Distributed content is simply a fight for attention

By Alvin Lim




According to a report from INMA, the rapid rise of mobile and social networks spawned a mad rush by media companies to distribute content on platforms other than their own. Yet, whether to distribute and where to distribute depend on the publisher’s objectives and context.

What intrigues me about distributed content is that it puts publishers in a Catch-22 situation.

If you go with it and start publishing onto others’ platforms like Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News, you put your business at the mercy of someone else.

In the media vs. technology attention battle, technology is currently winning.
In the media vs. technology attention battle, technology is currently winning.

Remember Zynga? Its addictive and spammy casual games contributed vastly to the growth of Facebook to capture more users in the initial phase. However, when Facebook grew big enough, some tweaks were made to allow users to disable sharing of Zynga games, which improved the user experience, but cut the revenue stream and growth of Zynga badly.

If you become too reliant on another platform, it can turn off the tap for you at any time.

On the other hand, if publishers choose not to join forces with growing technology companies like Facebook, Snapchat, and Apple, they find themselves unable to tap into their vast user bases and capitalise on rapidly changing consumer behaviour on Web and mobile.

If news media companies had moved fast enough to see technology companies like Google and Facebook as a future threat to their bottom lines a decade or so back, the technology and media landscape would be very different from what it is now.

Today, media companies are seen as lost dinosaurs trying to play catch-up in the digital age, not to mention the fact that many are being bought outright by technology companies. It could have been the other way around 10 years ago — the media companies buying technology companies.

Fundamentally, I see distributed content as a means to grab more reach, regardless of whether the user ends up landing on one of your owned sites or not.

There is a need for publishers to rethink the overall concept of “publishing.” Is publishing just about putting content on your owned sites?

Is the current advertising model of selling advertisements on your sites still the way to go? This is a remodeling of the old ways of selling print ad spaces in the newspaper, and it may be what is hampering news publishers from moving forward with growing advertisement revenue by not being able to think outside the box.

For pure-play digital publishers like BuzzFeed, which pursues an all-out distributed content model to reach the widest online and mobile audience possible with minimal concern on the bottom line, it is still uncertain how the eventual big monetisation will come about.

Then again, the big technology giants of today like Google and Facebook were also more focused on growing their user bases than monetising in their initial phases.

That’s probably where all the media publishers got it wrong then. It was always about how to protect the revenue decline for print and how to make more money from the Web and assets instead of pursuing user growth.

Maybe it is time to relook at the focus of grabbing people’s attention.

By attention, I mean not just competing with other news publishers, but time people spend on playing online games, chatting on mobile, or doing anything else on their mobile or desktop other than reading the news.

Are there ways to get into those spaces with news publishers’ content offerings?

Beyond just the lazy way of plugging yourself into distributed content options offered by platform owners like Google and Facebook, are there other things news publishers can do to put themselves ahead of the game rather than always playing catch-up?

Why not build something that allows you to better distribute your content onto others’ platforms and assets rather than have it the other way round?

With the sad, rapid demise of the traditional media giants, when push comes to shove, maybe it is time to take a gamble and go develop that unicorn.

Ten years ago, media companies did not see technology companies as competitors. Now, they are eating heavily into the revenues of news publishers.

Five years ago when I was still working at Singapore Press Holdings, the largest media company in Singapore, I thought the news media companies still had a fighting chance against technology companies.

Now, I am seriously beginning to doubt that, given the rapid, exponential decline of circulation and share of eyeballs. BuzzFeed is no longer just a site with silly cat GIFs, but a serious contender in the online media space that rivals many traditional news media companies.

Wake up before it’s too late.

About Alvin Lim

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