Facebook claims media owners ‘don’t know their audience’ but the Guardian and Mashable beg to differ

For the first time technology platforms like Facebook are telling publishers they are key to the growth of the internet but there are still unresolved tensions around whether they know their audiences well enough to maximize ad revenues.

The launch of Facebook Articles as well as Apple News and Google AMP is proof that the problem with content isn’t the content; it’s the distribution. What publishers like the Guardian and Mashable have given up in distribution to technology platforms of today, they’ve gained in terms of control of the product, which in turn is taking publishers closer to their audiences, since they are increasingly tailoring their content to analytics-focused results based on story success.

But they’re not close enough yet, according to Damian Burns, the global head of Facebook’s ad tech stack Atlas.

“Media owners don’t understand their audience,” he claimed at the DigitasLBi ‘What’s next in media’ event last week (27 January) alongside the Guardian and Mashable. He went to explain that when media moved online the industry went from having 20/20 vision to a “media blizzard”, and that ad tech like Atlas can “shine a light in this fog” through better audience targeting.

"Nearly half of all digital ads don’t make it to their intended audience", said Burns.

His view is unsurprising given the social network’s plan to generate more ad revenues from targeting publishers’ readers. Facebook has essentially positioned themselves in the middle of publishers and advertisers, based on the claim that no one understands audiences as well as them, thus both can gain from Atlas’ people-based marketing. Atlas can utilize the scale of Facebook, which has 1.55 billion monthly users worldwide, to unlock a huge audience database, putting its reach higher than any other ad server.

With a predicted 20 per cent decline in print revenues this year, The Guardian are one of many publishers taking advantage of Facebook’s reach, with Anna Watkins, managing director of Guardian Labs, claiming Facebook Instant Article links from the Guardian are shared three times as much as ordinary links.

That publishers like the Guardian are more willing to hand their content over to the likes of Facebook is emblematic of wider changes that have also given rise to ad blocking. Both Facebook and the Guardian warned of the adpocalypse that would arrive should their peers fail to deliver quality ads.

Where Facebook has an advantage with ad blocking is in Atlas’ move away from cookies, a desktop currency which “played a part in the rise of ad blocking” because they do not work off desktop, claimed Burns. He added: “The solution to the adpocalypse is to put real people at the core, not cookies”.

Guardian Labs was born out of a need to find an effective way around the ad blocking issue, through fewer more premium and seamless advertising that viewers want to interact with that is served within editorial, to avoid ad blockers.

Watkins said the increased use of ad-blocking software, combined with “an obesity crisis” in digital content, have left brands reviewing their media methods.

The rise of ad blocking which called for brands, advertisers and publishers to up their game to develop more engaging ads has proved successful for Mashable’s platform. Interestingly, of Mashable’s top three best performing stories, two of them are centered around advertising campaigns, which is testament to the publisher’s ability to tap into social conversation at the right time with its Velocity platform, but also illustrates that people really do enjoy good ads.

While social media platforms are acting more like publishers, publishers are acting more like media owners - taking a more commercial strategy in how they sell their product and understand their audience - in order to find the right communities for their content.

Ben Maher, executive director of EMEA at Mashable, tells publisher they have to redefine their stories within each social environment, and that content produced should be defined by the interests of the audience on each platform. For instance, the content produced for Snapchat differs hugely from the content that performs best on LinkedIn.

Indeed, Mashable epitomizes the new spirit of wider distribution that media brands need to adopt, Maher suggested, using dedicated teams to repurpose stories for every significant social network from Pinterest to Snapchat to Meerkat.

Mashable claim to be big supporters of Snapchat, which has “done a lot to grow their platform” through its “incredible reach”, explained a Mashable spokesperson.

The Guardian are also spearheading Snapchat as a visual storytelling platform to appeal to the millennial generation that now watch video content online over TV. Watkins says the Guardian are now a mobile-first publisher, using smaller screens as its primary view before publishing, since during key periods the website indexes over 70 per cent on mobile.

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Jessica Goodfellow

The Drum's media reporter covering everything from publishing, TV, social media, radio and technology.

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