Mostly lost in all the Emmy hubbub around Deadline yesterday was a little “FYI” blog post by Facebook, noting changes it was making in how it decides what stories to show its 1.1 billion users in their profiles’ News Feed.
From now on, the company said, it would be downgrading stories from publishers that use come-on headlines (like the first half of this story’s headline) to get people to click through to posts without much substance. Some publishers use this “click-baiting” to drive traffic to their sites without actually going to the trouble of, you know, writing a worthwhile story. Eventually, Facebook said, companies that regularly post stories that appear to be clickbait (lots of readers clicking through and almost immediately returning to FB, for instance) will have their stories seen less often in the News Feed. For a company that gets a major percentage of its traffic from Facebook, this downgrade could be lethal.
The other change was a little more technical, but it also involved changing where publishers (such as Deadline) are supposed to include links in their Facebook posts. The preferred approach should provide readers with more information, a photo and bit of the story, along with a link. That should make it easier for people to decide whether to read the whole story. Facebook said the changes will likely affect “a small set” of publishers.
I don’t think the new rules will hurt Deadline at all (and may help us compared to competition). If anything, Deadline is an example of anti-clickbait, given some of our writers’ penchants for headlines longer than other sites’ entire stories, and hard inside-business stories that aren’t exactly viral candidates for the masses. The people who read our stuff really want to read about those stories, and our user stats back it up. That said, the new rules are another reminder of the perils of building your business on someone else’s distribution platform.
In writing about the FB changes, the Wall Street Journal‘s CMO Today newsletter this morning invoked Demand Media, the Santa Monica-based rollup from current CEO Shawn Colo and Richard Rosenblatt (who also shepherded MySpace into existence).
The company’s Demand Studios unit specialized in churning out how-to stories based on topics and headlines generated from search algorithms. Humans created the actual content, at $25 for a written post and $500 for a video. Editors were paid $5 per story. For a while there, journalists kvetched endlessly about whether Demand and other so-called “content mills” were the future, and doom, of news.
Demand got big fast and went public and then it did a strange thing. It went blooey. Not long after its 2011 IPO, Demand’s shares were fetching $122 each (see the chart above). Now, they’re selling for $9. What happened? As CMO Today pointed out, Project Panda happened. Google decided to change the way it valued such quickie copy, ranking other content more highly in the super-secret search algorithm it uses to decide which results you see. With Demand’s stories no longer reliably atop the front page of search results, a 12X drop in share prices followed.
There’s also an example closer to home here. I’m thinking of Zynga, the social game company that hitched its wagon to an Emersonian star, i.e., Facebook, as both began a remarkable rise in a mutually beneficial special relationship.
Zynga games such as Farmville and Words With Friends were hugely popular among Facebook’s burgeoning population of users, and both companies went public in 2012. Zynga shares reached almost $15 apiece. But by late that year, Facebook and Zynga ended their most-favored-nation relationship. The change freed Zynga to push its games on the web and on emerging mobile platforms, but it also turned Zynga into just another game developer on Facebook, scrapping for the attention of users there.
Facebook’s doing fine these days. After its own overpriced and controversial IPO, the company’s shares dipped below $20 a share. These days, though, the shares are bopping along at around $75. Zynga? It had to hire a new CEO a year ago, and after a little bump of optimism, shares are back down to less than $3 apiece.
And then there are all those millions of YouTube creators out there, busily posting their back-bedroom videos and occasionally building massive audiences. They’ve created whole new industries, first with the rise of multi-channel networks such as Machinima, Fullscreen, Maker Studios and AwesomenessTV, and more recently with other kinds of support businesses that echo what we’ve seen in film and TV for decades now.
The revenue splits between YouTube and its creators (and now all those intervening companies) have caused lots of conversation lately. It’s why the big trend right now among creators is to find other ways to monetize (ah, the golden word of online) their massive audiences, with merchandise, live events like Digitour and Fullscreen’s Intour, their own multi-platform apps and, of course, by crossing over to traditional media.
The fights over revenue shares will only get worse as creators and companies come into the space, and emerging competitors such as Amazon keep poaching some of YouTube’s biggest stars with offers of better treatment. And yesterday’s other little bit of tech news, the $970 million purchase of three-year-old game-video ‘caster Twitch Interactive by Amazon, shows the risks even giant Google faces as it builds an entirely new kind of Hollywood.
The lesson here? Be careful who you build your business on. Nowhere is that more true than for content creators of all stripes.
The future of journalism, one kind of content, is pretty opaque in this era of disruptive technologies and transforming business models (though industry watcher Clay Shirky has called it on the future of print journalism, an assessment I must, unfortunately, strongly endorse (as do Gannett, Tribune, Fox and Time Warner)).
Zynga and Demand depended on the algorithms of other companies to extract their own value. When those algorithms changed, so did their company fortunes. YouTube’s creator culture faces a different challenge: building its business on Google’s massive video platform then discovering there’s not quite enough money there for everyone to get rich. What do they do next?
So, is clickbait an endangered species? Maybe. More likely, we’re in a particularly Darwinian moment (think of this time as journalism’s Burgess Shale moment, with an explosion of business models, and some pretty significant extinctions just ahead). The smart ones will evolve, and evolve again, while the slow-moving ones and the ones overly dependent on a specific business environment will die out. What else can a little news organization do but keep moving, and keep evolving? Nothing.