As mobile penetration reaches 80% of the world’s Internet users and connection infrastructure gets better, more people have started using mobile over desktops to access the Internet.

According to We Are Social, mobile-driven Web traffic grew exponentially from 0.7% of total Web pages served to mobile phones globally in 2009 to 33.4% in 2015. Google has also confirmed that there are more searches now on mobile than on desktop in 10 countries, including the United States and Japan. This could be due to the fact that mobile devices are at closest proximity to users most of the time.

An increasing number of people are accessing Web pages on their cell phones.
An increasing number of people are accessing Web pages on their cell phones.

“Atomisation” of content and the appeal of social media platforms

Accompanying the transition from desktop to mobile, there has been an “atomisation” of content (coined by Todd Defren of SHIFT Communications in 2008), where long-form articles are broken down into bite-sized, stand-alone content such as headlines, photos, videos, infographics, and listicles. These can then be shared and remixed.

In such a scenario, we can imagine the huge appeal of social media with its “snackable content,” which can be consumed and shared quickly and easily.

Recently, various social media platforms have been quick to declare that they can serve content to readers much faster and with better aesthetics than the browser.

Facebook, specifically, lauds its content platform Instant Articles as being the answer to slow-loading sites, which it says takes an average of eight seconds to load fully. Instant Articles claims to load 10 times faster (that’s 0.8 seconds!) including images and videos, thus increasing chances of being read by more.

Social media enjoys the most attention of online users, too. According to GlobalWebIndex 2014 data, it sees the top online activity globally with an average of 1.69 hours spent on it daily.

Publisher’s perils in surrendering their content

While social media offer publishers greater audience reach, various media analysts have warned publishers against “surrendering” their content to external platforms. In a Wan-Ifra blog piece, for example, Andreas Pfeiffer (founder of Pfeiffer Consulting) proclaims that “ … Facebook’s Instant Articles feature is inherently dangerous for publishers” as it organises articles through a “content logic” outside the control of publishers.

He asserts that context, defined as a “recognisable environment that is unique to the brand and the editorial vision it represents,” is what differentiates a well-respected publication from a site full of clickable stories with no common identity. It may be worth considering if publishers are willing to have their content flanked by inane videos or celebrity gossip on the readers’ newsfeed.

Will it inevitably erode the value proposition of publishers’ content?

Similarly, in an INMA blog piece, Gerold Riedmann (CEO of Russmedia Digital) calls for publishers to “think twice about Facebook’s tempting offer,” ruminating on publishers’ loss of control over content curation and the relationship with their readers.

Indeed, publishers should give a serious thought about who really “owns” the audience on external platforms. While publishers can report their follower base on Facebook as part of their reach, the reality is that Facebook ultimately controls how content is served through its algorithms, thus determining the discovery of content for its users.

For example, back in April 2015, it reported that changes are being made to the news feed algorithm. As a result, publishers’ “post reach and referral traffic could potentially decline.” In its latest update, it announced further changes to the algorithm, noting that “some pages may see some increases in referral traffic, and some pages may see some declines in referral traffic.”

Publishers fight back

The verdict may still be out, but some publishers are fighting to claim back control through their own distribution channels.

Axel Springer, Europe’s largest publisher, partnered with Samsung to develop its content aggregator app called Upday, available on Samsung’s phones in Europe. However, as it is not pre-installed on the phones, users will have to download it from the Google app store. It will likely have to invest in marketing as it competes with big names such as Facebook on the app store.

Condé Nast’s award-winning app Epicurious Recipes & Shopping List aggregates content across its Food Innovation Group, which consists of magazine titles such as Epicurious and Bon Appetit. It was designed with the expectations of a mobile user in mind — fast, easy to use, and with opportunities to communicate with fellow users within the app.

For now, it seems that the push comes mainly from publishers who already command extensive audiences across their varied and wide-ranging content offerings, making a rich content experience possible through targeted aggregation.

In this part of the world, the management at leading regional magazine publisher SPH Magazines prefers to view such challenges as opportunities — especially since its portfolio of more than 100 magazine brands in Asia gave it an unprecedented reach of eight million eyeballs around the region spanning a broad spectrum of interests/genres ranging from fashion and beauty, luxury, health and home, parenting, and more.

“Content is one of our greatest assets, and ensuring a positive reader experience is our key mandate,” asserts Joseph Lee, managing director of the new media division, aka the in-house digital guru.

“Our focus has been and will continue to be channeled toward ensuring ease of access by our readers, regardless of where or how our content is being consumed. Different platforms and devices have their means of presenting information, and it is up to the publisher to capitalise on the strengths of each of these devices and platforms to ensure a winning experience for our readers.”

Perhaps one could expect more innovative means of content mobilisation to evolve, even as social media platforms and publishers race neck and neck to monetise the following and social communities they have built over time in their own respective ways.