Publishers fearing Facebook dependency: fight for your future, reinvent RSS.

Right now Facebook accounts for over 40% of all traffic for U.S. news organizations, making many dependent on the social network for ad-revenue-driving traffic, even as Facebook makes moves to bring publishers’ content more wholly onto its platform (where it has control over monetization options).

So how the heck is RSS, a 17-year old technology, currently accounting for only ~1% of traffic to news sites, a solution to this problem? Don’t worry, I’m not going to say the answer is RSS readers.

The Publishers’ Situation

Let’s start by accepting a few fundamental realities about modern publishing:

  • No single publisher will ever have a monopoly on readers’ attention again. Digital distribution is free / extraordinarily cheap, multiple niche / focused sources will hit what people care about way more often than single / broad sources, and curation (algorithmic, platform editors, or social) that can draw from multiple sources will always have an advantage over curation that only draws from a single source (their own org’s content).
  • People want to consume content where they’re spending their time already, not spend time going to a bunch of different sources to consume content. Publishers can compete to be a worthwhile destination for the readers most closely aligned with them, but publishers whose content reaches users where they are (right now Facebook, email, Google News, YouTube, Snapchat) will always have a massive reach advantage over those who solely insist that readers must come to them.

The main problem for publishers is how you monetize your content if you don’t control the environment it’s presented in. Controlling that environment is what’s letting them…

  • wrap ads around the content
  • charge for access to the content
  • collect and sell visitor data from those consuming the content (even if you’re not doing this directly, the ad partners you use are, and you’re essentially enabling it as a cost-of-doing-business to be able to sell ads to brands that want specifics about what kind of audience they’re reaching)

The Platforms’ Situation

Facebook’s situation is pretty simple. Keeping users on the site longer / more often = more ad views = more revenue. Content (and the discussion / engagement it drives) does that.

For every other platform, it’s not just a matter of keeping already-engaged users even more engaged, it’s a matter of keeping users active at all — providing something new & interesting every day (if not every hour) is the only way for a platform to keep users coming back. User activity isn’t enough, especially for new platforms. They need content.

So how are they getting it? Snapchat’s working directly with publishers, essentially trading them the extra effort of developing for a new, custom format in return for the massive additional readership of being one of a few partners. Twitter created a new tech specification for publishers to turn links to their articles shared on twitter into a rich media preview (twitter cards). Facebook previously did the same, and is now providing another new specification (Instant Articles) to bring in the entire article content.

This is key: by Facebook determining the technical specification for publishers’ syndicated content, Facebook determines the formatting possibilities, constraints, and monetization options of that content. And by the way, they’ll let you provide content matching that specification through RSS.

A Chance for Publishers to Regain Leverage

A lot’s already been written about how publishers have let technical apathy lead to their own supplanting by others now controlling core pieces of publishers’ value chains (e.g. classifieds, display advertising, news discussion). Realize that Facebook Instant Articles is the pioneer in reinventing and innovating on another key piece: content syndication.

10 years from now, publishers can live in one of two worlds: one in which they’ve stepped up to influence the ecosystem being built around their content, creating options for themselves, or one in which they’ve continued to let that ecosystem develop on its own and dictate to them the options they have available. If publishers don’t start working to reinvent and innovate on a standard of their own for content syndication, they will be letting Facebook dictate a lasting standard that serves its interests foremost.

Remember, we’ve established:

  • people want to consume content where they’re spending their time already
  • content from multiple sources > content from a single source. Publishers can’t outcompete platforms by becoming their own platform. Platforms can’t eliminate publishers by out-publishing them themselves.
  • platforms will continue to value high-quality, publisher-produced content as a way to engage users
  • new platforms will continue to emerge and fight to be a place where people are spending their time

…so it’s obvious that Facebook is not the last platform that’s going to want publishers’ content in a format they can easily syndicate. If publishers only follow whoever’s in the lead now, the format that will be easiest for new platforms to work with will be the only one publishers are making available: Facebook’s.

Is it really a bad thing? Well, it’s not guaranteed to be. Instant Articles as they stand now are a good format in a lot of ways. Constraints like not allowing pop-ups or ads between every slide in a slideshow are great for users! And for now Facebook allows publishers to include their own directly sold ads (in a limited number of formats), third-party analytics, even third-party video players with pre-roll ads. But:

a) Facebook reserves “the right to change these policies at any time without prior notice.” And boy do they have a history of changing the rules of the game on people who have invested a lot in building on their ecosystem.

b) Think about all the models this format doesn’t allow. Content-driven commerce. Answer a (advertiser-paid) poll for access. Limited preview pay-walls. Micropayments. Bonus content for paid subscribers. Other ad formats. I’m not advocating for any particular model; just saying that Facebook’s specification limits options for publishers and much-needed media business innovation.

Why wouldn’t new platforms make their own standard? New platforms won’t have the leverage to get publishers to produce for it.

So what should publishers do?

Publishers should create a new open standard for content syndication, and it should be built on RSS / Atom.

I can hear some developers groaning about the creation of ever more tech standards as a solution to tech standard problems. But the reality is, this isn’t a situation of many competing standards in an already-mature, already-fragmented ecosystem. This is a situation of a single, limiting standard about to dominate a still-emerging resurgence of distributed content. And the only way to fight that is to build something better.

We need a content syndication standard that accounts for things like:

  • modern kinds of content, in their native form (text enhanced with rich layouts, embeds, etc.; video in different formats; audio; photo series; interactive media)
  • different monetization options
  • analytics integration
  • richer meta data (e.g. preview photos, named entities, video / audio length)
  • getting the syndication version of a specific piece of content (replace Twitter card / Facebook open-graph markup)

If publishers worked together to create and support this standard, it would not only allow adoption from other major platforms (increasing publishers’ leverage in getting Facebook to adopt it), it would enable entirely new platforms to be built off of the plethora of newly-accessible content. And with publishers building in monetization options from the beginning, they can turn syndication from a begrudging competitive necessity to a value-building revenue channel.

So why RSS / Atom?

If publishers are going to develop this standard, again, why start from 17-year old RSS, or it’s slightly younger sibling, Atom?

For one, these standards are halfway there already. They were built for publishers to syndicate content and they worked well in a web 1.0 world for that purpose. The main downsides I see to their current form are: a) they haven’t adapted to any of the innovation in media that’s happened in the past ten years, and b) they weren’t developed with monetization in mind.

Second and quite importantly, these standards still have widespread support. Pretty much every publisher’s CMS natively supports the production of RSS / Atom feed for articles published. I suspect it would be a lot easier to get the participation of key players like the core developers of WordPress and other CMS makers if a new standard was developed as an extension of what they already implement, rather than something entirely new.

Maybe I’m Wrong

Maybe RSS isn’t the best base to build a new content syndication standard from. Maybe Facebook recognizes publishers finding sustainable digital business models is important enough that it will avoid locking them in or limiting their options, even at the expense of its own profitability. Maybe we’re at peak platform and no serious challengers to Facebook / YouTube / Snapchat’s dominance will emerge over the next ten years, even if they had easy access to high quality content to grow their user engagement around. In all seriousness, I’m not an expert on any of these things; I don’t know.

But I know publishers haven’t worked together to get ahead of the ball in tech in quite a while. I know in many areas it may well be too late. And I know that at least to me, this looks like an opportunity for publishers to reclaim responsibility for how their content reaches the audiences they want to serve. And reclaim some control of their destiny as an industry.