Newspaper and magazine publishers have adopted many tactics for surviving the big bad wolf of disruption threatening to blow down their carefully constructed houses, but over the last couple of years the media industry seemed to identify two key areas as built more of bricks than straw. 

Facebook cemented itself as a primary way to drive traffic to newsbrands, while apps remained a key way of developing more engaged audiences, and perhaps even getting people to pay for content.

But as we roll in to 2015, the big challenge for publishers hoping to take advantage of either opportunity is standing out from the crowd. Without some sort of wow-factor in what they produce, that challenge may be insurmountable.

Facebook problem 

An apt analogy for the growing challenge of standing out on Facebook recently appeared in The Atlantic:

“Digital-media companies have grown reliant on Facebook’s powerful distribution capabilities. They are piglets at the sow, squealing amongst their siblings for sustenance, by which I mean readers.”

There are too many content sources and it is becoming a desperate scramble. Facebook has so much content now that it is increasingly hard for publishers to stand out. Reach is suffering.

For Facebook, user devices and revenues are increasingly mobile. This changes the nature and amount of content they can push to people. At the same time Facebook has found itself carrying more content than ever. Something has to give.

Felix Salmon, senior editor at Fusion, explains the dilemma well:

“Facebook’s algorithm is already working overtime on trying to slim down a virtually infinite range of possible News Feed posts to a much smaller number. A significant chunk of the NewsFeed is already ads, so in order to make it into the News Feed if you’re not an ad, you need to be really, really good. Like, one close friend announcing her engagement, or a video of another friend pouring a bucket of ice water over her head, or a long and hilarious comment thread on a third friend’s status update.

“What’s not really, really good? A link to some random website which has a user experience which Facebook can’t control, and which is probably suboptimal on mobile.” 

Put another way, news companies will start to feel like they are being forced from the sow’s teat.

In order to find that wow-factor publishers will turn to high quality video production. After all, Facebook is putting a lot of emphasis on video in the News Feed.

But while video might be the flavour of the moment, it is expensive to produce and publishers are relatively new to this highly competitive arena. It is hard for publishers more used to text to get to grips with the production process required for high quality video. 

So publishers will also look for other ways to add the wow factor to their work. A standout example is the Washington Post’s Truthteller experiment, which aims to be the Shazam of political speeches, checking the facts in political speeches in real time.

That’s a grand ambition. It certainly has a wow factor.

App disillusionment?

A few years ago apps were hoped to be the future saviour of print legacy businesses. As “saviour” suggests, there was much hype around apps and what they could bring. 

UBM Live’s head of content and digital Luke Bilton believes that publisher apps have passed the peak of inflated expectations and have entered the trough of disillusionment. He writes:

“According to the PPA’s Digital Subscriptions Uncovered report, digital magazines have a similar level of importance in the circulation mix as the Spar retail group. So while magazine apps have many advantages – particularly as international bolt-ons to existing print products – perhaps the amount of time and column inches spent by publishers on a fairly niche channel is starting to look misjudged.”

Association of Online Publishing managing director Tim Cain noted in his Autumn Conference address that publishers have reduced their prioritisation of paid for apps in favour of the exploration of other potential revenue streams.

He based his comments on the findings of the AOP Content and Trends Census, which asks publishers where their priorities lie each year. Bilton might see that drop in faith as proof that apps (paid for apps, at least) are sliding into the trough of disillusionment.

So what are publishers doing about it? Well, one high-profile approach has seen News UK bundling premier league highlights and other sports rights with subscriptions to The Sun and The Times. It’s an expensive way of finding the wow, and building a subscriber base to fund the whole operation has been a hard slog, but there is some evidence it is helping establish a more sustainable model for News UK’s digital journalism, at least at The Times.

For those not so wedded to the full on subscription model, funding the high-quality experience offered by apps is still challenging, and again, video offers one appealing solution, as Washington Post chief information officer Shailesh Prakash discussed at the Monetising Media event last September:

“We should pay attention to mobile-web because if we as legacy print companies are not careful, mobile-web will do to web in terms of revenues what web did to print because monetisation is so much harder. So should we focus on apps? The app side is where the engagement is but mobile-web is not too expensive from a design and engineering perspective. Apps are very expensive. How do you bridge that gap?

“We believe that video is one opportunity. Sell-through rates are extremely high. CPMs are extremely high. We are constantly being asked to do more video. This is a trend I think is here to stay.”

Mobile apps and Facebook remain top priorities in 2015, but getting heard on social media and actually making money from apps continue to be big challenges. In both areas, publishers will increasingly turn to video, but they are also going to need a broad range of wow-factors to make audiences, algorithms and advertisers care.

In other words, expect more publisher piggies to go to market with some attention-grabbing ideas. Woe betide the little piggy who has none.

Neil Sharman is a research and insight consultant who has worked with media brands including News UK, the IAB and Centaur. You can find his website here, blog here and he tweets @sharmani.