At this time of year, the commentary pages are full of features predicting the year ahead. These articles are great fun to produce – and read – yet taking the opportunity to reflect on what’s changed over the past year can be equally valuable. 

Our obsession – particularly in media and tech circles – with what’s new and what’s on the horizon, can sometimes blind us to understanding just how much has changed in the short to medium term.

With that in mind, here are eight trends from the past year which I thought worth highlighting:

1.    Social overtakes search as the pathway to news

The traffic-analytics service Parse.ly revealed earlier this year that Facebook had overtaken Google as the primary source of traffic for the world’s Top 100 news sites. “In July 2015,” Martin Laprise, Parse.ly’s algorithms lead told Marketing Land, “referral traffic from Facebook passed referral traffic from Google by more than three percent.” 

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Source for original image: https://fortunedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/screen-shot-2015-08-18-at-2-26-19-pm.png

Jump forward to the end of last month, and Parse.ly’s analysis of the most read news stories of 2015 across its network of 400+ publishers found that in five out of seven cases, social was the primary driver of traffic.

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Image source: http://www.parsely.com/static/img/resources/authority-report-9-topic-sources.jpg

Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps not surprising that so many major publishers have signed up to be part of Facebook’s Instant Articles initiative. Participants include international players such as the Washington Post, alongside brands in Latin America and Asia, as well as regional publishers like the UK’s Manchester Evening News. 

It’s a move which is part of what Emily Bell, director of Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, called earlier this year, “great reintermediation of the web.”

Publishers may not like this dynamic. But with with social networks driving traffic so profoundly, then the need to be “all in” when it comes to social is more important than ever.

2.    Snapchat comes of age

The ephemeral social network has had a phenomenal year. The popular messaging app now enjoys 6 billion video views a day, up from 2 billion in May 2015.

New services such as Snapchat Discover,  the expansion of their live stories features, a native advertising partnership with the Daily Mail and WPP, a host of of new filters, as well as a new native video ad product and are all a sign of how this network is really hitting its stride.

With Snapchat identified as the world’s fastest growing social app last year, these developments have further cemented the value provided by this network for both millennials and publishers.

As with Facebook Instant Articles, it’s a channel that publishers will find increasingly difficult to ignore.

3.    Live video services have quickly become mainstream

2015 has seen a number of new innovations quickly become an established part of the media ecology. Snapchat Discover is one example of this. Periscope is another.

It’s hard to remember that less than twelve months ago these services didn’t even exist.

Periscope was launched by Twitter eight months ago, at the end of March, just a month after Meerkat; a live video streaming forerunner which was initially seen as a game changer, before quickly being consigned to second place in this new field.

Publishers and brands have embraced these services to tell stories in different ways, including providing behind the scenes content or more immersive storytelling. 

As journalism.co.uk noted, when exploring coverage of Europe’s refugee crisis, reporters from the BBC, Bild and TIME have found that “broadcasting on Snapchat and Periscope has allowed journalists to give the public access to raw, unedited and instant footage of this international story.”

These types of content provision – and opportunities for brand extension – are here to stay.

 4.    Ad-Blocking is part of the new normal

The same “here to stay” sentiment also is applicable to ad-blockers. As Jason Mander, GlobalWebIndex’s Head of Trends, and a monthly contributor to TheMediaBriefing, wrote in his daily email newsletter on 21st December: 

“The heaviest consumers of the internet, 16-24s, are at the very forefront of the trend, with over a third of them blocking ads. But that presents something of a paradox: older groups are the most concerned about their privacy and personalized recommendations/ads and yet are the least likely to be blocking ads.

“That’s surely a symptom of awareness; currently, older groups are the least likely to know what ad-blockers are. As such tools become more mainstream, there can be little doubt that usage levels will creep upwards and show fewer variations by age.”

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Image source: http://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/304927/Assets_COTD/9th-Nov-2015-16-24s-Most-Likely-To-Block-Ads.png?t=1450446977031

5.    Making news media pay remains problematic

Resistance to online advertising appears to be global, with data suggesting that 47% of online news users in the USA and 39% in the UK regularly use ad-blocking software.

Yet at the same time, as the 2015 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, clearly showed, audiences aren’t necessarily willing to pay for content either. Nor are they especially big fans of sponsored content. 

Getting many audiences to pay for content – especially news – remains a huge challenge. 

And it’s one that many established players, new commercial entities and VC funded initiatives are grappling with. As Raju Narisetti, Senior Vice President, Strategy, recently commented on Twitter, about element of this cohort: “Not one venture-backed news aggregator has yet shown a sustainable business model.”

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Image source: https://cbi-blog.s3.amazonaws.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/newsreadergraphic.jpg   

Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising that many publishers have begun to strike back. Axel Springer’s move to prevent people with ad blockers from accessing their content, may well become a mainstream trend in 2016. Without these types of efforts, it can sometimes be hard to see how the ad-blocking juggernaut can otherwise be stopped.

6.    New payment models offer a source of optimism

Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. The announcement, earlier this month, that the pay-per-article digital newsstand, Blendle, will launch in the United States next year, shows that there are opportunities for successful innovation and experimentation.

The service is used by over 500,000 people in Germany and The Netherlands and is used by both national publishers and international brands such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist.

And although the Sun lowered – and then scrapped – its paywall this year, the merger of Tinypass and Piano Media suggests that there is some latent potential in the paywall space.

Meanwhile, the proposed international expansion of De Correspondent, a Dutch digital only magazine, also offers cause for optimism in terms of subscription and crowdfunded models.

None of these models will necessarily be for everyone, but they do offer some evidence to counteract the argument that nobody will pay for content. In some cases, readers clearly will. Provided that the material – and the means to pay for it – is tailored to the audience.

 7.    The most innovative TV this year was streamed

In a similar vein, the growth in subscriptions for both Netflix and Amazon Prime are also a reflection – among some audiences – of the willingness to pay for distinctive content.

Although established TV shows like Mad Men, Homeland, Game of Thrones and Modern Family continued to deliver (the battle between the Wildlings and the White Walkers in GoT was the most thrilling thing I’ve seen on any sized screen this year,) arguably the best and boldest new shows were all to be found online.  

And although there were exceptions (Fargo and The Americans, I’m looking at you) the volume of distinctive and original shows like Transparent,  Jessica Jones, The Man in the High Castle and Master of None; were considerably higher on these streamed only services.

Piracy remains a huge problem for these subscription services, with passwords often widely shared; but their growth curve – as well as the commitment to original content – remains as impressive. Similarly, the budgets they have access to can be eye watering. Being able to cherry pick content – instead of filling a 24/7 schedule –  changes the financing dynamic. Witness the FT’s report that Amazon had paid $250m to sign the former Top Gear presenters – Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May – for a new show.

For talent, audiences and content creators alike, these are clearly platforms to watch. 

Moreover, with the House of Cards’ Kevin Spacey  winning Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series (Drama) at this year’s Golden Globes, and Robin Wright winning in her category last year, there’s also a growing industry recognition of the quality – and significance – of this content too. 

 

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Image source: https://d28wbuch0jlv7v.cloudfront.net/images/infografik/normal/chartoftheday_3153_netflix_subscribers_n.jpg

 8.    A “new look” slimmer BBC is on the way

In contrast, the decision to clip the wings of the BBC may mean that the UK’s premier public service broadcaster diminishes in its impact; both domestically and globally.

Reduced budgets will mean that it cannot compete with commercial rivals.

As the FT’s media correspondent Henry Mance has observed, “Netflix’s model… could help to push the BBC out of premium drama, just as Sky pushed the BBC out of premium sport. (Next season the rights to broadcast Premier League matches will cost £1.8bn a year, as much as the BBC’s entire spending on TV programmes.)”

Whilst a re-purposed Corporation may opt out of particular content genres, championing new talent, or even serving particular demographics. In turn, this will challenge the concept of universality manifest in the way that the BBC is funded. This may have a knock-on effect at home, as well as in sales to international markets (both through direct content and the creation/selling of formats) and in the “soft power” benefits that Britain derives through the BBC brand.

As the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins has noted: 

“The question for the country now, and its politicians, is whether the BBC’s founding vision still has any currency; whether the BBC can still be something different from a media business and something more than a “content provider”.

“Can it still be part of the essence of Britishness, existing as a public space through which we may all pass as equals, selling us nothing, simply there for our information, education and entertainment? Can it remain our “guide, philosopher and friend”, as Reith had it? 

“… It is an argument that the BBC can win or lose; and it is in the newly empowered Conservatives’ gift to decide its fate. All that could possibly stand in the government’s way is the will of the people. Britain will have the BBC it deserves.” 

Honorable mentions

Alongside these eight major developments, 2015 may also go down as the year that VR began to become mainstream. The New York Times’ recent experiment with Cardboard helped to bring this nascent technology to a new audience (1.2 million VR sets were distributed). The year ahead will offer opportunities for new films around events such as the Rio Olympics, as well as rapid response content like the NYT’s recent film showcasing candlelight vigils in Paris.

Other potential game changers from 2015 include Google’s AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) project, and their European based Digital News Initiative. This investment fund – alongside the search company’s more pronounced mobile first strategy – may also have a substantial impact on the experience of both media users and producers. It’s too early to tell at this stage, but these are certainly developments worth watching. 

By the same token, the Apple Watch and wearables market may not have taken the world by storm in 2015, but there’s plenty of experimentation and thinking going on. Will this new platform take off? I guess only time will tell. 

 


Damian Radcliffe (@damianradcliffe) is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon and a former guest editor of TheMediaBriefing. 

Before moving to the USA he led new creative and research initiatives at the BBC, Ofcom (the UK Communications Regulator), Volunteering Matters – a UK NGO – The Local Radio Company and Qatar’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ictQATAR).