Like many throughout the industry, I was disappointed last week to learn of the demise of LittleThings, a great publisher that derived much of its growth from content that its users shared on Facebook. It’s always sad to see people lose their jobs, and for good content to go away. But based on conversations I’ve had with publishers over the last week, this one seemed to hit particularly hard. Perhaps it was because LittleThings, which didn’t take venture funding, had seemed to have cracked the formula for building a sustainable content business that wasn’t overly beholden to the idiosyncrasies of a single distribution platform.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
Blaming Facebook for the publisher’s unhappy ending, by the way, isn’t the right answer – after all, it’s their platform, their algorithm, their walled garden. Their rules. Rather than trying to ride the next algorithmic wave (as part of any walled garden), publishers and app developers should instead take steps to maximize their own, unique value:
- The consumer comes first. Without a meaningful and positive relationship with readers, viewers or listeners, content owners may be able to draft off of distribution platforms’ growth, but the traffic generated will be illusory or, at best, temporary. Monetizing content with advertising should seek to enrich, entertain, educate, inform and excite – never to annoy.
- Optimize ad environments toward shared outcomes. Just as consumers deserve fair value in exchange for their attention and data, marketers should get a chance to tell their story in high-quality environments, using their own data and their measurement. Sharing information with buyers, like historical performance of the ad unit, or metadata about the user session, will improve valuation decisions and help ensure that each impression opportunity is maximized.
- Embrace shared identity. As consumers move back-and-forth between different devices more so than ever before, addressing them with relevant and useful marketing messages based upon their position in the purchase funnel has become table-stakes. To do so most effectively, marketers need a signal that informs anonymous, privacy-guarded and deterministic identity. For all but the very largest of publishers, particularly those without user login requirements, building their own identity map may be impractical or even impossible. So shared identity platforms that aren’t owned by any single corporate interest are an ideal way to replicate the walled gardens’ logged-in user advantage.
- Be paranoid about purchased traffic. Although the industry has made great strides towards the reduction of invalid traffic and counterfeit domains, the problem still exists. We’ve seen that in almost all cases of IVT, the impacted publisher at some point purchased traffic. Thinking about our own business, our zero-tolerance policy on fraud means that we don’t pay for suspicious traffic when we find it and, in severe cases, we discontinue access to the impacted supplier. Publishers should be extremely cautious about buying traffic, and should implement ads.txt if they’ve not already done so.
As we saw with this week’s news, publishers and app developers face a difficult balancing act: growing their audiences without becoming overly-reliant on a distribution platform with its own evolving interests or on purchased traffic that is highly prone to fraud; monetizing their content while protecting their brand and experiences; and competing for advertising dollars with much larger adversaries. By working more collaboratively with the buy side toward shared goals, publishers will be able to stand on their own, and continue to produce the content that consumers love.