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Facebook, Apple News, and the Publisher-Platform Relationship in 2019

After everything that’s happened with Facebook in 2018, the News Feed changes that kicked off the year almost seem like a distant memory—for publishers who weren’t drastically hurt by them, anyway.

Meanwhile, as Facebook-publisher relations languished, Apple News gained favor, delivering traffic while positioning itself as a friend to publishers.

These were just two of the major developments in the publisher-platform saga in 2018, but together, they illustrate a recurring problem. In the rush to drive pageviews, it’s easy to latch onto platform traffic, prioritizing sheer scale while neglecting important direct connections with the audience.

As 2018 winds down, let’s take a look back at how these platforms affected publishers this year, as well as how publishers can springboard off these platforms in the coming year to build real relationships with email.

Facebook Deprioritizes Publishers in 2018…

There were hushed rumblings of oncoming Facebook changes at the end of 2017, but their official announcement in January grabbed headlines worldwide. (For a platform unconcerned with publishers, Facebook sure does find a lot of ways to dominate their news coverage.)

Rolled out in a series of blog posts, Facebook’s 2018 algorithm changes prioritized “meaningful engagement” with friends, pushing publisher content even further down the news feed. After previous tweaks caused publisher Facebook traffic to drop 20% from February to August 2017, the prospect of even less Facebook traffic concerned publishers.

Of course, it wasn’t just a shifting news feed that troubled publishers. It was Facebook’s shifting priorities. Facebook had abruptly changed gears before—encouraging publishers to produce one type of content, only to move on before delivering the promised revenue—but their emphatic lack of concern for publishers was a wake-up call to those depending on their traffic.

…as Apple News Works to Build Publisher Favor

As Facebook traffic fell, news aggregators like Flipboard, a 2018 uptick in Twitter traffic, and (for some publishers) Pinterest piqued publisher attention, but none looked so promising as Apple News.

A far cry from Apple’s previous attempt at delivering news, Apple News referrals skyrocketed in 2018, and publishers took notice. At times, a few publishers reported that they were seeing as much as half of their traffic from Apple News, even outpacing Facebook.

Apple News also leaped ahead of Facebook in publisher opinion, as their editorial team worked to foster good relationships with publishers. As The Business of Content’s Simon Black points out, Apple News fits into Apple’s “ongoing effort to create user lock-in so it can sell high-margin phones and tablets. That means it has every incentive to keep publishers happy so they continue populating the app with content.”

And happy they were, until Slate reported that it makes more money from 50,000 onsite views than it does from the 6 million views delivered by Apple News each month. While Apple News offers several monetization options, publishers have seen only modest returns from advertisements and selling subscriptions through the App Store:

“Apple nabs 30 percent of subscription revenues the first year and 15 percent each subsequent year…. Apple also owns the customer relationship, unlike Google or Facebook, refusing to pass along even subscribers’ email addresses. Given those terms, some news executives said Apple News could cannibalize future subscribers, leaving news organizations with less revenue and less data per customer.”

Diversifying Away from Platforms

Perhaps more valuable to publishers than Apple’s cut of subscription revenue is its grip on audience relationships, which can’t be replaced by sheer traffic volume. Like Facebook, a reliance on Apple News traffic puts publishers at the mercy of platforms. Without a direct relationship with your audience, an algorithm tweak can cut you off from your audience, your traffic, and your revenue.

Not only do platforms stand in the way of audience relationships, they cut publishers off from valuable first-party data. Gaining and acting on this data is increasingly important to publishers aiming to drive deeper audience engagement and deliver value for advertisers.

Instead of breaking out the crystal ball to anticipate future platform changes in 2019, the time would be better spent crafting a strategy where algorithm shifts and news feed tweaks have a minimal effect on overall traffic. Diversifying traffic sources algorithm-proofs both your access to your audience and your business model.

Using Facebook and Apple News to Grow Your Email List

Platforms like Facebook and Apple News may not deliver much in the way of audience relationships, but that doesn’t mean they can’t deliver visitors to channels where relationships can be made. Here are a few ways to gain direct relationships with your passing visitors in 2019.

1. Promote newsletters on Facebook. If you’ve got an engaged Facebook audience, posting about new or existing newsletters can bring that fervent following to the inbox. Facebook also allows you to collect email signups from those who visit your Facebook page directly by placing a button on the top of your page.

You can even grow your email audience beyond your direct following by experimenting with sponsored posts. While a paid strategy might not work for everyone, Facebook sponsored posts are more effective at driving newsletter signups than paid subscriptions.

2. Incorporate email signup calls-to-action in your articles. By default, Facebook Instant Articles allows publishers three types of calls-to-action in their content: page likes, app installs, and email signups. Visitors encountering your content for the first time are unlikely to commit to an app, but getting a “like” doesn’t solve the platform problem. Offering an email newsletter gives subscribers convenient access to content, while providing you a direct line to your audience.

You can also include email capture in your Apple News content. Some publishers display partial versions of their articles, instructing users to view the whole article onsite, where an email subscription can be earned with other tactics.

3. Optimize your onsite email capture to the source of your traffic. By tailoring your onsite capture widgets to the characteristics of the user, you maximize your chances of conversion, particularly when those visitors come from platforms.

For instance, publishers sometimes delay the appearance of a capture widget until the second pageview or a return visit, hopefully catching the visitor when they’re most interested and maximizing the chance of conversion. Unfortunately, visitors from Facebook probably won’t view more than one page, so you can try more attention-grabbing email capture strategies. Experiment with different messaging, timing, and types of email capture to make the most of your short time with these passing visitors.

4. Bring engaged members of your Facebook groups over to email. As Facebook moved publisher content lower in the news feed, they prioritized “meaningful” interaction, particularly that in Facebook Groups. Accordingly, publishers turned to groups. If you have an engaged group, capitalize on that community to both promote and supplement your newsletter content in the coming year.

If Facebook has any relationship-building power for publishers, it’s in their groups. That’s why publishers are using groups to foster community, but as publishers like Quartz have demonstrated, it’s possible to build communities in the inbox as well. Ultimately, this is where your real publisher-reader relationships will happen.

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