Everything looked glorious - red carpet-style event, slides showing every relevant metric pointing upward, quotes from research attempting to prove that millions of highly segmented users love a particular publishers' content more than life itself.
The digital publishing industry put up a perfect facade while it could, until inevitably, that was no longer sustainable.
According to James Lamont, Managing Editor of the Financial Times, publishers are "facing daunting conditions." His statements were echoed by Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times, who asserted that "winter really is coming for many of the world's news publishers."
We should have seen it coming: disengaged users who spend less than 15 seconds per page; traffic counts that are largely based on clicks generated by deceptive clickbait headlines and the acquisition of low-quality audiences; market research that asks mostly self-serving questions; and revenue streams built around irritating ad units that generate sub-1% click-through rates and are blocked or ignored by a majority of the audience.
Publishers blame Facebook, ad blockers and Millennials, but it's time to put a mirror in front of them and show them what led to their decline:
- Publishers are serving content to the 140-characters, 5-seconds-vanishing-image generation using the old-school, long-form article content format, despite the fact that we're living in the era of Snapchat where consumers desire short bursts of visual content.
- Publishers have been offering ad units that few people actually view (or, in some cases, bots artificially view), thereby artificially pumping traffic to their ads to fill capacity while ignoring the fact that their ad product brings close to zero value to its buyer.
- Publishers built their goals around high-level traffic numbers - page views and unique users - without asking themselves questions that would lead to KPIs that truly reflect engagement, such as time spent on page, article completion rate, engagement, etc.
Publishers now face a new reality: create content that fits the medium, or face extinction.
At its 2016 NewFronts presentation, The New York Times announced that its long-term strategy is to "create great content." This might seem like an obvious statement given that The Times has notionally aspired to "create great content" for more than 150 years.
However, in an era in which people want to consume content like this:
The New York Times insists on delivering content that for the most part looks like this:
If you want to earn people's attention, when thousands of competing content providers are also bidding for it, you need to elevate your editorial strategies to align with modern content-consumption habits. You won't win today's war with yesterday's weapons.
One common misconception is that users have become too lazy to consume "deep" content. People - not "users," but actual people - didn't lose interest in content. In fact, this is the golden age of content consumption. A hundred years ago, the average American read newspapers to consume news as they were the primary news source at the time. Today we check for new content every few minutes, spend more than 20 hours a week reading and sharing content on our smartphones and consume nearly 1.5 hours a day of online video. With such a receptive media-consuming audience, publishers have never had more opportunities to build their readership. Yet they are blowing it at every opportunity.
Publishers are the guilty party here, too lazy to learn how to communicate with people given how consumption, content and content availability have changed over the last decade. They continued to create content in the same manner as they did in the print era, rather than adopt to the Snapchat and bot generation, which demands bite-size forms of content that are both interactive and engaging.
Digital publishers can bounce back if they take it upon themselves to learn the new art of contemporary storytelling. Create content that is visual. Create content that is inviting. Bring the addictive ingredients of online games into your content so people will experience the same level of emotional attachment. Above all, create content that is short and focused.
Let's not be lazy by creating old-school content that no one reads. Let's make the internet great again.
Main image via Jon S / Flickr