A common challenge that a digital news publisher will come across is working with content aggregators.
Today, I’m going to share two things with you: firstly, a rant about how content aggregators are impacting digital news publishing, and secondly, how to handle them.
Let’s pause for a second though to define exactly what a content aggregator is.
A content aggregator is an individual or organization that gathers web content (and/or sometimes applications) from different online sources for reuse or resale.
They come in two kinds:
- Those who simply gather news from various sources for their websites.
- Those who gather and distribute news for customers. This process is called content syndication.
Customers actually love content aggregators, even if digital news publishers don’t. The irony is that the whole content aggregator thing was started off by digital news publishers.
A short history of content aggregators
2015 was when the digital industry witnessed the rise of content aggregators. Because many publishers perceived syndication as a sin, they rejected aggregators and instead chose Google News, Yahoo News and AOL. Also, none of them wanted to dip into their budget, so instead created free news searches for Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Vine et al.
The audience sizes of these aggregator sites were small, but they were seen to be having the capacity to grow rapidly. Trying to accomplish the common goal of ‘being everywhere your readers are’, many publishers started relying on these aggregators completely, and unfortunately, instead of finding a better solution to reach their audience, they started giving their content to the aggregators for free.
In return, they got a huge number of views on content but not much ROI.
When it comes to revenue generation, which is a big challenge for digital publishers, the only option with content aggregators is to bet on the subscription models and nothing else. Which is definitely not a win-win situation for digital news publishers.
The impact of content aggregators on news consumption
It goes without saying that content discovery has changed significantly in the past decade, but the method of news consumption has also changed drastically. Now consumers expect a frictionless delivery and high-quality, shareable, searchable and readily-available news content in return for their interest.
A lot of consumers now prefer paying an aggregator site once a month to access a variety of news from multiple publishers. To them, it is more convenient and cost-effective to pay just once and consume maximum content throughout the month.
The only way this situation could benefit the publishers would be if the consumers were paying every time they consumed publisher’s content on an aggregator site, and they’re definitely not.
So does this mean that content aggregators should be a big ‘NO’ for your news publishing sites?
The friction between content aggregators and news publishers
Giving away your content for free and still being eaten up by the content aggregators is not a good state for any publisher to be in. This social media era is responsible for further adding to a publisher’s desire for ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ over an authentic subscriber base.
Regardless of this, a lot of publishers have become a bit lazy and are not focusing on finding new ways to reach their subscribers. They’ve kind of accepted the state of things as they are. Imagine if they partnered with others in the industry to create a socially engaging ‘network for news’ or similar to share the wealth.
Instead, a lot of them are giving away their high-value content for free on Facebook: the filter-happy, brand-unfriendly content curator and controller.
Is social media the ultimate news aggregator?
Whether it be editorial or breaking news, social media has become an easy way to source a variety of news content and quickly comment on and share it with friends and family.
Fast-loading, interactive platforms like Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News keep readers within their proprietary ecosystem, limiting the monetization possibility as well as the reader experience to pre-defined layouts. On the flip side, Google AMP represents an effort to move to much more responsive web experiences with less restrictions.
Facebook alone is already responsible for directing 27% of all traffic to most news sites (up to 70% for some), so what happens to all that traffic when a publisher’s full-content articles are hosted in the social titan’s territory? Why should readers ever visit the publisher’s’ sites again when they can get the content and conversations they want on Facebook?
These platforms are awaiting publishers with open arms. They have developed an exciting and hyper-efficient way to distribute their content – eliminating the need for publishers to have websites at all!
What about backlink tactics?
Another bit of bait these content aggregators provide to publishers is backlinks. They lure the publishers to give their content for no cost in return for a backlink.
In fact, some experts have even listed this as good SEO practice. If you’re into SEO, then you already know how enticing the word ‘backlink’ sounds. But what’s the point of having likes and backlinks if you don’t have readers genuinely enjoying your content and becoming your loyal readers?
Besides… with block ads in apps already hitting the app stores, what guarantees can these content aggregators offer publishers in terms of advertising reach? Where will the revenue come from?
When headlines and snippets from publishers become the aggregator commodity, there’s even more debate as to whether the aggregators should share revenue with publishers since they are earning money on the back of others’ clickbait.
It’s not dissimilar to the issues the music industry has faced with streaming audio products. The debate will likely continue to rage on as mobile usage grows, and while some platforms like Flipboard and Pulse are onboarding content partners, for the most part, there are very few revenue sharing opportunities available right now.
Content aggregators: Sorting the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Beyond all the negative connotations around these content aggregators, there are some advantages to working with them. To help you make your choice, let me share some of the major pros and cons.
- Some trusted aggregators add personalization to your content before distributing it. This usually helps your audience connect better with your content.
- Some content aggregators are masters of content distribution and know very well how to maximize the reach of content to your potential audience.
- Some content aggregators reduce the need for manual content syndication at a publisher level thus saving you a lot of time and resources.
- Some content aggregator sites help you build backlinks for your site and thus improve your SEO efforts.
However, the above applies to trusted aggregators only, with ‘trust’ being the operative word here.
An example of a trustworthy one for you to check out is WikiTribune by Jimmy Wales.
- When your audience is reading content on a content aggregator site, it can result in cannibalizing the subscriber base for your website.
- As a news publisher, you are left with little or no authority and authorship over the content.
- When the content is not being distributed or consumed on your own website, your brand visibility starts diminishing.
- In general, content aggregators promote their own brand, not yours – UNLESS your brand is well known, in which case they will promote your brand but only to promote their own brand.
- The relationship between an aggregator and publisher is usually not a transparent one. You never know how many users have read or bought your content.
- You lose on the opportunity to understand your consumer better as there is no direct communication between you and the consumers. This accounts for lost conversion opportunities.
- As most content aggregators do not have a concrete understanding of your target audience, they often end up attracting irrelevant audience for your content yet still get a healthy cut.
- The core objective for any content aggregator is mass distribution of content, and they don’t care much if the content is not personalized or constitutes fake news.Thus often ending up impacting your brand image negatively.
Let me break more bad news to you. After running extensive trials on Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News, The Guardian pulled their content from both these platforms. The Guardian was actually the first publisher to start leveraging Apple News, but it definitely isn’t the only one who has lately cooled off on these content aggregators.
According to analysis by NewsWhip, there are several publishers who are now running far fewer articles than before within that format.
The reality is that these platforms are really not helping publishers grow an audience in their own trusted environment and forge a deeper relationship with them.
Is there scope for compromise between publishers and aggregators?
Of course! However, there needs to be a plan of action and some firm ground rules to keep this relationship symbiotic ONLY.
The most important question is, who can you really trust with your content?
Is it content aggregators who will use it any way they like, curate and share it under their own rules, and offer no guarantees of placement or payment?
Is it a content publishing partner who will commit to pay you every time your content is read on their platform?
I think you already know the answer. The relationship between aggregators and publishers should be symbiotic with a fixed paid royalty every time the content is read. The two major options you see here are Free Content Aggregators and Paid Content Aggregators.
If you want to move ahead with paid aggregators then there are many pay models that you can explore for a successful collaboration. There should also be transparency and scope for an informed decision regarding the content the aggregators are distributing, i.e., the aggregator shouldn’t be allowed to choose it on their own.
They should link back to the original article, be accurate and have multiple source samples.
They should be pro in organizing content in a manner that readers can find easily.
Free news aggregator apps may be useful to a certain extent for creating brand awareness with new audiences, but revenue growth and profits usually come from:
- Offering content worthy of payment
- Responsive design with full cross-platform support
- Multiple content presentation models that appeal to both traditional readers and digital natives
- Advanced digital features designed to engage readers longer, encourage discussions with other users and raise the discoverability of high-value content
- Vertical channel integration that opens doors to a massive global audience that publishers have trouble reaching on their own
If content aggregators are a central part of your distribution plan, then you should think carefully about this relationship and make no impulsive decisions just to get more views on your content.
As long as there are no set rules for news content curators and digital news publishers, there will be questions around content aggregation and content sharing best practices.
However, with so many publishers losing revenue yet taking no real means to find new ways to reach audiences, it’s time to overcome the dilemma of partnering with or partnering against content aggregators.
After all, there are some merits to sorting it all out, including having a more transparent relationship with consumers.
You can definitely find a way to collaborate with one of the paid content aggregators to benefit your business objectives.
But as a general rule of thumb, choose the legitimate ones only, who respect the fine line between curating and copying. Before anything else, do not forget to take your customer’s needs and behaviors into consideration.
Read more: The Print Versus Online News Debate