­a­zine and/or news­pa­per ti­tles through a pay-per-is­sue news­stand model (e.g. Zinio, Ama­zon, Google, Ap­ple (iTunes), Magzter, LeKiosk,

ePresse and Kiosk y Más). For read­ers, the price varies by in­di­vid­ual ti­tle and pub­lish­ers get paid a rev­enue share of some amount for each is­sue down­loaded.

This model serves read­ers who are in­ter­ested in spe­cific pub­li­ca­tions, but isn’t with­out its chal­lenges. Of­fer­ing mostly a brand-driven dis­cov­ery mech­a­nism, news­stands don’t de­liver many op­por­tu­ni­ties for smaller pub­lish­ers to get no­ticed by new read­ers. Ap­ple saw these lim­i­ta­tions in its own News­stand and re­placed it with News; Google isn’t far be­hind.

Zinio con­tin­ues to look for ways to rein­vent the news­stand model as new man­age­ment ex­per­i­ments with SasS tech­nol­ogy, ac­qui­si­tions, part­ner­ships and var­i­ous dis­count of­fer­ings. It re­mains to be seen if its ru­moured en­try into the all-you-can-read arena with Zinio Un­lim­ited will save the com­pany from the same fate as Ap­ple News­stand

Pay-per-ar­ti­cle

A vari­ant on the Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) play is Blen­dle’s pay-per-ar­ti­cle model (of­ten re­ferred to as iTunes for News). Founded in the Nether­lands the com­pany is slowly mov­ing through Europe one coun­try at a time and re­cently an­nounced it’s plan­ning to launch in North America in 2016.

Ar­ti­cles cost any­where from pen­nies to over a dol­lar with rev­enues split 70-30, with pub­lish­ers tak­ing the larger share. A unique of­fer­ing of the Blen­dle so­lu­tion is the money-back guar­an­tee de­signed to re­duce click-bait head­lines.

All-you­can-read

In the “Net­flix for News” cat­e­gory sit four me­dia ag­gre­ga­tors: Tex­ture by Next Is­sue, Magzter, Readly and PressReader. They all pro­vide a tra­di­tional replica view of the con­tent; PressReader also pro­vides a non-replica, hor­i­zon­tal stream­ing view pre­ferred by dig­i­tal na­tives.

Next Is­sue, Magzter and Readly all of­fer ac­cess to a se­lec­tion of mag­a­zines, but the pub­lisher busi­ness mod­els are dif­fer­ent, with pric­ing vary­ing by re­gion and of­ten dis­counted. Magzter charges US$ 7.99 per month for a sub­set col­lec­tion of ti­tles it of­fers within its news­stand. Readly sells sub­scrip­tions for US$ 9.99 per month while the Tex­ture of­fers app-only ac­cess with US$ 9.99 and US$ 14.99 op­tions and in­cludes bonus con­tent not found in the printed edi­tions.

Next Is­sue and Magzter pay a frac­tional rev­enue share to pub­lish­ers each time an is­sue is read.

Readly sup­ports a some­what neb­u­lous pay-by-time-spent model where pub­lish­ers share a rev­enue pool based on reader en­gage­ment. In 2015, Readly made head­lines over its fi­nan­cial losses, spec­u­lated to be due to heavy in­vest­ment into dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing to cover guar­an­teed min­i­mums it has of­fered to some pub­lish­ers.

PressReader of­fers an all-you­can-read so­lu­tion for both news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. And while it sup­ports a sub­scrip­tion ser­vice for con­sumers, it also of­fers a unique “paid by spon­sor” busi­ness model whereby thou­sands of ho­tel, air­line, cruise ship, li­brary and other in­dus­try part­ners spon­sor ac­cess to the con­tent on be­half of their cus­tomers. Pub­lish­ers are paid a royalty for ev­ery is­sue read.

GIV­ING UP THE BABY WITH THE BATH­WA­TER

There is no ques­tion that free ag­gre­ga­tors have brought huge value to pub­lish­ers in terms of traf­fic and au­di­ence reach, while read­ers en­joyed fric­tion­less con­tent dis­cov­ery of news from trusted sources within their so­cial net­works. It was a win-win for both sides.

So it makes per­fect sense for pub­lish­ers to of­fer some of their con­tent on all of these plat­forms. Good choices in­clude break­ing news, non-exclusive con­tent, na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing and cus­tom ar­ti­cles that link back to more unique and com­pelling con­tent hosted on the pub­lisher’s web­site.

But the risks of jump­ing all-in are sub­stan­tial, in­clud­ing the po­ten­tial loss of:

Con­tent con­trol

Re­gard­less of what con­tent pub­lish­ers de­cide to post on these plat­forms, they have lit­tle to no con­trol over what gets pre­sented to read­ers. Cu­ra­tion, au­di­ence reach and post fre­quency are all un­der the con­trol of the plat­form own­ers. Which begs the ques­tion – will these ag­gre­ga­tors show more con­tent which con­tains their own ads over con­tent that comes with pub­lisher ads, and where the ag­gre­ga­tor only re­ceives a por­tion of the rev­enue? And who will get the lion’s share of posts on these sites? It wouldn’t be a stretch to as­sume that most of the con­tent show­cased on the plat­forms will come from the big-pocket pub­lish­ers. Small, lo­cal and niche pub­li­ca­tions aren’t likely to see much of a re­turn, if any.

Ad­ver­tiser loy­alty

Los­ing ad­ver­tis­ers, who pre­vi­ously paid a pre­mium to serve ads on a pub­lisher’s web­site, to plat­forms is a very real threat. It won’t take brands long to fig­ure out that it’s cheaper to ad­ver­tise next to ar­ti­cles through the ag­gre­ga­tor di­rectly than through pub­lish­ers, fur­ther erod­ing their ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enues.

Brand and voice

News­pa­per and mag­a­zine de­sign­ers have spent decades en­sur­ing that their pub­li­ca­tion’s lay­out is not only vis­ually ap­peal­ing for read­ers, but also tells and shows the im­por­tance of the con­tent. The flow and re­la­tion­ship be­tween sto­ries lends to the value and cred­i­bil­ity of the ar­ti­cles dis­played col­lec­tively.

Scrolling through the news­feed on Face­book or Twit­ter, it’s not un­com­mon to see se­ri­ous news sto­ries from pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ists book­ended by silly cat videos and trashy celebrity gos­sip. It’s a dis­rup­tive ex­pe­ri­ence that presents con­tent out of con­text, de­grad­ing the brand, the voice and ul­ti­mately a reader’s per­cep­tion of the con­tent’s value

“Face­book will com­mit to a hands-off pol­icy on news cov­er­age,” said Alex Cas­sanos, spokesper­son for Face­book. “Pub­lish­ers are in com­plete con­trol of what they pub­lish on Face­book -- both links and In­stant Ar­ti­cles. The only ex­cep­tion is de­ter­mined by le­gal re­stric­tions and our com­mu­nity stan­dards.” “A scor­pion comes up to a frog and asks him carry it on his back across a river. The ner­vous frog, afraid of be­ing stung, ques­tions why he would take such a risk. The sly scor­pion ar­gues that if it killed the frog, it would also drown. The logic makes sense to the trust­ing am­phib­ian, so he agrees. But half­way across the river, the scor­pion stings the frog, doom­ing them both. When the in­cred­u­lous frog asks with its dy­ing breath why, the scor­pion says, “I can’t help my­self; I’m a scor­pion. It’s my na­ture.”

Ed­i­to­rial and ad­ver­tis­ing free­dom

Cen­sor­ship based on the moral com­passes of Ap­ple and Face­book man­age­ment is very com­mon and a threat to the free­dom of the press pub­lish­ers hold dear.

Com­mu­nity stan­dards should be owned by the com­mu­nity, not the ag­gre­ga­tors. Let read­ers de­cide what’s ap­pro­pri­ate for them.

Rea­son for be­ing

There’s an old say­ing, “Why pay for the cow when you can get the milk for free?” If free ag­gre­ga­tors can bring bil­lions of eye­balls to a pub­lisher’s con­tent in a gated en­vi­ron­ment no one ever has to leave, what is the rai­son d’être for a pub­lisher’s web­site?

BE EV­ERY­WHERE, BUT BE WARY

It re­ally doesn’t take the prover­bial rocket sci­en­tist to fig­ure out that paid con­tent ag­gre­ga­tors of­fer pub­lish­ers the best and low­est risk op­por­tu­nity to be com­pen­sated for their con­tent out­side their own web­sites, printed pub­li­ca­tions and apps. So why isn’t ev­ery pub­lisher rush­ing to be on all of them? You’ll have to ask them that; it makes no dol­lars or sense to me.

And when it comes to free ag­gre­ga­tors, it makes per­fect sense to share some con­tent and links on free plat­forms to drive au­di­ence growth, traf­fic and rev­enues. But div­ing in face-first with all their con­tent when the risks are so high is like try­ing to tread wa­ter in an ocean of sharks. The chances of sur­viv­ing are slim at best.

Use free ag­gre­ga­tors to your ad­van­tage; don’t be like the frog in this pop­u­lar fa­ble…

THE KEYS TO THE KING­DOM

In Daw­son’s key­note speech on the fu­ture of news he said, “The goal is not only for news brands to of­fer value to par­tic­i­pants, but to give par­tic­i­pants the abil­ity to cre­ate value as well. To truly cre­ate com­mu­nity, it is about cre­at­ing con­nec­tions be­tween in­di­vid­u­als.”

The ti­tans of so­cial and smart­phones have com­mu­nity and per­son­al­iza­tion pretty much nailed. Hand­ing over the fi­nal in­gre­di­ent (con­tent) in the recipe for a suc­cess­ful me­dia strat­egy is like giv­ing them the keys to your king­dom and lock­ing the door be­hind you. Do you re­ally want to make kings in­stead of be­ing one? Isn’t it time you stopped get­ting played and started get­ting paid for your con­tent?

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