Future-Proofing Publishing: Three Ways to Capitalize on the Changing News Landscape

Publishers are facing a discovery crisis for their content. Last year, search and social achieved 86% of news/information referral traffic, pushing out news sites for near-total control over published content. This means that almost all but publishers’ direct traffic comes from a handful of places, sources that have been deemed the “discovery oligopoly.” Tech-first companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook have become the primary tools for how people find and click through to content. By controlling the distribution of audiences, these few referral sources now own the publishing and content discovery space — and a huge share of the ad dollars that come with it.

Experiencing a loss of revenue and coping with limited control over the sources of their audience, publishers face challenges infinitely more complex than the shift from print to digital readership. An app is no longer a solution for most publishers, with development costs increasing and the likelihood of app discovery, usage, and retention diminishing. The largest, most established publishers have found ways to compromise and work with the oligopoly, but even these organizations have to innovate. Publishers need to craft new experiences, ways of working, and emerging technologies to endure and thrive in this new digital world. We’ve identified a few approaches they need to take.

1. Think mobile, beyond the app

From 2014 to 2016, average app development costs increased by a third. In the same period mobile web traffic became almost three times greater than direct app traffic. For all the investment, few publishers have created a viable mobile experience that capitalizes on the shift from desktop.

The mobile-first design is showing results: since last year’s launch, Apple News has acquired 47 million monthly users, already competitive with CNN’s mobile monthly users.

There are exceptions, of course. Apple is on a path toward creating a powerful publishing product with Apple News. By aggregating personalized and bite-sized articles for each user, it offers news at a glance, built into the phone, which means it can tap into user behavior and daily habits. The mobile-first design is showing results: since last year’s launch, Apple News has acquired 47 million monthly users, already competitive with CNN’s mobile monthly users.

Quartz too has started to take more risks in their mobile-first design, building an app that does more than offer an editorial interface It has an interactive messaging UI that allows users to text a request for news or ask questions about the story and receive a plain text response in real-time. More than news, Quartz creates conversations, and through an experience entirely tailored to smartphone-centered behavior — in brief, digestible bits.

What both platforms have in common is viewing mobile as more than just a smaller desktop screen. Messaging, notifications, adaptive design all cater to unique mobile behaviors, which present challenges to established publishers but also new revenue opportunities. Companies like The New York Times are already responding with offerings like one of iTunes’ top podcasts, The Daily, delivering news — and ads — to subscribers who might not use their app or visit nytimes.com on a mobile device. By tapping into mobile behaviors and preferred channels, and creating unique news experiences around those behaviors, publishers can build a resilient business model that is more adaptable to the rapidly changing technology landscape.

67% of US adults report at least getting some of their news from social media, spending a great deal of time on these platforms and preferring to receive news from familiar sources like friends and family.

2. ‘Play nice’ with the oligopoly

67% of US adults report at least getting some of their news from social media, spending a great deal of time on these platforms and preferring to receive news from familiar sources like friends and family. Unfortunately for publishers, many companies in the discovery oligopoly aggregate their suggested stories from specific sources and partners. They require specific formatting, production, and even specific pitches to support the discovery of content. If publishers don’t play nice and partner with these platforms, they’ll risk losing even greater revenue streams than they would through partnerships.

If publishers have to think mobile-first, to play nice with the oligopoly they need to think social-second, considering how current and future content can be consumed on social. Investing in video, visuals, and quick, digestible content will capture interest and promote sharing. This kind of formatting will strengthen publishers’ standing on social and, once proven successful, can inform their own mobile experience. Leveraging what works on social will make publishers’ content more discoverable on those platforms and can draw from the social audience for their own products.

Also, key to a social-second strategy is working directly with the companies that command a sizeable portion of publishers’ target audiences. Snapchat, Facebook, and Google have all launched formats in recent years that facilitate the mobile news experience, but each requires custom development or production. To appear among Instant Articles, Discover, and Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) requires specific development — and, potentially, platform-specific teams — but most of these companies understand their relationship with publishers is mutually beneficial. Many offer alternative revenue opportunities, like AMP ads, in addition to referral traffic.

3. Build processes for the future

Traditional organizational structures silo most teams into autonomous groups with independent goals. This worked when the publishing landscape was restricted to print, but as digital grows and diversifies, publishers have to change their core structures and processes to grow too. In order to fully maximize emerging technology, they have to approach both the user experience and the advertising opportunities holistically, breaking down silos to form product teams that can create commercially viable and delightful experiences together.

Augmented Reality is a great testing ground. Apple has officially released their ARKit, making it easier to implement AR experiences from a technology standpoint. With no real precedent for AR experiences in the publishing space, there’s a massive opportunity to rethink how user and advertising experiences are created to ensure both deliver positive results. The greatest challenge is organizational, requiring developers to work alongside designers, writers, and sales teams with a unified vision. This may require an overhaul in the processes and structure that have always defined a publisher’s organization, but adaptation has always been essential to survival, especially in this disruptive, digital world.

Tech-companies will continue to change the digital content landscape at a rapid pace. However, the horizon doesn’t have to be bleak for publishers. They know the most about their audiences and are the experts in their space, and have the internal teams and skills to create world-class news experiences. Staying ahead of the curve will require a focus on mobile and social strategies, as well as a move to unleash creativity and ingenuity across teams– this means breaking down traditional organizational silos to be more lean, quick to market, and user-focused.

Molly McGaughan

Director of Client Strategy at Beyond
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