I, For One, Welcome Our New Platform Overlords

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I realized recently that my online habits have changed. I used to frequent six unique sites on a regular basis. They were a part of my regular routine. Throughout the day, I’d check in on these publishers, seeing if there was anything new that piqued my interest. Gradually my loyalty waned. Today this list of six has been whittled down to just two. Do I consume less? Absolutely not. In fact I probably spend more time engrossed in content than ever before.

So what changed? For one, I found more interesting things to read elsewhere. Or rather, more interesting things to read found me. It started innocuously enough; a friend would share an article on their Facebook feed, or I had a spare moment to check out Snapchat Stories.  Then I discovered this cool new pre-installed app called Apple News. Suddenly almost everything was happening on a handful of platforms. And the breadth of consumption exploded; I’ve now read and watched content produced by hundreds of publishers big and small.

Let’s take a step back. Twenty years ago the Internet transformed the publishing industry in ways that no one could have foreseen. Instantly, any content in the world could be had at a click of a button, and for free. We all know that many players were caught by surprise and unsurprisingly were slow to adjust and adapt. It took a long time to master digital content strategies and there were losers and winners. Today represents a new revolution. A new chance to start fresh. Whether you like it or not, we are living in the platform era.

What are platforms? Generally speaking, it’s the entities that control your eyeballs. Facebook is the social platform, Google is the search platform, Snapchat is the mobile messaging platform, Medium is the publishing platform, Apple News is the IOS news platform, and Quora is the question platform. This list isn’t exhaustive and I’m sure we’ll be hearing about a platform war some time soon as they are all competing with each other in the zero-sum game for our precious time. Medium, understanding that distribution is daunting and complicated, has armed content creators using their platform with an ultra simple publish-on-Medium- distribute- everywhere functionality, showing that they are willing to play nice with other platforms.

The real winners (other than the actual winners) will be users and content creators who embrace this new landscape. Just like in the web era, there will be new creators native to platforms. I’ve been very impressed with the platform first publisher NowThis. I started seeing their snackable video content here and there about year ago and it’s only gotten better and ubiquitous spanning categories like news, tech and politics. These guys get it. They produce content I want, and deliver it where I am. The losers will be publishers who are slow to act, and those who choose to build their businesses outside of these platforms. Ad networks and others not invited to the party will no doubt struggle.

One emotion that I’ve seen in some publishers for a while now is fear. Fear of lost revenue and fear of losing control. I think this is misguided, and sounds eerily similar to the fears publishers had at the advent of the web age. Facebook is not the enemy.  Facebook is your friend. The platforms are your partners in this, and their interests, believe it or not, are very aligned with yours.

Glenn Beck rather eloquently shared his experience meeting Mark Zuckerberg in this Medium post where Zuckerberg insisted ‘We are an open platform.’ And that’s just it. They aren’t in the business of creating or curating content, despite charges to the contrary. They need publishers. Users have an insatiable need to read and watch stuff. The platforms all want that consumption to happen inside their world. And because the best content will invariably rise to the top, it’s in publisher’s’ best interests to invest in quality content. As content gets smarter at finding users, the need for clicky titles will be finished. A good friend and successful media entrepreneur once told me that “if you take care of your readers then they will take care of you.”  This rings true now more than ever before.

What about the money? I didn’t say this was going to be easy, and it’s still the early innings of this whole platform game. The platforms have already started to show up to help out; Facebook’s Audience Network monetizes across their Instant Articles product, and Medium announced a two-pronged strategy of promoted stories and membership, both splitting revenue with content creators. Google AMP allows for more of a comfortable monetization environment familiar to many publishers, just in a cleaner faster package. I think publishers need to get smarter and closer to their brand advertisers. The platforms might have all the data, but publishers still create all the content, and content is a very powerful signal of what an audience wants.

So was this change inevitable? Probably. But publishers haven’t helped themselves with user experience, and the platforms have happily obliged to fill in this gap. With pleasure-inducing load times for content and ads, latency will never be the issue that it has been historically. These services now represent the answer to the plague of poor UX that has led to the widespread adoption of ad blockers by people fed up with having their desktop and mobile lives gummed up by too much code on publisher pages. Instant gratification is finally a thing in content. I for one am excited about all this. I welcome fast loading pages that are clean and easy to read. I also welcome the pendulum swing of content quality away from clickbait and back towards insightful and well-produced content.

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