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A Few Questions For Publishers Contemplating Facebook As A Platform

By - March 23, 2015

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Well, it’s happening. According to no less authoritative source than The New York Times, The New York Times is preparing to plant a taproot right inside the highly walled garden that is Facebook.

As Times’ executives contemplate moving The Grey Lady squarely under the rather constrictive confines of Facebook’s terms of service, they may be comforting themselves with a few palliative pretty-much-truths:

  1. We may be putting our content on Facebook’s platform, but we’ll still have our presence on the open web, apps, and in print. We’re really just accessing a massive audience natively, in a way they want to consume our content. In our other products, we’ll still be in control (well, not so much with iOS but…).
  2. Really, Facebook is just another channel — like when Borders and Barnes & Noble consolidated the newsstand business. Facebook’s just a big newsstand where we have to have our product.
  3. We’re going to be among the initial few to do this, which gives us first mover’s advantage, and probably the best economics anyone will ever get given how strongly Facebook is wooing us.
  4. If it doesn’t work , we can always call it a grand experiment and move along, sort of like we did with AOL back in the day. Or Apple back when the Newsstand was a thing.

All kinda true, and compelling enough to “test,” which is how the article carefully positions the Times’ intentions. But as testing beings, here are a few questions any publisher should ask before dipping a taproot into Facebook’s carefully cultivated soils:

  • Do you have full and unfettered access to reader data? Will Facebook have access to your customer data?

A publisher lives and dies by its ability to maintain a strong connection to its readership. That means understanding how people use your product, so you can make it better. It means knowing who your customers are, so you can call them by name, make them offers, ask them questions, converse with them using sophisticated tools. Will Facebook offer the kind of tools the open web does?

  • Do you have full and unfettered control over your advertising relationships and data? Will Facebook have access to that data?

If Facebook is selling your advertising, or telling you how to sell your advertising, or dictating what your advertising has to look like, or has access to data about your customer data *and* your advertising, they have your jewels in their hands. I hope those are very soft hands.

  • Do you have certainty over the levers of circulation marketing, including the price of reader acquisition and engagement? 

Facebook’s record here ain’t exactly encouraging. Everyone knows that if you want to build audience on Facebook, you have to pay Facebook. Publishers have gotten pretty sophisticated at understanding customer acquisition costs, ROI, and the like. Will Facebook offer a consistent ecosystem here, or will the sands shift as the company ropes in your competitors, leverages “proprietary algorithms” to decide who sees what, then ultimately decides to get into your business in some way? If you want to read up on such a market, just ask Yelp how it feels about Google.

  • Do you have control over your core product, so you can craft your reader’s experience as an expression of your brand? 

I can’t really stress this one too much. I mean, what if a year in, you want to ask some of your Facebook readers to pay you, in exchange for less advertising (or none)? Do you have to ask permission? Wait, you agreed to not do that? Well why would any reader pay you on the open web if they can get it for free on Facebook? And what if you want to do something like Snowfall? Or what if you come up with a really neat widget that pulls in processed content from, say, Twitter and SnapChat? Will Facebook let you? They kinda sorta don’t like those companies, last I checked. My guess is they won’t like others down the road too.

  • Do you have any proof that publishers using another company’s proprietary platform have ever created a lasting and sustainable business? 

I guess I should have put this one first. There have been good exits for some publishers from platforms — a few of the MCNs on YouTube come to mind — but those were native video publishers who will all admit that they could never reach profitability on YouTube’ economics.

I can’t really think of any publisher who thrived on someone else’s platform, for the reasons I laid out above. Sure, a lot of apps have done well, but in the main they were either hit businesses (gaming) or free services that kept their customer and revenue models well away from Apple or Google’s grasp (everybody else ever).

Perhaps Facebook has addressed all these points with the Times and others — but the article certainly didn’t find evidence of that. And all of you other publishers should know how the playing field tilts before joining the game.

Which brings us to BuzzFeed, which has taken a delightfully inverse approach to platform economics — that is to say, it embraces the distribution of its content independent of its home base. Of course, it can do so because its core revenue model is native advertising content, which is distributed in the same fashion as original editorial content. This model suits BuzzFeed very, very well. I’m not sure it scales for many others.

So far, Facebook has not clipped BuzzFeed’s native advertising wings. Could it? Just ask Zynga.

Then again, and to be fair, I’m not privy to the conversations between the Times and Facebook. Regardless, were I a publisher, I’d sure like to know the answers to those questions above. If anyone gets some, do let us know?

(cross posted to Medium).

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