If there was ever an appropriate time to use the word “frenemy,” it would be while describing the relationship between Facebook and content publishers. Those publishers have watched over the past two years as their Facebook traffic has steadily increased, and, while that traffic has been certainly welcome, it has also induced a significant level of paranoia and worry that one day it will go away. I’ve written before about how this paranoia has led to social media managers obsessively hitting refresh on their Facebook analytics, searching for any sign that their content has been degraded in the newsfeed.
In an essay for Medium, New York Times associate director of audience development Matt Yurow explains how this dependency on Facebook is creating a similar environment to what the music industry faced in the early aughts when it succumbed to Steve Jobs’s siren call and made its music available on the iTunes store. With the popularity of the iPod and later the iPhone, Apple then had a vice-like grip on the industry, which defanged the music labels and further contributed to their decline. According to Yurow, Facebook is gaining a similar type of leverage over content publishers (I’ve made a similar analogy, except instead of iTunes I compared it to Amazon’s relationship to book publishers):
Facebook has been pushing media companies to natively upload their videos to the platform, rather than posting links to YouTube or a first party player.
According to a 2013 study by social analytics firm Socialbakers, videos uploaded directly to Facebook reached a wider audience than links embedding a YouTube player.
Would Facebook throttle back the reach of links to other media sites in favor of content hosted on its own servers? It’s not incomprehensible.
The trend Yurow’s noting is what publishers have referred to as “digital sharecropping,” a neologism that describes how people will place their entire digital presence on a platform they don’t own or control rather than investing more in their own website. Just as with agricultural sharecropping, the digital sharecropper is at the mercy of those who own the land the sharecropper is cultivating, And as Facebook becomes the dominant source for traffic to publishers, it increasingly gains leverage over them, especially as its newsfeed algorithm, one that’s opaque to outside observers, controls what content users see while logged in.
But while some publishers, like Dose.com and Viral Nova, have staked nearly their entire futures on the assumption that the Facebook traffic hose will keep flowing, one publication has been busy inoculating itself against a Facebook backlash: BuzzFeed.
Now, your first response to this might be: “Hasn’t BuzzFeed seen tremendous success on Facebook?” Well, yes. It’s consistently among the top five sites that are shared on the platform. But it hasn’t responded to this traffic tsunami by merely attempting to extend its Facebook reach even further; rather, it has aimed to diversify its traffic sources, distributing its eggs among several baskets, and has even begun to build its own platforms on which it hopes its users will reside.
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Case in point: Pinterest. While most non-lifestyle news companies have only dabbled with Pinterest, BuzzFeed made a very large bet on the platform, and it’s now its second-largest social referrer. “It also has a much longer lifecycle than other social networks, often driving traffic to posts months after publication,” said In fact, more than half of BuzzFeed’s traffic from Pinterest goes to posts published more than 2 months ago.” The site saw this success not from simply cross-posting its content to Pinterest, but by developing posts specifically tailored for the network and sharing any insights gleaned from the experiments to the larger BuzzFeed team.
BuzzFeed has also invested heavily in email marketing, an old-school medium that’s seen a revival of late due to its much higher engagement rate compared to other social platforms. It currently offers 15 newsletter options, and it saw 700 percent more email traffic in 2014 compared to the year prior.
And with the launch and expansion of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, it’s developed a massive following on YouTube, with over 10 million subscribers across its four channels. In 2014, BuzzFeed video received 4.5 billion views, with most of those views on YouTube.
But perhaps nothing will protect BuzzFeed more from platform dependency than its efforts to build its own off-site platform. The company has been aggressively hiring new staff to create and maintain its own mobile app, and unlike other news outlet forays into mobile apps, this one will serve as more than a copy-and-paste repository for its website content. According to an interview with Stacy-Marie Ishmael, the editorial lead for the app, it will curate non-BuzzFeed content, in essence trying to compete with news aggregation apps like Flipboard, Smart News, and, yes, Facebook.
Sure, the app hasn’t launched yet and may end up being a complete dud, but no one can accuse BuzzFeed of sitting by and allowing Facebook to increase its grip on the site’s audience. In fact, if Facebook were to disappear tomorrow, then BuzzFeed would still have a significant following from which to propagate its content. If Facebook is a siren luring sailors with her song, then BuzzFeed is Odysseus, binding itself to the ship’s mast so as to resist the siren’s deadly call.
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