Distrust Abounds in the Facebook-Publisher Relationship
Observations from the IMAG 2016 conference in San Francisco.
The independent wing of the Association of Magazine Media (MPA) gathered for the annual IMAG conference last week at the Mark Hopkins Hotel high atop San Francisco's Nob Hill, a neighborhood that both physically and metaphorically towers over the city below. But it was the presence of Silicon Valley, a mere 40 miles south, that loomed over portions of the proceedings, appropriately resembling the shadows of uncertainty cast over the publishing industry by the likes of Facebook and Google.
The somewhat strange and often strained relationship between tech giants—particularly, Facebook—and media companies has become a central theme in the industry in recent months, and publishers' increased reliance on social media as a source of digital traffic has exacerbated concerns about ad revenue share and the ceded control over publishing platforms, among other things.
"Facebook is just as dependent on great content as content producers are on Facebook," Dave Morin, a former Facebook manager and founder of venture capital firm Slow Ventures, assured the editors, publishers, and executives in attendance, but one might forgive them for being unconvinced.
Late last month, Justin Smith, CEO of Bloomberg Media Group, described the situation to The Guardian as publishers "feeding on the scraps" of Facebook's billions in ad revenue.
“They keep the $16 to $18 billion they get in the news feed, and the news feed, with personal sharing down, is effectively all of our content, it’s effectively just an aggregation of premium publishers’ content,” Smith told The Guardian. "It’s a problematic situation."
Those misgivings are especially pressing for independent magazine brands, who may not have the brand equity or ancillary revenues of the Hearsts and Time Inc.'s of the world to help offset lost ad revenue, on which they are highly dependent.
And so a sense of palpable, if not tense, anticipation could be felt in the room when Aimee Westbrook, Facebook's client partner, global marketing solutions, took the stage late Thursday afternoon to deliver a presentation titled, "Amplify Your Brand for Your Community."
In truth, the presentation should have been titled, "Why Your Brand Needs to Be on Facebook"—not to imply that there isn't plenty of merit behind that thesis.
"We're not here to steal your thunder," Westbrook said, delivering Facebook's appeal to the publishing community, "We need your content."
Westbrook's presentation began by essentially confirming the death of print media as a widespread, effective revenue source. She cited her own experiences, finding herself now checking Facebook and email in the grocery checkout line instead of browsing celebrity magazines, even going as far as to imply, not-so-subtly, that ceasing to purchase print magazines can be an environmentally conscious decision.
But Facebook is not a print platform. It doesn't rip pages out of magazines, attach its own partners' ads to them, and redistribute them to consumers. And so Westbrook is well within her rights to tell publishers, essentially, that the game has changed, that the playing field is no longer a range of web domains, mobile apps, and printed pages, and that it's time for publishers to play ball.
Still, the sentiment runs against much of what was expressed at IMAG 2016, in which independent magazine brands showcased the unique and innovative ways in which they're reaching audiences in more places than ever before, in print and digital content, with and without social media.
In the session immediately preceding Westbrook's, for example, Garden & Gun founder Rebecca Wesson Darwin reported that her southern lifestyle magazine had, astoundingly, achieved 16.9 percent growth in newsstand sales over the course of 2015 and drawn over 3,000 visitors to its Garden & Gun Jubilee event in December.
Chris Klotzbach, director of Yahoo's mobile app analytics platform, Flurry, reported that 2015 saw a 135 percent year-over-year increase in the number of news/magazine apps on the market, placing it among the fastest growing categories.
John Loughlin, CEO of Texture, reported that his app, styled as the "Netflix for magazines," delivered over six million audited circulation units to readers in April alone.
In a curious twist, even Facebook's own Brendan Norman, a client partner in the audience network, recommended publishers consider reinvesting in their own mobile apps, citing the ability to control the platform.
One would be naïve to think that when social networks become publishing platforms, as Facebook has, they don't also recognize the benefits of controlling the medium and a majority share of the revenue that passes through it.
By the time Michela O'Connor Abrams, president and CEO of Dwell, concluded the three-day conference early Friday afternoon, there had been no shortage of fascinating takeaways and shared ideas for independent magazine producers to pack up and bring home on Monday. August Home Publishing founder Don Peschke, for example, described the ways in which publishers need to think about their audiences more as members of a community and less as subscribers or customers.
Still, distrust abounds. Andy Clurman, president and CEO of Active Interest Media, perhaps illustrated the Facebook-publisher dynamic best by equating it to his son's surprise, after leaving his native Colorado to attend college in Indiana, at just how polite everyone was.
"People are really nice," Clurman's son reportedly told him, "But are they too nice?"