Back in 2014, I wrote an article about the rise of news aggregation apps like Flipboard, and for it I interviewed Josh Quittner, Flipboard’s editorial director and head of international partnerships. One of the most fascinating parts of the interview was when he talked about his time as director of editorial digital development for Time Inc, a tenure that just happened to coincide with the launch of the iPad.
Quittner gave a first-hand account of what it was like to work in the news publishing industry and hold the belief that the iPad was the device that would finally save the media from the harsh economics of the internet. “I’m very much one of those people who believed that apps would give us another bite at the apple, that we could control the user experience to a far greater degree than we could on the web and that we could bring high quality advertising back,” he told me.
Time Inc wasn’t the only media company to view the iPad as a savior. The entire industry invested millions in creating beautiful apps that had long load times and consumed gargantuan amounts of data. Business Insider published a great piece in June about the mountains of cash Rupert Murdoch invested in an iPad-exclusive newspaper called The Daily. “It turned out that iPad publishing was a tricky process, and, in the end, the subscribers simply weren’t there, forcing The Daily to announce it was shutting down in December 2012, not even two years after its debut,” Business Insider reported.
While News Corp made probably the largest bet on the iPad, hundreds of other publishers soon realized that nobody was downloading their shiny apps, and so they quietly redirected their resources away from the iPad.
I tell you this to illustrate how the publishing industry is often attracted to bright shiny objects that they hope will serve as a quick and easy fix to all their problems.
And that’s exactly what publishers are doing now with their pivots to video.
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Mashable. Mic. MTV. These are just a few of the media outlets in the last year that have laid off print staff so they can place more emphasis on creating video, often for platforms like Facebook and Snapchat. They’ve been lured by (dubious) claims that online video is attracting significantly higher CPM advertising rates compared to standard display ads. In other words, they’re investing in video not because their analytics have shown increasing user appetite for the medium, but rather based on what they think will be fervent advertiser demand.
The results, thus far, have been pretty abysmal. A new article out from Digiday this week reports that publishers have seen a significant gap between the number of views their videos are generating and the amount of actual revenue coming in. One reason for this is that many of those views are coming from outside platforms (Facebook, YouTube), which don’t produce as high CPM rates as what can be attained on a publisher’s own website. As Andy Feinberg, CEO of Brightcove, put it to Digiday:
“It’s a terrible trap. [Publishers] have to be on these platforms to retain their audiences and make sure their brand is being presented to a broad audience, and their competitors are there. But the ability to monetize on these platforms is not the same as their ability to monetize on their owned-and-operated platforms. Their CPMs are low; their revenue streams are suffering.”
Just as they did with the iPad, publishers are viewing video as yet another gimmick to easily push the toothpaste back in the tube. And just as with most other easy fixes, this one isn’t going to work.
If publishers want to generate more revenue, they’re going to have to do so with actual innovation, which means putting in the hard work of understanding what it is users actually want. Places like the New York Times and Washington Post have put in that hard work, and they’ve succeeded in convincing consumers to pay for their products, a trend that’s drastically increased their digital revenue.
If there’s one adage to live by in our current media ecosystem, it’s that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. And I can assure you, the pivot to video looks too good to be true.
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