Many newspaper executives, most infamously Tribune acquirer Sam Zell, have made an enemy out of Google and other online aggregators who disintermediate newspapers and all other traditional media. This is of course a wrongheaded way to think about content on the Web, since these aggregators drive a significant amount of traffic to newspapers.
But the real fear inherent in the distrust of aggregators is that they are destroying the direct brand relationships that newspapers and other branded media have traditionally had with their audience.
Here’s a telling reaction to a finding from a global study of youth media behavior commissioned by the World Association of Newspapers:
But this just brings up another problematic finding for newspapers from the survey: often, young people “do not realize they are reading online versions of newspapers.” The culprits, according to WAN, are the very aggregators that can get newspaper content in front of young people to begin with. Newspapers are still struggling with this conundrum, seeking ways to brand content so it can be both recognized by the reader and monetized by the newspaper–but there’s no clear solution in sight.
The problem that newspapers and other traditional media brands have is that they still see branding as a function of controlling the distribution channel, rather than branding each unit of content that must now live and survive on its own in a disaggregated online media ecosystem.
But the real missed opportunity for newspapers is in optimizing their content to convert user who find their way to newspaper content via search and other aggregators into subscribers and direct users of the brand. The New York Times, having learned from search master About.com, is using this approach with its Times Topics pages, which rank high in Google for generic terms and draw users in to the universe of NYT content.
Here is a Google search for “global warming“:
Which leads to this global warming topic page on the Times:
Notice the ad for the print version of the New York Times. Also notice that the Times includes many third-party links on the topic of global warming, in addition to aggregating its own content:
The New York Times is being discovered through an aggregator and immediately demonstrating its own utility as a destination source. I don’t know what kind of conversion rate the Times has, but I can extrapolate from experience on this blog.
Publishing 2.0 gets 73% of its traffic from search and referring sites, which include aggregators like Techmeme. Some of my content is also syndicated in full text on Seeking Alpha, Yahoo, and Digital Media Wire (with links back to the site, which yield significant traffic) — this is anathema to the traditional media mindset.
Yet the only way to consistently get all Publishing 2.0 content is to subscribe — the result is that Publishing 2.0’s RSS and email subscribers are growing at a compound monthly rate of 16%, meaning the subscriber based doubles about every 5 months. That means that although my content is distributed across the web through channels and applications that I don’t control, people are finding enough value in the content that they discover through aggregators or other referrers — either the first time or after multiple interactions — that they choose to subscribe to the source.
The site traffic statistics that show 27% coming to the site directly don’t take into account all of these RSS and email susbcribers, who typically read Publishing 2.0 content without coming to the site. Feed item views — a metric that many traditional media sites have yet to discover — have been growing a torrid pace, nearly doubling over the last several months as I’ve been posting more frequently.
I’m sure there are plenty of people who continue to discover my content on an episodic basis and choose not to subscribe, but that will always be the case on the Web. But newspaper will never grow their online “subscribers” by being hostile to aggregators — which is essential being hostile to the Web.
Newspapers will also limit their growth by focusing only on their own content — the New York Times and many other mainstream media sites have embraced aggregation themselves, as blogs have done for years, by linking usefully to other sites, which only increases their value as a destination.
None of this will save newspapers from declining print circulation, i.e. it won’t turn young people who don’t read print newspapers into print readers. But it can help people discover the newspaper’s original content online — and if they discover it enough times, some of them will start going to these newspapers directly as a source.
This is essentially a reinvention of the circulation department — but it’s the only way for content creators to survive in a world where they don’t control the “pipes.”