The viral publishing game is over and we all lost

What’s next?

I was embarrassed that Facebook/Twitter picked up my dumb mug as the share image. Enjoy this only slightly kludgy visual metaphor instead! (ESO/C. Malin)

A lot of the conversations I’m having about audience development these days quickly devolve from focused discussions about acquisition and retention strategies — you know, analytical stuff — to talking about, er…brands.

Why brands? Because that’s all anyone has left to talk about. The murmurs from early 2016 are that the days of gaming social media, which is essentially what audience development has been in the last few years, are pretty much over. The signal the jig is up is that volume publishers are suddenly finding that they can’t post too much on Facebook, and reps at the Network are unofficially confirming this. Even a few months ago, the conventional wisdom and unofficial recommendation from Facebook was to space out posts by a few hours to make sure you didn’t overwhelm your audience. When I worked at Upworthy, there was a period when friends and family would complain that they saw us too much, something we had almost no control over.

That will never happen again, but not only for the reasons you might think. The much-told story of the last two years on Facebook has been reduced organic reach due to an improved algorithm that uses, among other things, human feedback to deliver stories only to the people most likely to engage with a post. That’s only one piece of the puzzle. Thanks to its recent focus on trending news, Facebook has also quietly become terrifyingly good at identifying and grouping news stories; that is, collating articles about the same subject and showing each user the one most likely to appeal to them.

Put together, these two developments have made building an audience on Facebook much harder. A few years ago, a good insurgent could grow by inventing a tactic that allowed them to play a different game than everyone else for a while. Upworthy’s (in)famous “curiosity gap” headlines were an example of this. For a time, the algorithm treated them so differently than everything else that you would often see the Upworthy version of a story right next to a traditional publisher’s version in your newsfeed.

That doesn’t happen anymore, because Facebook deliberately decided to stop publishers from succeeding at this kind of gaming. Instead of competing against every other piece of content for every slot in the newsfeed, your article now competes against other similar articles for a specific slot set aside for that story. Facebook has narrowed the game for publishers, effectively making it zero-sum: one publisher’s article wins, everyone else’s loses.

Like every other zero-sum game, the newsfeed for publishers is now naturally minimizing and consolidating, because the advantages you gain by playing become baked-in over time. The more games you play, the more data you have about how to test and optimize for the next battles, the quicker you can react to future changes in the algorithm, the more games you win, and so on.

It’s not impossible for insurgents to compete in this environment, but it’s a lot harder and requires much more investment to gain a foothold. That’s why you’re seeing all but the biggest publishers top out at around 30 million uniques a month these days. There’s just too much competition and not enough newsfeed to do more than that unless you’re publishing a thousand times a day. Put another way, 30 million a month is the supply ceiling Facebook has imposed on the market.

Perhaps more importantly, this game does not lend itself to a good business unless you’re already at scale. As Dave Cohn put it nicely in an article last year, viral content companies are essentially promising advertisers that they have the scale to figure out how to reach the same people in new ways a few months before everyone else. They’re not selling their brand, content, talent or even distribution anymore. They’re selling arbitrage.

I know some people who are confident that this is a viable long-term business, that they can continually adjust to take advantage of whatever the next big thing is. Today, that’s native Facebook video. We’re now seeing insane video view growth from the same places that were pulling in uniques hand over foot two years ago. But there’s no reason to believe that video won’t eventually meet the same fate that viral articles did, except that native video is in some ways less valuable because it lives on Facebook, which will surely want in on monetization some day soon.

What do you do if you don’t love the idea of that business? You chuck the numbers and start talking about your brand. That’s what a lot of the people I’ve spoken to recently have been doing. The thinking goes that if you can grow to a few million uniques per month, convert a decent percentage of subscribers to fully-owned platforms, and do some really good events and press to convince advertisers that you are uniquely trustworthy to your incredibly valuable niche, you’ve got a decent business there.

I think this is a pretty good strategy if you’re content to run a small, profitable publishing business (and frankly, you should be). There are a number of publications — Quartz, Digiday, PSFK, Skift — who seem to be executing on the brand strategy nicely.

But I worry that the brand strategy won’t be viable forever, or even all that much longer. It’s already harder than ever to build a strong brand in the new distributed media environment where the majority of your reach happens on platforms you don’t own, can’t brand, and worst of all, where publishing brands just aren’t a natural fit.

Social media is, after all, designed to connect people to other people. Brands have always had a tougher time spreading messages on Facebook than individuals, because they’re playing in a space that’s fundamentally not designed for them. The only reason publisher brands feel different is that they once held a unique, trusted position in society. That trust is now gone. What if our kids find the idea of any brands communicating as if they’re people even more awkward than we do?

Even if media brands are always viable in some form, though, I feel a tad verklempt that the two most promising futures we’re embracing right now are playing an eternal game of arbitrage in a market we don’t control and giving up dreams of big reach and impact and building small businesses with outsized brands. There must be some other ways to address the changing media landscape, right?

I bet lots of people in unexpected places have some really interesting ideas. We should seek and hear them out. And there are certainly a few things I’d like to try.

At the most extreme, I believe there are opportunities to re-think the role publishing plays in society, moving beyond providing information — now a commodity — and into providing (measurable) ways that readers can act in response to what they read. Post-reading actions that go beyond sharing, like Medium’s highlighting or Instapaper’s notes are the most basic implementations of this concept. In some ways, WNYC’s various crowdsourced projects gesture at the idea by asking readers to bring the station’s stories into the real world. And there are a few companies like Change.org and Public Good Software offering to help publishers deepen the engagement funnel. But no one seems to be interested in taking big steps in this direction yet.

Or, you could dramatically re-imagine the publisher’s role on social media. While Facebook has drawn a line in the sand with publishers, that doesn’t seem to be the case for individual pages, and the Network is still somewhat desperate for a certain class of public intellectuals to take it as seriously as Twitter (hello, live video). Some of these individual pages must be big traffic drivers for their affiliated publications. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before some publishers start to operate more like agencies, promoting the brands of writers above that of the publication and providing them with optimization and social management services, monetization opportunities and affiliations with similar writers in exchange for loyalty and partial control of social channels. We’re starting to pursue something like that with non-fiction book authors at Heleo, and seeing interesting results.

On the safer side, trying to establish a niche on an up-and-coming channel that Facebook doesn’t totally own yet but that young people are flocking to, like messaging apps (or should that read notifications?), seems like an okay hedge. Forbes’ new Telegram bot is a good example of this. Layering some machine learning on top of that experience would be an even more ambitious foray into the future of computing.

Along those same lines, I’ve been chewing on a thought experiment about what a digital publication with mass audience ambitions that deliberately avoided Facebook might look like. You’d have to be crazy to actually try it, of course, but the direction that limitation prods you in is quite interesting. My thinking so far is that you might start with a notification-driven mobile app (Quartz’s new effort comes to mind), try to develop some kind of viral mechanism that combines interesting post-read actions with messaging, and then let developers, advertisers and even other publishers hook into it once you establish a user-base. On second thought, that might just be Yo. Hopefully you can do a lot more with this thought experiment than I can.

If there’s a point to any of this, it’s that the mass audience publication that we all grew up with has reached an end point, and we need to accept that. Nothing that I’ve written about above— especially not the distributed model most folks seem to be settling on — works if we continue to see a publication as a big brand that people get information and entertainment from. If we can get past that, accept that publishing has to mean something else now, and explore what that could be, I think there are a ton of fascinating opportunities that could make this industry vital again. That thought makes me far less verklempt.