How publishers can beat the platforms with relationships and ritual

Consumer publishers should harness the power of ritual to compete with social media, says Vivian Schiller

Recent revelations concerning the activities of Cambridge Analytica and other third party groups using Facebook data for less than noble aims have presented many publishers with a dilemma.

In many ways, it’s the same problem which has dogged content creators since the advent of the news feed – whether to embrace new technology and bathe in the traffic of viral visitors, or refuse to cede control of content delivery to another company’s platform and tough it out?

The answer, proposes Vivian Schiller, independent editor in chief at Weber Shandwick and director at the Scott Trust USA, may lie in efforts to foster relationships, rather than mass audiences.

In a recent speech at the Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin, Schiller discussed the pact struck between Facebook and publishers. For her, Jonah Peretti’s Buzzfeed was the archetypal social outlet, as proven in an address given at 2015's SXSW by Peretti, in which he declared: “Who needs a website when you have Facebook?” She compared that sentiment with a drastically different one voiced this year by Peretti, when used an open letter to curse the network’s hold influence on the news media.

Although Buzzfeed’s efforts to drive readers back to its native app and website may prove too late in the day, Schiller suggested that publishers willing to deepen the relationships they had with audiences and to promote ritualistic media consumption, could secure their business models. “In order to succeed, you cannot rely on Facebook or any platform to control your destiny.”

This problem was put into sharp relief by the shadow of ‘dark social’, the collective moniker for the various black arts of fake account creation, content manipulation and audience targeting. “As many as 40 million accounts on Facebook have been faked,” she said, noting a recent New York Times investigation into companies that sell false followers. The metrics promoted by platforms as the currency of media are suspect at best, she concludes.

Furthermore, she said Facebook’s recent algorithm tweaking, and statements from company founder Mark Zuckerberg, point to a withdrawal from news for the platform. Although the tech giant’s rivals are queuing to fill the void, Schiller said that the solution for publishers is to “take back control.”

“The notion that scale is everything has been replaced by the notion of relationships,” she said. “It’s not necessary for every publisher to reach every single person in the world. It’s much more important to have very, very deep relationships with a core audience who’s going to be loyal to you and.. who is also going to pay you.”

Those relationships can be built, she proposed, by prioritising “deep, quality original content” and by “not trying to boil the ocean.” This approach has been trialled at The New York Times and at The Guardian, where a membership scheme has increased reader loyalty and revenues. Schiller highlights products such as push alerts, podcasts and newsletters which promote reader retention, regular reading habits, and collect high-quality data which can be fed into programmatic.

Finally, Schiller suggested tapping into the power of ritual to push media products. “Ritual is going to be key for publishers who want to engage their loyal audiences,” said Schiller. She points to quiz app HQ Trivia, which has managed to secure an audience by allowing players to compete at set times daily, bringing the ‘appointment viewing’ concept to mobile.

Schiller said that her proposal – marrying decent content creation with the same habits that once led millions to bring home Sunday broadsheets every weekend – has not come too late in the day. The alternative, she suggests, is for publishers to hand their destinies to platforms that are indifferent to their survival.

Read more of The Drum’s coverage from the Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin, including our feature on how Thomas Cook’s Media Partnerships unit has created a successful media brand from within a 176-year-old travel company, and about fresh research insights on innovative revenue sources for publishers.

Additional reporting by Sam Bradley

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