NEW YORK, United States — I recently spoke to the founder of a highly successful women's digital media brand about a newer competitor that had managed, through investor capital and rapid staff expansion, to actually grow traffic. This, I told her, was making some corporate media executives nervous. But, she noted, this site's only strength is getting clicks. "It's not a brand," she said.
She's right: traffic does not make a brand. But it's the main thing the majority of people who run media brands still rely on to sell ads, even as it gets harder to come by. This unrelenting fixation on traffic has had a number of negative consequences for publishers, including staff burnout. But, perhaps worst of all, the point of view of their titles has become so diluted as to be indistinguishable from that of their competitors. When you chase cheap traffic, you end up with the same posts about celebrity Instagrams and Kardashian/Jenner "news" that media consumers can read on any other site, leaving less time to invest in original, higher quality essays and reporting that your audience can't find anywhere else. This leaves both consumers and advertisers to wonder: what happened to brands?
Without huge growth stories to impress advertisers, lifestyle publishers have to find another way to sell their sites. You would think that instead of chasing Kardashian clickbait, syndicating articles across properties (does Time.com really need this 210-word People.com post about one of Nicole Kidman's Instagrams?) and focusing so much energy on gaming the ecosystem at large, they'd double down on storytelling — the thing that makes audiences actually care about what they have to say. But I'm not sure many of these brands even know what it is they have to say anymore.
The point of view of their titles has become so diluted as to be indistinguishable from that of their competitors.
Digital editors saw the end of traffic coming for years. January's much ballyhooed Facebook algorithm change, which has been portrayed as a death knell for social traffic to media brands, was merely the finale to a long string of downgrades for publishers fighting for presence in the newsfeed. From October 2017 to January 2018, Facebook traffic to digital publishers fell 15 percent, according to Chartbeat data. Parse.ly data shows a similar trend, with Facebook referrals to publishers dropping from just above 25 percent of all traffic to just above 20 percent of all traffic from January through February. Digital editors at multiple brands tell me Facebook traffic has fallen off a cliff compared to where it was years ago. Every algorithm change in recent years, many of which expressly penalised clickbait and "engagement bait," only made it harder and harder for publishers to drive audience from Facebook to their websites.
I was a digital editor at a major women's lifestyle publication when the algorithm last changed. I saw the prioritisation of baby announcements and dog photos from family and friends over publisher content as an opportunity: finally, we were free from Facebook's oppressive clutches. Bloggers wouldn't have to spend so much time posting "viral" stories about blurry photos of Jelena going to the gas station or weddings at Burger King. We could at long last focus on telling stories that would differentiate our brands — stories that we were proud of and got into this business to tell.
But sources at large publishers tell me the focus has shifted from gaming Facebook to gaming… just about everything else, and the thirst for clicks is more intense than ever. Double down on SEO! Apple News alerts! Instagram Stories! There are still a billion people on Facebook!
First of all, publishers can't game Facebook. That's the whole point of Facebook now. But the bigger problem with trying to game anything is that it just leaves publishers with more clickbait, blending them further into the already homogenised cesspool of celebrity photo websites and Instagram feeds that are locked in one giant race to the bottom.
I would be terrified if I didn't have any content running on my site that I felt like I could charge people to read, watch or listen to.
As the acquisitions of Rodale and Time Inc. along with layoffs at companies like Condé Nast and BuzzFeed showed us, last year was a very hard one for media. Which is why I would be terrified if I didn't have any content running on my site that I felt like I could charge people to read, watch or listen to. This isn't to say that paywalls, which are notoriously tricky, are definitely the future, but I'll say two things in their favour: they seem like an increasingly important potential revenue stream as publishers continue to lose ad dollars to Facebook and Google. And trying to publish content of monetary value to your readers means you're producing quality work. In this era of cost-cutting and layoffs, companies have to resist their instinct to do nothing but create posts and videos as cheaply and quickly as possible. Now, more than ever, is the time to invest whatever budget remains in big, brand-distinguishing ideas. And publishers will have to be ok with the uncomfortable reality that, sometimes, an idea will fall through and there won't be any payoff.
This is not to say that every digital brand is trapped in the great race to the bottom. Teen Vogue has a clear position as a youth activist brand, which couldn't make it more relevant in the time of President Trump. Fatherly, the lifestyle site for dads, has distinguished itself through its 940 Saturdays programme, so named for the number of Saturdays dads have with their kids until they go to college. Vanity Fair has invested in the Hive, a political news vertical that regularly publishes web-exclusive scoops about the Trump administration, among other great original content.
These kinds of initiatives are what sales teams need to start bragging about in conversations with potential advertisers. Until they do, publishers will be in a downward spiral of their own making: chase clicks, dilute the brand, lose audience and risk losing even more business. If they don't want another year like 2017, something has to change.