The state of blogging, content marketing and online publishing in 2016

Content… as far as the eye can see

You’ve probably read extensively about the long-touted death of the journalism and publishing industry, but few people are talking about the true reality of publishing anything in 2016: the ‘content crunch’ is truly upon us.

As thousands of individuals, brands and journalists flock to get their words in front of people we’ve reached a critical point: there’s just too much great content out there and not as many eyeballs to look at it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — a plethora of great content is good for everyone — it just means that it’s even harder to get your words in front of people than ever before.

What happened to blogging, content marketing and online publishing? Well, platforms did. In the early days of writing, you’d run your own blog platform, on your own server, with your own domain name. People would find you in a Google search, or from your RSS feed. That was it, dead simple.

In 2016, that’s not the case. Google killed RSS feeds and running your own blog, at some point, became a little unfashionable. The name of the game in 2016 is something incredibly different from just ten years ago; be it hosting your blog on Medium or running a topical content blog in disguise.

How’d we get here?

This post originally appeared on Frontcourt. Get more like it here.

Well, it started as a gradual slide toward centralization of platforms, then everyone fell off a cliff without realising what happened at all. The content crunch happened around a perfect trifecta of technology: mobile’s explosive growth, RSS’ death and the centralisation of everything.

Metaphors aside, what really happened is quite simple: social media appeared — and our collective attention turned from news sites and search engines to centralized platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Over time instead of consuming news by going somewhere to read it, it just came to you, in a single feed.

It was around this time that RSS began its slide into irrelevance and sealing the fate of RSS forever, Google Reader was quietly put to sleep by the search giant in early 2013. It’s hard to understate how important RSS was to early blogs — it was the only way to “subscribe” to get the latest posts without needing to give someone your email address.

As social sharing of articles became the discovery mechanism of choice it ultimately changed how people wrote: many people began engineering your title, picture and other elements for likes and shares. Facebook’s algorithm quickly became the maker and breaker of content — if you found yourself in its favor you might see millions of views in a day, but other times you’d get nothing.

That shift, to a world where we can measure everything people are doing, had a positive side effect. Publishers like BuzzFeed, Upworthy and others were born, all of whom ultimately disrupted the entire industry — because they were so widely shared, consistently.

Facebook referrals surpassed those from Google properties for the first time in 2015. Twitter, Pinterest and many others continue to drive traffic, but Facebook is the juggernaut of content and everyone from bloggers to the largest media companies know it.

That’s in part because our collective consumption habits have changed dramatically. In 2014 a study found that content consumption inside mobile apps had already overtaken the desktop and you’ll never guess who was on top of the pile — Facebook.

Because of its dominance, Facebook has made many moves to control — or at least influence — content since 2014. In 2015 it launched an ‘Instant Articles’ format which is special HTML markup exclusive to the social network that lets content load quickly inside its mobile apps, in response to how slow many platforms had become.

Facebook says that it’s as a result of research that found most users wouldn’t wait around for a site to load for more than few seconds before giving up — but it also shows just how much influence the network has and the power it has to force a change like this.

The problem with that influence is the company also has enough control to exert its power over the media and creators in general.

From July 2016, Facebook announced that you’d see fewer posts from publishers or brands, and more from friends or family. In one move, the social network decimated publishers’ reach… unless you’re willing to cough up money for a sponsored post.

Native advertising

Ten years ago if you’d said “companies are going to pay to posts blogs in disguise on journalistic platforms” almost everyone would have looked at you like you were a little crazy — that never happened.

Native advertising, which emerged out of a desire of the media to increase their waning revenues, became popular online around 2014 when companies like The New York Times and BuzzFeed realised there was a way to get cash for letting companies post veiled content to their own audiences.

It’s important to remember that native advertising isn’t really a new phenomenon, although it is online. Branded TV shows existed for decades, as well as editorial advertisements in newspapers and sponsored radio programs.

There are hundreds of examples of both good and bad native advertising, but one that was particularly great is this post on The New York Times about Women Inmates — which is real journalism — but happens to be sponsored by Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black.

Native advertising is a topic that anyone in the industry will hand-wring over simply because it’s kinda gross to trick your visitors into reading something that’s basically an infomercial, produced in-house by people sitting scarily close to their editorial teams. But… they make a lot of money.

When native advertising arrived online it didn’t just happen slowly — it came with a bang, and before anyone knew it, was everywhere.

It’s important to understand why native advertising happened, however, in the way it did, which leads us into the next key development.

Adblocking

Native advertising was a reaction to a disease that publishers considered to be out of control. Adblocking, which is rapidly growing in popularity, has nearly doubled in usage every year since the mid-2000s.

Publishers, fearful of their pockets being gouged by freeloaders, used all sorts of tactics to respond. Given native advertising is designed to be an editorial-style advertisement, it’s almost impossible to block — and even harder for humans to detect it’s an advertisement for too late.

In 2016 we’ve reached fever pitch. Advertisers are at full-on war with adblocking users, using a number of tactics to dissuade people from using them at all, or at least trying to convince users to whitelist their site.

WIRED was one of the first to make a bold move, blocking anyone who used an adblocker from its website. The publisher gave visitors a choice: turn it off, or pay us a few dollars a month to keep it on. With 20 percent of its traffic using adblockers, it’s easy to see how this was a logical move.

The Guardian doesn’t quite employ such bold tactics, but does beg visitors to contribute in other ways instead — it’s also mulling restricting access to content in the future.

Most major publishers in 2016 are at least asking users to disable ad blocking tools, but for users it’s often not down to wanting to remove advertisements or hurt publishers. Instead, adblocking is a protection mechanism online that can be more effective than even using an antivirus application, since many advertisements have delivered malware without people knowing.

A great example of this was Forbes begging users to disable adblock, then inadvertently serving them malware — whoops.

The dismal state of advertising is, in part, why platforms like Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles and even Medium are succeeding, because controlled networks that build from the ground up are far safer than traditional display advertising, but publishers can’t seem to wean themselves off yet.

Our new blogging overlords

Blogging was always perceived to be far too difficult for the masses to master, and every platform left something to the imagination — people either gave up blogging, or just weren’t interested.

Blogger, WordPress, Livejournal, etc, whatever you chose was OK but not great, and it was left up to you, the writer, to choose your own destiny once your post was out there in the world.

You could share it with friends, but mostly you’d hope it somehow exploded on search — or one of the many ‘hubs’ like Digg or Stumbleupon — and people would find you.

The landscape is dramatically different now. Medium, which launched just before the death of RSS in 2012, began life as a beautiful stripped-back blogging platform that wasn’t so dissimilar from WordPress. What it didn’t do, however, defined it: you couldn’t customize it and it de-emphasized authors in order to make blogging less of a cognitive ‘big deal.’

Suddenly, blogging was accessible to everyone who could use a computer — as long as you could get an invitation to access it. Eventually, Medium opened to the world a few months later, but the company’s slow shift from ‘a place to blog’ to ‘the place for content’ was subtle.

If you’re anyone, from a company to a person, in 2016 you likely go to Medium first. The network-effect of Medium is more potent than any decentralized Wordpress could ever offer, and means that many posts on the service go dramatically further thanks to nothing more than internal promotion.

In other words, Medium became a social network and a blogging platform. It became the destination for both reading great content and creating it.

Somehow, this left WordPress and all other content-creating incumbents completely blindsided. It wasn’t until early 2016 that WordPress launched what is in effect a clone of Medium, but it was too late.

What makes Medium different? Effectively, it commoditizes content like never before. Your differentiating factors, like CSS templating skills, are irrelevant here: you just need to write well. If you don’t, Medium’s algorithm is merciless.

Nobody really knows what Medium is still, since it’s changing constantly, but it’s one of the last great refuges for writing in a world where thoughts are often constrained to 140-character tweets or Facebook status updates.

Medium isn’t the only one commoditizing content. Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, two different mechanisms for building speedy, standardized content outside of a publisher’s site are growing in popularity.

By delivering a framework in which stories should be structured, the platforms prioritize speed, safety and reliability over design or even hosting on the publisher’s own site to deliver what the reader really wants — the content.

The only problem with that is the deep commoditization of content: what happens when everything looks or feels the same? In a sea of words, how can you stand out? How can you establish an audience if all you’re contending on is words?

Perhaps the answer is easier than we all suspect — and it’s a great side effect of the content crunch. As thousands of people publish online every day, instead of using audience, great design or reach as a way to get your content out there, perhaps it’ll be down to just how good the words themselves are.

And that’s a good thing.

A war for attention

So we know where we’re at, and we know that it’s basically a constant fight for your eyeballs, but what does that really mean? Ultimately, it’s a war for your attention — and hundreds of startups are in the business of grabbing it.

Mat Honan’s excellent 2014 post dove into this world head-first:

“Over the past couple of decades, this war for eyeballs has been fought across an ever-expanding territory. With the advent of the modern web, online publications and blogs competed to dominate your laptop screen. But with the rise of mobile, the battleground has become infinite. No matter where you are or what you’re doing — eating, drinking, watching a movie — the news has access to you. Stories roll in on push notifications and social media streams in a nonstop look-at-me barrage, all of them lighting up the same small screen. There is only one true channel now, and it’s probably in your pocket (or hand) at this very moment.”

Ultimately, your attention is a finite property that’s constrained by how much time you have. The ‘cult of attention’ is a real thing, and it’s eating itself:

Time is more precious than money. Money is a renewable resource.Everyone always has the potential to make more money. Time, on the other hand, is finite. There are only so many hours in a day. By definition, you only have so much time to give.

Attention is money, and everyone wants it. News apps need to be fast in order to get your phone to buzz first and everyone’s doing it from The New York Times to BuzzFeed. The drive for attention has utterly transformed how content is produced, as everyone seeks to create ‘habit forming’ products that you, the user, keep coming back to.

In 2016, people have a plethora of choices and less time than ever.

Instead of great content and streamlined experiences we’ve got clickbait, listicles and filler content that doesn’t really leave you feeling good after you read it. I call the feeling I get when clicking on something like this the ‘hate click’– where you know you’ll regret it before even getting there, and it’s worse than you imagined once it’s over.

That’s not sustainable, and everyone knows it.

Facebook made moves to kill clickbait recently with a new algorithm tweak. Instead of feeding the clickbait monster, Facebook will significantly disadvantage it.

The time for crappy content is over, and soon clickbait won’t work at all because people will never come back.

Very soon to get in front of people, your content is going to need to be both good and worth spending a few fleeting minutes reading — because ultimately what you want is for them to like it enough to share it with someone else, and that’s the metric of success.

A need to measure differently

Until recently, all performance of content was measured on views alone, but a single view isn’t the only important metric anymore. How widely was your post shared, how far into the post did your visitors make it and did they interact in any way have become important measurements.

These new metrics are so important, in fact, that new media companies like BuzzFeed don’t actually measure themselves against basic traffic numbers anymore.

via Buzzfeed

According to a post in February 2016, BuzzFeed’s “traffic” counted by comScore of 80 million unique views actually represents less than one-fifth of its reach — because it doesn’t include content across YouTube, Snapchat, mobile apps or other social networks.

According to BuzzFeed, “unique views were useful for a long time. Now let’s stop talking about unique views as a way to measure BuzzFeed’s audience.” That same post claims more than 6 billion people touched the company’s content in some way during a single month of 2015.

Medium, on the other hand, says that ‘total time reading’ is the only number that matters to the platform. Rather than active users, signups or post counts, the company measures data such as how many minutes the user reads the post for, how long it takes them to recognize images and more — then it slices that into different statistics such as whether they’re logged-in or not.

Ev Williams, Medium’s founder, said in a recent post that “in a world of infinite content — where there are a million shiny attention-grabbing objects a touch away and notifications coming in constantly — it’s meaningful when someone is actually spending time.”

Ultimately, he’s right; a view doesn’t mean anything on its own anymore — and that view is even harder than ever to get.

It’s not all doom and gloom

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably panicking a little bit. It all sounds like doom and gloom, or the end of content in general. Perhaps that’s true, but contrarily, 2016 is one of the best years for publishing.

For quality content, well-thought out ideas and great posts it’s easier than ever to get the word out. Instead of disconnected blogging platforms and weird SEO-hacks, great content can stand on its own for the first time. A single like on Medium can make a post travel to thousands of people’s inboxes — without them even subscribing.

Indeed, the industry is going through a painful realization that the old self-owned platform is dying, but we’re now in a glorious time where it’s easier than ever for a company or individual to reach more people than ever before, provided they pick their audience wisely.

The shotgun approach to content just doesn’t work anymore, and that’s great. You can’t write SEO-friendly posts and just hope the people will come, because they won’t. The world finally has a bullshit-meter and that’s social sharing, time spent and other metrics that nobody ever used before.

What’s incredible, is I can give you the secret to getting your post out there to the world, and it’s this easy formula:

Just write something useful. Something that people want to read.