Real Talk About the Off-Platform Opportunity

November 18, 2016

Publishers are seizing upon the sizable scale opportunity of off-platform distribution, with offerings from black box giants leading the pack -- namely Facebook Articles (FBIA) and Google AMP. Publishers want access to audiences outside of their own platform, where audiences converse and congregate. As a publisher ourselves, AOL understands this opportunity in a unique way -- we use it, too. But, it’s important to understand the opportunity cost of working with these black box platforms, evaluate the pros and cons, and know exactly how much revenue opportunity you're willing to place in their hands.

Platforms that restrict access or transparency into a publisher's audience, or that limit a publisher’s buy-side relationships, hinder the publisher's ability to make the best content and monetization decisions. Walled gardens like Facebook have taken clear approaches to:

  • Limit publisher access to audience data
  • Limit traffic back to a publisher’s properties for additional content consumption
  • Restrict the controls for monetizing that audience
  • Lock publishers into an ecosystem where terms and conditions can change at any time without notice or reason -- leading to the demise of many a social-first publisher

Limit publisher access to audience data

A publisher’s audience guides the content they create, the way they package their inventory and how much they charge. A wealth of user data is captured (think cookies, device ID, PID) when content is consumed on a publisher’s properties. When consumers interact with content outside of that publisher’s property -- on Facebook, for example -- all of that data is captured by Facebook instead, and it isn't shared with the publisher to the level of detail it is when that same content is consumed onsite or in-app. If half of your audience reads your content on Facebook, you’re missing crucial data for half your audience.

Publishers are limited to web-based analytics systems to track article traffic, or use third-party providers like Google Analytics, Omniture and comScore. And policies are Facebook first -- where it’s in Facebook's best interest to keep consumers on their properties -- so you never get that traffic back to your site. They recently shut down some analytics features for new publishers (called domain insights) for your content that's shared on Facebook. You now have to host your content as Facebook Instant Articles if you want any of this information.

Limit traffic back to a publisher's properties for additional content consumption

Over the past year, many large publishers have seen referral traffic from Facebook drop 25% or more. So, not only is that potential audience data never passed to the publisher through referral traffic, but that’s a lost on-site monetization opportunity -- where it’s widely acknowledged that off-platform CPMs are lower.

Restricting the controls for monetizing that audience

With FBIA, publishers may serve direct-sold ads into their inventory. But for any programmatic (anything not direct sold, in the ad server), Facebook Audience Network is the only route -- and Facebook dictates how that is sold. As programmatic becomes the business model of choice for monetizing, publishers have no control over the platform or monetization decisioning of an ever-increasing share of inventory. Publishers are trusting Facebook to accurately package their audience for them, price it correctly and match it with the right demand.

Lock publishers into an ecosystem where T&C can change at any time without notice or reason

Monetization algorithms and decisioning also frequently change, and recent changes suggest that these changes are in Facebook's best interest as opposed to those of publishers. (Case in point: Posts by friends were recently prioritized over publisher articles.) And black boxes are more restrictive of third party companies plugging into their ecosystems, such as for measurement or verification.

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