How platforms get publishers to play the access game

When Apple News launched, The Washington Post made all its content available on the news aggregation app. Since then, it’s lobbied successfully for Apple’s editors to promote Post stories on the app. And now, every day for the first few months of the Trump administration, the Post is creating a special “First 100 Days” story to live exclusively the app.

The Post believes the effort has paid off in traffic to its stories. And while monetization on Apple News may be lagging for now, the app also gives the Post a way to sell subscriptions and access to Apple’s global mobile audience.

“We are seeing huge uplift, and I don’t think we would have if we had stayed on the edges,” said Shailesh Prakash, CIO at the Post.

The Post and other publishers believe being all-in has such rewards. In addition to the tangible benefit of traffic, there’s access to executives and ability to influence their roadmap. And they’ve organized themselves accordingly. The “first 100 days” story requires some assembly, although it’s basically aggregated from other Post reports. The amount of time product managers at the Post talk to Apple amounts to about half one person’s time.

The Washington Post created this special story format just for Apple News.

It’s a sign of the times that publishers find themselves acting like lobbyists, hoping to get the ear of the decision-makers in power. The access game is also a way that platforms, inadvertently or not, worm their way into publishers’ organizations and dictate their strategy.

Apple hasn’t responded yet to a request for comment. Facebook provided a statement, saying, “We really value deep partnerships and the opportunity to learn from our partners and shape our products and strategies based on their feedback. As partners spend more time using, testing and optimizing the tools we create based on their feedback, we engage more deeply so that we can understand how to best serve their business needs.”

“There’s a first-mover advantage,” said Cory Haik, chief strategy officer at Mic. “When you’re one of the first publishers to build out, the platforms are excited, and they work with you. There’s more room for conversation and room to talk about new features. If you’re not all in on something like that, I’m not sure you can speak as authoritatively on what you need, and I also think it puts you top of mind.”

Mic, like the Post, publishes all its content to Apple News. Not only that, it developed a special version of a story format, called Opus, exclusively for the app, reaping “millions of reads” from Apple News.

Mic created this story format exclusively for Apple News.

Mic and the Post also are posting all their links to Facebook’s fast-loading Instant Articles format. While they haven’t necessarily had better results than others — Facebook said publishers were getting a 25 percent lift in stories being read when they were posted as Instant Articles versus old-fashioned links, but publishers can’t compare their performance to others — they’re happy with the engagement stories are getting. Prakash said the Post believes it’s getting 10 to 15 percent more repeat usage from its Instant Articles than old-fashioned links because the user experience in Instant is better and people are coming back more often. Publishers also cite having more influence with the platform than do other publishers. Emails get replies, calls get answered.

For the Post, that inside track is important as it lobbies the platform to enable publishers to A/B test and sell subscriptions in Instant Articles. Prakash notes it was one of the first publishers asked by Facebook to participate in its new Facebook Journalism Project.

“We have seen good success in terms of audience growth and ad monetization on Facebook instant, but want subscriptions to get added as soon as possible,” he said. “Being all in with Facebook allows us to partner much more closely with their product teams and influence timelines and features.”

At the very least, an incentive for publishers to go all in distributing their content to platforms is that the greater sample size you have, the better data you can get to evaluate its performance, said Meredith Artley, global editor in chief for CNN.

Being all-in isn’t the only criteria that matters to the platforms. Some, like CNN, have special status just because of their resources, audience reach and stature.

But even for a relatively small publication like The Atlantic, fully buying into Instant Articles got it more attention from Facebook and a head start over other publishers when Facebook got around to expanding the monetization opportunities there, said Kim Lau, svp of digital and head of business development at the Atlantic.

“The ad business is all about what’s new and next,” she said. “Just being able to talk about it was beneficial to us with advertisers.”

Not surprisingly, not everyone sees this tradeoff as entirely good for publishers. It’s costly to do these platforms’ bidding, which penalizes small and independent publishers.

The payoff in cold hard cash is uncertain, too; and going all-in necessarily makes the publishers more dependent on platforms that control the reader data, algorithm and monetization rules, which they can change at any time.

“We the publisher shouldn’t have to make the upfront investment for it to work,” complained an independent publishing exec, who asked to be unnamed so as not to risk repercussions from the platforms.

Another exec said he had six meetings scheduled with Google in a single day. “Sometimes you feel like you work for Facebook and Google, the amount of things you have to do for them,” he grumbled. As for those meetings, he added with a laugh, “I canceled them all.”

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