2017 will be the year when the search for absolute growth will end. And the search for intelligent growth will become smarter and more nuanced.
All news media want bigger audiences, greater impact, more readers. Impact is built into the very identity of journalism, into its purpose and function, and growth is built into the basic functionality of any sustainable business model. But not growth at any cost. And not growth for the sake of growth anymore.
2016 will have been the year in which many publishers — even as they were trying to move away from traffic metrics like pageviews and visits and rethink their goals with other kinds of metrics of quality and engagement — also found themselves caught up in a powerful swirl of growth and reach initiatives: Facebook Live and Instant Articles, Google AMP, social video, experiments with new platforms like chat apps and new technologies like bots, new distribution partnerships, new social sharing partnerships, just to cite a few. Many news media tried many things, some media tried it all, every media has been trying to reach new audiences.
But a lot happened in the news and in the news industry in 2016. Brexit. A double-digit drop in print advertising revenues in many markets. A massive concentration of digital advertising revenue in just two platforms — Google and Facebook — that are not news media (in the U.S., 85 cents of every new dollar spent on digital went to the two companies in the first quarter of 2016). Trump. Post-Trump. Post-fact. Fake news.
In 2016, the news media ecosystem became a place with less ad revenue, shared by fewer players, across increasingly unregulated channels of distribution, with growing competition for clicks and attention, in increasingly unpredictable news feeds and search result rankings, over which publishers exercise diminishing control. When views, likes, reach, and even clicks bring in neither many engaged readers nor much revenue, then pure reach has reached its limit.
So in 2017, we’ll be refining our reach and focusing our growth initiatives. Protecting our brands and targeting audiences more deliberately and narrowly. We’ll be competing less for attention, and more for loyalty, and understanding that the clicks and likes of one, probably don’t have the same value as the time spent, the shares and the recirculation of the other.
It will be the year in which publishers may reconsider the existential reasons for certain strategies that had been considered indispensable for reaching new audiences — like Twitter and Facebook: What exactly are we trying to get out of these social platforms? Are they really helping news media reach audiences who are actually likely to get value and utility out of our content — in ways that we can understand and measure? And monetize?
In this coming year, publishers may no longer be able to afford to consider reach without return. In the newsroom, we’ll be developing more intelligent and focused initiatives to grow the specific audiences that are actually likely to become loyal. And we’ll be using a plethora of new technologies and data-driven tools being developed right now to help newsrooms become ever more targeted and refined in reaching and growing our audiences. Predictive analytics dashboards integrating off-site trends and on-site user behavior, to understand exactly what rising topics are relevant for the newsroom to publish and promote. Tools to do real-time competitor benchmarking for topics and distribution tactics, to use the collective intelligence of other publishers and their readers to better reach our own targeted audiences. Artificial intelligence to create optimized personalization algorithms and truly effective bots.
In 2017, we will be using specific insights to reach specific audiences: loyal ones, who engage with the content often, and at length, who consume a lot of it, often share it, increasingly comment on it and eventually, for most publishers — indeed for more and more of us — pay for it.
Renée Kaplan is head of audience engagement at the Financial Times.