Should publishers and content marketers be playing the platform game?

platform-game (1)

The early 2000s saw the advent of platforms on the web: somewhere that bloggers and publishers could host their content without having to worry about the back end, while still maintaining control over their own outlets and what they posted.

More than a decade later, and many of the social media platforms of today are starting to suspiciously resemble blogging platforms, becoming a place for users to publish content instead of just share links and brief updates. At the same time, huge companies like Facebook and Google have developed native publishing platforms aimed at providing a superior user experience for an increasingly mobile audience.

We have a wider choice of platforms to publish to than ever before, and each is promising the fastest, shiniest interfaces that will put our content directly in front of huge audiences we can’t reach through other means.

But how can we manage to spread ourselves between so many different outlets, and what are the drawbacks of these platforms? Veteran digital journalist and university lecturer Adam Tinworth gave a presentation at CMA’s most recent Digital Breakfast on ‘playing the platform game’ which looked at what this plethora of new tools – and gatekeepers – means for online content.

Social publishers and walled gardens

In 2015, we reached a watershed moment: in June, Facebook surpassed Google as the top referring site to publishers, according to Clearly, we are now living in a very different internet age, in which social publishers dominate over search engines as a means of distribution and referral.

Tinworth remarked in a panel discussion later in the Digital Breakfast that social networks have taken over from search engines in the role of “finding something to read” online, leaving search engines to fill more of an “answer engine” role. This has huge ramifications for both SEO and social publishing, some of which are already being felt, and others which will make themselves known further down the line.

A graph by showing referral traffic for Google's various properties (including search engines and Google News) versus Facebook between April 2012 and October 2015. The Facebook line starts off much lower at around 10% of referred traffic, with Google between 30 and 40%. It climbs steadily upwards while Google declines slightly, briefly overtaking it in October 2014, before overtaking it for good in June 2015.

The other huge trend affecting the way that traffic reaches sites online is of course mobile. An Ofcom report from August 2015 declared that the UK is “now a smartphone society”, with 2/3 of Britons owning a smartphone and 33% seeing it as the most important device for going online, above laptops at 30%.

The trend towards mobile has affected the types of platforms springing up that we can publish to. Take Snapchat, the ultimate mobile-native social app, whose Discover publishing platform was just revamped to become much more visual, allowing users to more easily browse content at a glance.

Although Discover is only available to a select few publishers, many more brands and businesses use Snapchat for content marketing, and the redesign shows that Snapchat is serious about pushing further into the publishing space.

Two side-by-side screenshots showing the new, more visual, Snapchat Discover, with large picture thumbnails of Discover stories overlaid with text.The new, more eye-catching Snapchat Discover

Meanwhile, publishing platforms like Facebook Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) have come about with the goal of providing users the best possible experience in mobile. They aim to load fast and look sleek, getting rid of the distracting artefacts which clutter the desktop web to deliver a streamlined product.

Instant Articles and AMP, while they are often mentioned in the same breath, take fundamentally different approaches to providing a better mobile experience. AMP is an open-source project aimed at reinventing the code on which the mobile web runs (from HTML to AMP-HTML), and can be used by anyone to build a faster mobile site. Instant Articles is more selective and restrictive, requiring publishers to have a Facebook page, and allowing them to begin publishing subject to having a sample of their content reviewed by Facebook.

A screenshot of guidelines for Facebook Instant Articles, stipulating that publishers must create at least 10 articles in their Production library before submitting for review, and the Facebook team will review the articles and provide feedback within 3-5 business days. Below this, a notice states "Your review is currently pending. Article reviews are usually completed within 3-5 business days."

But both companies ultimately have the same goal with their platforms, which is to keep users within the spaces they own, their walled gardens, for as long as possible. Readers who click on Sponsored links in Facebook Instant Articles find themselves redirected to other Instant Articles, still within Facebook; and Accelerated Mobile Pages allow you to swipe between news stories without leaving Google.

Other new publication platforms like Apple News have the same basic aim. Even Medium, which appears at first brush to just be another, more social-oriented take on the blogging platform, forces writers who publish with it to give up much of the editorial control they would normally enjoy over how they offer their work, in order to produce content (and revenue) for someone else’s branded platform.

As Tinworth put it in his presentation, “There’s a whole new set of gatekeepers between us and audiences.” But if you can connect with much bigger audiences than you would be able to reach without them, then it’s worth it, right?

The danger of sites as gatekeepers

As we’ve established, publication platforms like Facebook Instant Articles and Medium can provide excellent user experiences, but at the cost of giving over control of your content to the brand whose platform you use.

There’s another, more general, drawback to this proliferation of platforms, which is that suddenly publishers are having to publish to a whole range of different formats. Publishers who are serious about social media, said Tinworth, have known for some time that you need to insert certain metadata in order to do well on those sites, making sure that your social posts look clean and carry the right information.

A slide from Adam Tinworth's presentation entitled "Existing Metadata" with two screenshots of social posts, one on Twitter and one on Facebook. Both have a short comment by the poster above, followed by a card showing a picture, headline and two-line content preview.

Multi-platform publishing takes this to the next level, requiring publishers and content creators to cater to wildly different formats: the requirements for Facebook Instant Articles are different to AMP, which is different to Apple News, which is very different to Snapchat, and so on. But if you want to get engagement on these platforms, this is the game you have to play.

“It’s complicating what was a fairly simple and opening publishing format,” said Adam Tinworth.

The danger of putting these different companies (Google, Facebook, Apple) in front of our content as gatekeepers is that they start to call the shots and tell us exactly how we ought to publish.

So, away with platforms, then? Should we all stick doggedly to hosting all of our content on domains and websites that we have complete ownership and control over? Well, not necessarily. There’s still a lot to be gained from publishing to platforms, and ignoring them means missing out on a great deal of opportunities to connect with the audiences who use them.

What’s good about publishing to platforms?

As Tinworth pointed out, we can’t afford to ignore platforms: they’re incredibly valuable for finding audiences and getting our content out there. And there are other good things about publishing to them.

Platforms are rich experiences where people hang out online, and deliver good traffic and interaction. Posting content there can provide a huge visibility boost, especially if the platform features it in some way; and it reduces the need to drag people, by hook or by crook, over to your own website when they’d rather not go.

A presentation slide detailing the good aspects of publishing to platforms. The bullet points are as follows: Rich experiences where people hang out online; Deliver good traffic and interaction; Often favoured by the platforms; Reduce the need to drag people to your own site.

Mike Burgess, another speaker at the Digital Breakfast, also advised that you can have success by being early onto platforms even when they’re not that successful overall, like Apple News.

Of course, there’s also the bad, which I’ve given plenty of attention to in this article: publishing to multiple platforms means more APIs and feed formats to support, and that extra bit of distance between you and your readers. It’s harder to get access to meaningful analytics, which can be issued at the discretion of the platform, and we’re at the mercy of the platform in other ways – including if they decide to charge.

A presentation slide detailing the bad aspects of publishing to platforms. The bullet points are as follows: Lots of APIs and feed formats to support; Distancing relationship with readers; Analytics can be tricky; We're at the mercy of the platforms; And they do like charging...

Where does that leave publishers who want to get the greatest returns out of the platform game, however that might mean playing it? Ultimately, said Adam Tinworth, the trick is to play it strategically. It’s inevitable that publishers will have to play the platform game, and the key is finding the platforms that the audience you want to target are using.

Mike Burgess gave an excellent example of this in his own presentation when he talked about travel brands on Instagram. Instagram is home to an absolute wealth of travel-related content, with 353 million travel-related hashtags on the app.

People turn to Instagram in droves for inspiration on where to go for their travels, spending an average of 21 minutes per day perusing the app; and yet the travel industry has been the second-slowest (after financial services) at adopting and making use of Instagram.

Businesses can’t afford to be too high-minded about platforms and social publishing, for fear of missing out on golden opportunities like these. At the same time, it’s also worth being aware of the risks and drawbacks, and keeping an eye on them so that you know if they ever start to outweigh the benefits.

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