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Distributed content: The best ways to build sustainable platform strategies

The potential audience for news has never been larger, yet reaching that audience directly has never been more of a challenge for publishers. Thanks to the explosion of social media and smartphones, people are consuming content constantly, but they are far less likely to discover or consume that content on publisher websites.

Websites will, of course, continue to exist, but gone are the days when most people navigate to a publisher’s homepage and click around.

For many traditional print publishers who felt like they were just getting a handle on the web, this feels like yet another disorienting seismic shift. We recently gathered representatives from over 35 publishers for a daylong summit in New York City on the changing consumption patterns and the rise of distributed content. This white paper captures what we learned.

We found that as publishers navigate an increasingly platform-dominated world, many have seen rewards by embracing a distributed content model. Those successes, however, are tempered by a new host of challenges.

Hiring a social media editor to sit in your newsroom and post web content to Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, does not qualify as embracing a distributed model.

It’s important to understand and define what distributed content is and is not. Hiring a social media editor to sit in your newsroom and post web content to Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, does not qualify as embracing a distributed model.

Distributed content is any content that a publisher creates to live “natively” on an outside platform without directing any traffic back to your domain. This could mean allowing Facebook or Google to host your articles through Facebook Instant Articles or Google AMP. But it more generally means content you create specifically to live off-site on certain platforms.

Examples of distributed content could be a new interview series that you launch on Facebook Live, or interactive vertical videos that you publish solely on Snapchat, or a Kik messenger bot that chats with users about the latest news.

It could mean working closely with a platform itself to beta test new products and features. Companies like CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post have signed on as Facebook media partners and have collectively produced hundreds of Facebook Live broadcasts, for instance. Other brands such as The Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, ESPN and more have teamed up with Snapchat to produce content for Snapchat Discover, Snapchat’s media portal.

(Distributed content) could mean working closely with a platform itself to beta test new products and features.

Bleacher Report has gone so far as to have a “managing editor” and “mission statement” for each platform. “If we can differentiate those platform experiences in the right way, we can start to craft content experiences that are maybe built for the same person, but they’re in a different mindset depending on the platform they’re on,” the company’s president told Digiday.

A new class of platform-only publishers has also cropped up in recent years that have no websites of their own, but publish exclusively on distributed channels. Independently-owned companies such as NowThis and Cheddar, which publish news video content natively on social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, were created specifically to create native content for social platforms.

As more quality content becomes available within these distributed channels, it becomes less and less likely that consumption patterns will shift back to the earlier days of the web. NowThis, for instance, boasts over 1 billion views a month across all platforms.

Just as the web has permanently disrupted print, social platforms have forever altered the way consumers consume content online.

Just as the web has permanently disrupted print, social platforms have forever altered the way consumers consume content online.

Legacy publishers need to leverage distributed content to grow their audience and survive this wave. That requires employing smart strategies and pragmatic solutions. Ignoring the rise of distributed content will not make it go away, but by using some of the solutions that follow, publishers can take advantage of this shift to reach new audiences and, ultimately, profit.

It can be hard to find footing in this new era, especially when platforms themselves evolve so rapidly. What follows are actionable things that publishers of any size can do to not only sustain, but to capitalize on this shift to a distributed model.

This isn’t a list of broad trends to “keep in mind.” These are strategic tactics that publishers at any size would benefit from employing:


Choose the right platform for you

The most important first step when you’re beginning to consider distributed channels, people told us, is to determine what type of platforms to embrace and which to hold off on.

Do not try to do everything at once. Set criteria for determining which new platforms to explore and think about what existing assets you can use.

Start with your current audience; what platforms do they regularly use? Are you an niche LGBT-focused publication whose audience is active on Tumblr? Consider natively publishing there. If your audience is older and made up of heavy Facebook users, think about ways you can grow your presence there beyond a single branded Facebook Page where you post links.

One summit attendee, for example, suggested using platform-specific “SWAT teams” when targeting potential new platforms. These teams might consist of about five people made up of a mix of journalists, product and tech staff.

Mic operates in a similar way to this method. It assigns small teams to test Mic content on new platforms such as Facebook Live or 360 video, and it is quick to cut bait when new platforms or products don’t work out. Marcus Moretti, Mic’s director of growth and editorial products, says that it’s important to fail often in this process.

Mic’s foray into 360 video provides a prime example of this process. After assigning a mix of video staff and journalists to experiment with publishing immersive, VR-like 360 degree videos on Facebook, Moretti says that Mic found that many users were simple pointing their phones at the ground or disengaging. The team disbanded and moved onto the next project.

This rapid experimentation and learning what works and what doesn’t allows a publisher to tailor content and develop some stories exclusively for certain platforms more effectively.

This rapid experimentation and learning what works and what doesn’t allows a publisher to tailor content and develop some stories exclusively for certain platforms more effectively.

“For 2017, we are setting SWAT teams by key platforms,” Regina Buckley, SVP of digital business development & business operations at Time Inc. said. For Time Inc., these teams will include someone from editorial/video, someone from business development, someone from sales, and one audience engagement editor to run point on each platform.

Many people told us however, that it’s important to ensure that it’s not just smaller SWAT teams that are focused on these new platforms and products. Company-wide and newsroom-wide adoption is key for long term success. It’s critical for SWAT teams to integrate process and learnings into the larger newsroom.

Use metrics and goals to track platform growth

Another critical step when dipping your toes into the world of distributed content, is to set goals.

Redefine “metrics” as more than just traffic referred to your site. Consider your brand’s wider audience and what untapped communities you’d like to reach. Think through the benefits of engaging audiences in these new channels, too. It could be expanding your reach. It also could add potential revenue. (NowThis News has a design studio that produces sponsored video content for others in distributed channels. Facebook Instant Articles can include ad revenue sharing).

Redefine ‘metrics’ as more than just traffic referred to your site.

Make a profile of your target audience and think about what platforms they use.

Every platform offers different types of metrics; it’s important to look at those and figure out what targets you want to reach. That could mean 100,000 screenshots on a Snapchat story, or an average of 1,000 concurrent viewers on Facebook Live.

Consider developing your own new metric as well. Margarita Noriega, executive editor at Newsweek, suggests one way to build audience from the ground up on Facebook is to monitor which posts result in account profile views and follows.

“The most clicked and shared posts may not drive follows, and while traffic is the ideal way to expose people to what we’re building on our site, our accounts are what they see first and possibly last. Find out which posts drive follows — it will give you a better sense of what those people want to see more of in the future.” She notes this works especially well for building smaller brands.

Building a new analytics dashboard to highlight social metrics in addition to traditional web traffic is a an option for those publishers with the technical staff to undertake such a project. This type of integrated dashboard can help get newsroom staff excited about embracing new platforms. It’s also valuable for editors to see that even though a video received 2,000 views within a web article, that same video reached over 2 million on Facebook.

Find out which posts drive follows — it will give you a better sense of what those people want to see more of in the future.

The American Press Institute uses an approach in its Metrics for News program that also creates a blended index that merges various metrics into one, including social elements, so that the dashboard doesn’t have to choose only a couple of metrics that may each have limitations.

You can incentivize staff to care more about these metrics, too. Some have suggested giving out prizes for hitting social-related KPIs, much the way that traffic-focused publishers such as Gawker and Business Insider have handed out cash bonuses for traffic.

If you use this approach, contests or leaderboards, people told us, make sure to frame them as a carrot, not a stick. Also be sure to communicate successes and challenges on distributed platforms widely within newsroom throughout the process.

If you’re looking for metrics that a certain platform doesn’t currently offer, reach out and ask if it’s possible for them to provide that data. These efforts see greatest success when a publisher is able to get past the media relations team and connect directly with the product/engineering teams.

Integrate distributed content into the newsroom process

Sparking a cultural shift toward distributed content within a newsroom can prove especially challenging for smaller, regional, and more traditional publishers, some of whom even still maintain separate print and digital staff.

One good starting point for such publishers is to get traditional editorial staff involved in content creation on new platforms. This could be as simple as giving an old-school photographer the keys to a new Instagram account, as National Geographic and USA Today have. Find or hire people knowledgeable about these new platforms and allow them to educate those who are more unfamiliar. Make sure to educate old timers in a positive way by showing them the benefits of these new mediums.

Another important step is to make sure social media staff are integrated into the story-creation process. Don’t simply involve them after the fact by asking them to promote published articles on platforms. Storyboard feature stories collaboratively and involve the social staff in breaking news coverage, which increasingly plays out on social media.

Make sure social media staff are integrated into the story-creation process.

Even the most enthusiastic journalists will still struggle to embrace new platforms without the right tools. For instance, build a Facebook Live kit for reporters in the field and tell them exactly what type of content they should be producing. This could include providing reporters with a mobile phone, small iPhone rig with a light and wireless microphone that would allow them to shoot high quality video on the fly.

Explain to journalists what the company is trying to achieve on different platforms and what type of content you’d like them to replicate, rather than just expecting them to figure it out. “Giving reporters examples can go a long way” said Rubina Fillion, digital engagement editor at The Intercept.

Whenever a publisher is trying to keep up with a new publishing shift, one valuable method is identifying those in your newsroom who have already embraced those platforms. This means publishers should be asking people about their own consumption, and should ask what these people would need to supercharge their efforts. Find your advocates and allies and work with them.

Management buy-in is also key. It’s very hard for large corporations to innovate or evolve without key buy in from the top. Try to foster an open dialogue with management at your company about the changing nature of consumption habits. This might best be achieved by framing things positively. For instance, come to senior leaders with new ideas and opportunities on emerging platforms that could lead to direct audience growth or revenue. Highlight some current successes and provide hard numbers. Be respectful, but persistent in your approach.

Build relationships with platform companies

Even publishers with the most social media-savvy newsrooms can feel at a disadvantage when Facebook rolls out a new product. A common complaint we heard from publishers at all levels is that it’s difficult to build partnerships with social media platforms. They seem to be holding all the cards. Even large publishers often feel in the dark during meetings with large platform companies.

The challenge is only greater for small, regional, and even mid-sized publishers. They they often feel at a disadvantage in negotiating with platform partners when compared to big players like CNN, BuzzFeed or ESPN.

(Social media platforms) seem to be holding all the cards.

Publishers who aren’t media partners with Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, aren’t highlighted prominently on these platforms, don’t receive a heads up about new products and never have a direct line to support at these companies.

That said, there are a few ways to establish and grow a closer relationship with established and emerging platforms. Several in newsrooms who worked closely with partners said it comes down to basic relationship management.

Jeff Petriello, formerly director of creative development at Mashable, says that Mashable has regular touch-base meetings with platform representatives. The Huffington Post checks in regularly with its rep at Facebook. At Refinery29, the video team holds frequent calls with Facebook to review what’s working and what isn’t on its pages.

So, first establish a relationship with a designated representative. If possible, make that relationship face to face. Invite them to lunch or to visit your newsroom. Proactively share data and be open about about the challenges publishers face. Consider inviting them into editorial meetings. Providing these types of insights can help platforms tailor their products to media company needs.

If inviting platform representatives in feels too much, ask to be invited to events that they’re organizing. Attend talks and meetups where platform representatives will be present and make an effort to thoughtfully engage.

Reaching out online can be a valuable tactic for regional publishers who aren’t in the big cities where platform companies have offices.

Reaching out online can be a valuable tactic for regional publishers who aren’t in the big cities where platform companies have offices. Many staff at different platforms actively engage on Twitter. If you can’t make it to New York for a Facebook event, ask for a livestream or follow along and participate via hashtag.

Annemarie Dooling, director of programming at Racked, suggests taking a “middle-up approach” rather than top-down networking. “Get to know their representatives at mid-level, who have more time for relationship building, and go to them,” she suggests. “They are usually more than happy to give tours of their offices and facilities. Let them know about what you cover and all tentpoles and larger beats and projects forthcoming. For example, if your big event is elections, don’t wait until October to let them know you have plans.”

“Listen to their advice, particularly on new products. When they mention something new, like a tool or product, it’s usually because it’s important to their bosses and larger platform goals, so listening and trying it out can be to your benefit,” she adds. “You could end up in a beta program, or in their best practices. And finally, remember that these are people. While it may sound obvious, if you are building a relationship, build it beyond the scope of your work. Ask how their families are, or the marathon they just ran, or ask for cooking tips if they post a food video. Not only is it a genuine practice, but people in tech, particularly the best and most helpful people, change jobs often and you’ll be able to carry that relationship to the next position.”

Launch platform-first sub-brands

An increasing number of forward-thinking publishers have delved deep into the world of distributed content by launching sub-brands with content tailored specifically to the platform they live on.

BuzzFeed launched its first distributed-only team in 2014 with BuzzFeed BFF, an experimental group within BuzzFeed and that created native content on Vine, Tumblr, Instagram and more. Two years later, BuzzFeed’s largest distributed brand, Tasty (which shares short cooking videos optimized for Facebook), has become the largest media brand on Facebook and 50 percent of Americans watch a Tasty video every month.

In 2014, Hearst launched Sweet, a lifestyle-driven publication that lives exclusively on Snapchat. In 2015, Business Insider launched, INSIDER, a video-first brand that publishes content natively on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat.

In mid-2016, Time Inc. launched INSTANT, “the People magazine for the Snapchat generation,” a fully distributed media brand that video content natively on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

USA Today’s popular sports vertical, FTW, was initially launched as a social-focused sub-brand where it published native content on Facebook and Tumblr, as well as linking back to the larger USA Today site. Refinery29 saw short beauty videos performing well on its site and social channels and launched a social-only sub brand called Short Cuts, which focuses on beauty.

Sub-brands allow publishers to reposition themselves in the market and establish a new identity without alienating established consumers.

Sub-brands allow publishers to reposition themselves in the market and establish a new identity without alienating established consumers.

Many have compared this model to launching “shows” on a television network. Launching smaller sub-brands that are tailored to the needs of different platforms can allow publishers to target different, and even sometimes conflicting, audiences.

But how to approach this type of project?

Many publishers have found success from allowing staff to build their passion project with in-house resources and support, provided that project is in line with larger goals. When you have people who are truly passionate about a specific topic or content theme, others are likely to gravitate toward it.

If a passion project gains enough traction, assemble a team around it and set KPIs. This is how BuzzFeed’s largest sub brand, Tasty, was founded.

Keep in mind that it may take time for sub brands to grow. It’s important to set different metrics and goals. Determine the purpose of the sub-brand. If the goal is to launch sub-brands in order to experiment and find new audiences, set goals around that.

If the goal is ultimately to drive direct revenue, you might approach things differently. It takes time for a sub-brand to grow. Partnering with an advertiser to launch a new sub-brand can be a good way to mitigate the financial cost of launching something new.

Leverage community and partnerships

Another popular way publishers have established themselves on new platforms is through a community-driven approach.

Take Jersey Shore Hurricane News as an example. Launched after Hurricane Sandy, this news brand focused on local New Jersey news. The brand started with a shared Facebook page and Instagram account, and it is built around contributor culture. None of the content on Instagram, for instance, is created by Jersey Shore Hurricane News. Instead, the publisher relies on its community to tag and share content using a dedicated hashtag. Jersey Shore Hurricane News reposts all user content with credit to spread goodwill and grow its following.

If you aren’t ready to turn your whole account over, takeovers can also be a great way to highlight a mix of outside content. This is the way that Quartz approaches Snapchat. Because it’s a small publisher with reporters all around the world, building a large Snapchat-dedicated team was impossible.

Instead, Quartz organizes daily Snapchat takeovers with reporters and contributors around the globe. This approach has allowed the brand to provide an ever-changing mix of interesting content and has garnered a global audience of followers.

Partnering with other publishers can also be a powerful way forward.

Partnering with other publishers can also be a powerful way forward. When The Daily Beast decided it needed more lifestyle-focused content in its Facebook Live videos, it partnered with Food52. The two brands collaborate on cooking videos, cocktail tastings, and more. Partnering allows them to leverage both their audiences and reach more users than they would alone.

Other publishers have collaborated on group Facebook pages aimed at sharing a mix of each other’s content to achieve rapid growth. The Daily Dot, for instance, partnered with Nerdist, Someecards and Mental Floss on a group Facebook page that they all contribute content to. This “rising tide lifts all boats” approach has allowed the publishers involved to grow new audiences.

Be pragmatic

Since experimentation costs time and money, even in the best cases, it’s critical to remain pragmatic when approaching new platforms. While experimentation is key, publishers who strategically approach new platforms and products are bound to see greater returns than those who post non-cohesive scattered content across a wide range of platforms.

Often, it’s beneficial not to be among the first to dive deep into a new platform. There’s enormous value in experiencing a platform heavily as an active user before setting up a branded account.

“At The Huffington Post, we’re super scrappy when it comes to testing new platforms and products,” says Kiki Von Glinow, ‎director of growth and analytics. “For us, it’s important to approach these new audiences in a way that’s authentic and native to the given experience, so often engaging with the communities as if we are a regular member of the ecosystem without all the bells and whistles actually allows us to do a lot of great testing and pivoting without the overhead. Once we find a topic or tactic that really resonates on a given platform, then we’ll think more about building it out and investing resources.”

“Don’t overreach,” says Stephanie Haberman, director of growth at Vocativ. “Just because everyone else is jumping on a platform, that doesn’t mean it makes sense for you, or for your audience. When you have a lean, scrappy team, like most do, you can’t be everywhere. Remember who, and where, your audience is. Cultivate that, then grow when you’ve reached critical mass and they’ll follow you.”

Elana Zak, multiplatform editor at CNN Money, echoes this sentiment. “We’re constantly told our users are on every social space — Facebook, Snapchat, Line — and we should meet them there. But for some publishers, especially more niche ones, it isn’t valuable to be on every platform,” she says. “If your readers aren’t on Snapchat, don’t kill yourself trying to fit into that ecosystem. You’re wasting resources that could go to finding your readers where they actually are.”

That said, once a new platform is identified as a target you don’t want to wait too long to pounce. There are benefits to being early. It can show platform representatives that you’re a believer in the product and the company, which may make them more willing to work with you or build products to help you. For instance, publishers who were early to Twitter, such as The New York Times, were marked “suggested follows” for users and saw huge audience growth.

We're all in this together

One of the biggest takeaways from our summit was that all publishers, large and small, experience many of the same headaches when approaching distributed content.

Even publishers in prime positions, like Mashable, which is both a Facebook and Snapchat media partner, still don’t feel in a position of power. A coveted spot in Snapchat Discover appears great in many ways. However unlike a user account, you don’t own your audience and can be kicked out any day.

Publishers of all sizes are trying to figure out how to leverage these new platforms as user behavior on each platform evolves. On top of all this, the platforms themselves are rapidly changing. It can often feel like no one is on steady ground.

Communication is key

One of the most common phrases heard at our summit on distributed publishing was, “You have that problem too?” It’s clear that communication, both internally and externally, can be a powerful tool.

Liz Heron, formerly executive editor of The Huffington Post, said she would love to see more open communication among those in the media industry. She suggested that smaller publishers partner with larger publishers in order to get a leg up in the system and also proposed that small or mid-sized publishers band together in order to have more bargaining power when dealing with these platforms.

Publishers should be open and honest about their failings. The endless puff pieces on “how X publisher is using Y new platform” serve no one but the publisher and platform’s public relations teams. Sharing not only how your brand is leveraging a new platform, but the failings, challenges encountered, and tactics used to overcome those challenges, benefits the industry at large and opens the door for collaboration.

The more transparency in the media industry, the more publishers at all levels will be on equal playing field with new platforms.

The more transparency in the media industry, the more publishers at all levels will be on equal playing field with new platforms. If everyone makes the shift to Facebook Instant Articles and sees a negative return, but no one talks about it, Facebook will always have all the power.

Consider hosting off the record events or forums with other publishers in your field. Speak to your competitors. Create Facebook groups or email lists around specific platforms or topics.

We no longer live in a world where you can only subscribe to one newspaper and it’s one or the other. Consumers embrace an ever-changing wider array of content and collaboration and communication within the media as a whole moves everyone forward.


As our summit in New York City concluded, one thing was clear: everything changes. Media consumption patterns have fluctuated wildly in the past decade, and technology is progressing at a rate faster than any other time in recent history. No one publisher has it all figured out.

Publishers who claimed to be able to “game” Facebook’s algorithm in order to generate millions of clicks just a few years ago have been cut off at the knees by Facebook’s shift to video. Publishers who currently invest solely in generating viral Facebook videos may find themselves in a similar struggle a few years down the line. No platform or technology is static, and nearly all attendees stressed how important it is to diversity and remain nimble.

No representatives from over the over 35 publishers who attended felt they could confidently predict where Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or any other growing social media platforms would be in five or 10 years.

“Publishers spent decades perfecting our product on printed pages with the occasional innovative disruption in in photography, color ink, telecommunications technology, etc. Then the internet opened up a world of opportunities and then mobile took over,” says Justin Bank, senior editor for audience and Internet at The New York Times.

“Publishers spent decades perfecting our product on printed pages with the occasional innovative disruption in in photography, color ink, telecommunications technology, etc. Then the internet opened up a world of opportunities and then mobile took over.

“We already [think we] know the next waves of platform changes will include distributed content, bots, native social, audio, augmented reality, virtual reality, IRL reality, IoT. But no matter what the particular directions of technology and audiences, there will be a certain need for publishers to more carefully and thoughtfully approach this changing world by learning from each other.”

“More than ever, it feels as if we’re strapped into the middle seat on a roller coaster. It’s a bumpy ride, and we can only see a little bit of what’s ahead — and we’re not even remotely in control,” said Dan Petty, a senior editor at The Denver Post. “Every three to six months, we have to re-evaluate and pivot on strategy for reaching increasingly fickle audiences. You don’t much confidence that the audience you have today from these platforms will be there tomorrow.”

Will Facebook and Snapchat still be around in a few years? Yes. But they could exist in forms wildly different formats than what we are familiar with today. The important thing for publishers to keep in mind is that ultimately they service their audience, not the platforms.

While publishers who are able to seize the power of distributed content will ultimately fare better in the post-homepage world, users (or readers) should always come first.

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