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Now that we’ve all had some time to absorb Facebook’s sweeping News Feed changes and take in the various takes, publishers must re-calibrate, reset, and move on. With so many people asking where to go from here, perhaps we need to look backward before turning forward.

In the words of digital media veteran Michael Rose, a former colleague of mine, “the evolution of media tends to be largely cyclical, with media portal models rising and falling in favor among publishers over the years.” The latest portal to dominate as a distribution channel: Facebook, which The Atlantic has referred to as the “mother of all media gatekeepers.”

As Rose points out, this story is not new. Prior to the rise of Facebook as a media distribution juggernaut, there was AOL and Yahoo in the dot-com era, which established themselves as the unequivocal traffic referral monopolies of their time. So, what happened to publishers when those guys went the way of the dinosaurs?

Through the rise and fall of these platforms, the publishers that understood the importance of building and truly owning their own audiences won out. Their strategic, long-term focus on audience development via social distribution and so-called “side-door” strategies loosened their dependence AOL and Yahoo—and later Facebook and Google—enabling them to thrive during the halcyon days, as well as the eventual demise, of both portals.

The New York Times’ internal “Innovation” report became the de facto playbook for publishers everywhere, with many of its key findings still holding true, now four years after its original publication.

While Facebook’s story is far from over, the parallels between AOL/Yahoo and Facebook—at least in the context of publishers—are worth noting. With less publisher content organically appearing in the News Feed, publishers will seek out other ways to make up for potential referral dips, as well as create content that drives the types of engagements (e.g. peer-to-peer sharing) that will help boost their content in the revised feed. In short, publishers will need to adapt, just as they did when the leading portals of the late 90s and early 00s began to lose influence at the hands of Google.

Here are some strategies that worked then, and will continue to work given Facebook’s revised approach to the News Feed:

Focus on audiences, not traffic.

Publishers had been relying heavily on Facebook prior to the recent News Feed changes, and doing so with good reason. For a long time, Facebook was a steady and reliable distribution channel, consistently driving traffic back to owned-and-operated properties (remember that “side door” strategy?). But as history has taught us, we should always be wary of leaning too much on a single partner whose product we as publishers cannot control.

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While the News Feed update will cause some interim headaches for publishers, who now must scramble to understand the impact, it also presents an opportunity to test new pathways for audience development. Instead of looking at which platform is driving the most traffic, ask yourself which approaches are most valuable in terms of long-term audience development. Remember, having traffic is not the same as having an audience. In fact, a traffic-obsessed approach to audience development will fail to attract users that trust you and engage with your content in the long-term.

The alternative is to adopt a more user-centric approach. The fragmented media landscape has created a race to see who can build the biggest walled garden. This has forced people to chase down the content they love across multiple platforms and oftentimes in formats that might be optimized for a specific feed, but these are not necessarily the best ways to consume that content.

Publishers like The New York Times have realized this and invested heavily in innovative formats to deliver great content to their audiences in immersive ways that simply cannot be achieved via the constraints of major digital distribution platforms. The award-winning “Snow Fall” work is a prime example, along with their efforts in 360-video and VR.

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Adopt a channelized approach based on niche passion points.

Astute publishers know that one of the most proven ways to grow an audience is to align with the subjects that consumers are passionate about. Look no further than Pinterest’s early gains in audience development, which was due to their strategy to own niche subcategories that were largely underserved by other publishers and platforms. In addition to covering evergreen topics (e.g. “style,” “weddings,” and “crafting”), they built out channelized experiences around smaller interest areas (e.g. “tattoos”), which enabled them to capture organic interest via side-door SEO.

To this end, publishers can build out powerful side-door strategies around an editorial strategy that prioritizes niche, evergreen content around the topics that their audiences care about, but cannot easily find elsewhere.

Evolve your content creation strategy from “clickable” to “credible.”

Facebook’s News Feed updates are systematic of a broader shift by the company to drive meaningful connections and build community. This means prioritizing humans over publishers: a piece of content shared by Vanity Fair page, for example, will be granted a lesser algorithmic boost than that same Vanity Fair article shared by a friend.

The big takeaway: For publishers, you can still capturing attention in the News Feed if your content is conducive to creating conversations, not just clicks. Facebook has reiterated that publishers can still reach audiences there if users demonstrate a desire to view and engage with their content. Moreover, the platform will reward content that spurs connectivity, a tie-in to their revised mission of (and reinvigorated commitment to) bringing people together.

If the goal was to create a thumb-stopping moment before, publishers will need to evolve to optimize for human-to-human conversations. Ultimately, content will be judged by the relevance and credibility of the humans who share it, and that’s a critical distinction for publishers moving forward.

Consider how this nuance might impact the types of content you share, the preferred format, and even the source of distribution. Reporters continue to emerge as sub-brands of their own outlets, crafting newsletters under their own bylines and disseminating stories via personal accounts. BuzzFeed tech reporter Charlie Warzel has his own newsletter, as does Casey Newton, Silicon Valley Editor at The Verge (see below).

For publishers and creators who rely on Facebook as a significant —if not dominant— traffic referral source, The News Feed changes might feel jarring, but they will also help the industry get back to the basics of audience development, which has never centered on a single-platform dependency.

To win in the new era, publishers will need to prioritize audience engagement over traffic, drive human-to-human connections (not just clicks), and adopt a channelized editorial mindset that plays into the niche passion points of their audiences. Do these things right, and you’ll find yourself within the ever-narrowing group of digital publishers who are winning in spite of seismic changes to the familiar distribution channels.



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