Facebook caused a storm of controversy last week by restricting Australian news content. The Australian government is proposing new legislation that essentially requires Google and Facebook to negotiate a fair payment to news publishers for using their content. Although Google initially threatened to withdraw from Australia altogether, they caved and quietly struck deals with the country’s biggest publishers. Facebook walked away from the table though and began preventing people from sharing any news links from Australian publishers around the world.
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What was the result of Facebook turning off the traffic tap?
Australian Publishers take a big hit
Predictably, referral traffic plummeted both within Australia and internationally. According to Axios, total traffic to Australian news sites fell by 13% almost immediately, and traffic from outside of Australia fell by about 30%.
When Australians tried to share news stories, they were met with this rather passive aggressive message.
And when they went to the Facebook page of one of their preferred news outlets – the page was blank and showing no content!
There’s significant ad revenue attached to Facebook traffic of course, and the drop was unprecedented. A real blow for Australian publishers.
Facebook comes back to the table, for now
Just today, Facebook announced that an agreement had been reached with the Australian government and that news would be restored to Australian newsfeeds “within days”.
It seems that the government may not apply the new code to Facebook if the platform demonstrates that it has signed a “enough” deals with publishers to pay them for content.
In a statement, Facebook alluded to recognizing:
“The value that our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them”
They go on to state that:
“As we have made clear to the Australian government for many months, the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favor of the publishers”
From our perspective, it doesn’t matter who’s right or who’s wrong. The real takeaway is that publishers in general are over-dependant on Facebook and need to make moves to diversify their traffic sources as a hedge against this in the future.
This isn’t the first time that publishers’ excessive dependence on tech giants has been illustrated.
In 2017, Facebook removed news stories in six countries, causing some publishers to lose more than 50% of traffic overnight. In 2014 Google removed Spanish publishers from Google News – and news consumption dropped 20%.
This latest fiasco shows the leverage they have – don’t be surprised if they start to use it more often. If Facebook represents a significant traffic source for your brand make no mistake – they own a little part of your business.
So what should publishers do, both in Australia and in the wider world?
There are two promising strategies:
- Diversify traffic sources
- Build assets that you control and own 100%
Nobody would say that you should leave Facebook or stop your content being indexed by Google. That would just be silly. What you should do is look to build and cultivate traffic sources that aren’t subject to their whims.
Investment is a good analogy. The more you spread your investments around different assets, the more you reduce the overall risk when one of them tanks. You reduce your reliance on the good favour of tech oligarchs – who don’t actually care if you fail or succeed – and forge your own path.
What is an example of a 100% owned, controlled publisher asset?
Take your website for instance. You own and control it. The direct traffic that comes in is independent of Google, Facebook, or any other tech giant. You earned it, by building the profile of your brand and cultivating a loyal audience that skip the middlemen and go straight to your content.
It doesn’t matter if Facebook goes down totally, your direct web traffic won’t take a hit. Indeed, it may even rise. When Facebook went down completely in 2018, direct and organic traffic to publisher sites spiked enough that total traffic went up!
But you already have a website. What other channels can you build that you own completely and can provide significant traffic?
There’s an obvious, effective answer – native news apps.
News apps are the ultimate publisher asset
News apps are a great alternative to the platforms. They encourage readers to go straight to the source and skip the middlemen, and are a more visible and convenient way of doing so compared to a website.
This is evidenced by the fact that following the recent Facebook blackout, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ABC News app shot to the top of the App Store Australia charts and became the #1 most downloaded app in the country.
Take a look at this, outranking four Facebook properties in the charts.
ABC took the initiative and encouraged their audience to download the app, showing that they still had options and weren’t 100% dependent on Facebook.
Audience members still wanted the content, and flocked to the stores to install the app on their devices.
An app user is more valuable than a reader who clicks through from Facebook now and again. According to Chartbeat:
“When looking at weekly visits by traffic sources across mobile and desktop experiences, we saw that app direct visitors are nearly 6x more loyal than platform visitors.”
Chartbeat content manager Nick Lioudis went on to add that:
“The data suggests that loyal readers want a direct path to publishers — a huge indicator that there’s value in improving app and direct to mobile experiences
When you build apps, they represent a “home” for your most loyal and engaged readers. You can connect with them through push notifications – and third parties like Google and Facebook can neither dictate how you run them nor arbitrarily cut traffic to them. They are 100% yours.
Top publishers -like The Guardian, The Information, The Atlantic, and many others – have been investing heavily in news apps over the last few years for this very reason.
Others like Simple Flying have seen a huge difference in engagement on apps vs the main site. Simple Flying app users read an average of 94 articles per month compared to only 2 per month on the web, and spend twice as much time on each article!
What can account for such a huge difference? Simple Flying founder Arran Rice hypothesized that:
“With an app, you can achieve a much more kind of premium feel, and I think the readers will feel closer to the brand. With an app, you know that every time they pick up their phone, they’ll see the icon of your brand on their home screen which is powerful. Once we’ve got someone on the app they’ll stay on the app and keep consuming our content – which is what we want”
With the high engagement and traffic that app’s generate – there is obviously revenue attached to that too whether it is in the form of a subscription boost or ads.
Build news apps
News apps give your core readers a premium experience, and allow you to cut dependence on the tech platforms and build more long-term stability. They give you a whole new revenue and engagement channel that really works.
We built the apps for Simple Flying that got them such impressive results – and have done the same for hundreds of other publishers.
We get you news apps just as good as NYT or Buzzfeed’s, but we build it in under a month for a fraction of the standard price. In fact, through our publisher program, you could end up paying nothing up front at all! We also handle all the tricky parts for you – from building the apps themselves and publishing them on the App Stores, to handling updates and maintenance for the lifetime of the apps. It’s a full service
We received a lot of requests from Australian publishers over the last week who understand the need for diversification and ownership. We’re happy to help them break free of platform dependence and build winning news apps and more solid business models for the future.