I’m a believer in things repeating themselves in business, even if they take slightly altered forms or use up to date technology. It’s an offshoot of my mantra about not confusing the business with the tools, I guess. In any event, I got to thinking about a tidbit I picked up while going through my news feeds the other day. It turns out according to SimpleReach, a distribution analytics company, referral traffic to the top 30 Facebook publishers plunged 32 percent from January to October. Among the top 10, the drop was 42.7 percent. The drop was confirmed by other analytics sources as well. This, of course, got me thinking about cable operators and television networks.
Like a cable system, a social network is a big, empty pipe. It creates a method for distribution and little else. All of the innovation at a social network is focused on improving that distribution and not on the content. Back when the web started, publishers plugged right into the web and promoted like crazy to get “viewership.” What Facebook and other social networks (read that as gatekeepers) have done is to take over much of the traffic creation. This is exactly what happened when the world shifted from over the air broadcasting to cable, but there as a big difference.
In two words: affiliate fees. This is compensation paid by the operators to the program providers. It can run from pennies per home to $7+. That’s per home, per month. It’s a pretty strong reason why most “TV” content is only available with the blessing of a cable carrier (TV Everywhere). Why would the publishers (content providers, a.k.a. TV nets) want to disrupt that business model, especially when the can supplement those dollars with ad revenues?
Back to Facebook. Publishers spent several years building content islands on Facebook, only to have Facebook revamp their algorithm and sent less traffic. The problem is this:
With social media driving over 30 percent of all traffic to publisher websites and Facebook delivering 75 percent of that social traffic, no publisher, from BuzzFeed to The New York Times Company, can afford to skip using Facebook as a means to promote its content.That gives increasing leverage to Facebook, which is able to greatly influence the prominence and visibility of publishers’ articles in the News Feed of its users.
So here is a prediction, one that might not happen for a couple of years, but one that I think, based on the history of cable TV, will occur eventually. Content providers are going to charge Facebook. I’m not talking about sharing ad revenues; I mean the digital equivalent of affiliate fees. Someone will bite the bullet – a big guy like the Times or HuffPo or maybe BuzzFeed – and tell Facebook to pay up. Maybe they will take technical measures to prevent their content from being shared there but they won’t publish it themselves. One publisher gone is not a big deal. Many publishers gone means an empty pipe, and that means fewer users and fewer ads sold for Facebook.
What do you think?