Algo anxieties

Plus: A conversation with Filterworld author Kyle Chayka

Join us for The Rebooting’s next online forum on April 10 at 1pmET. We’re discussing how publishers can adapt their strategies in a post-traffic era. Dotdash Meredith chief innovation officer Jon Roberts, who is also a cartographer of mythical worlds, will break down how Dotdash Meredith is back to growth in its core properties. Viafoura CEO Mark Zohar will speak to how publishers can embrace community strategies to mitigate the vicissitudes of algorithms. These are interactive events, with a heavy emphasis on audience participation. The topics we plan to cover include:

  • Should publishers prepare for life after SEO?
  • What makes for a resilient, modern media distribution strategy?
  • What does a successful community strategy look like?

Speaking of the vicissitudes of algorithms, I wrote about how this continues to be at the forefront of concerns publishers have, and on People vs Algorithms, we discussed the cultural impact of algorithmic control with The New Yorker writer and Filterworld author Kyle Chayka

Algorithmic anxieties

You can chart the decline in influence of mass media with the rise in power of algorithmic recommendation and content feeds. It’s hard for me to be in a room with publishers without the conversation turning to how their businesses continue to be upended by their reliance on algorithmic-driven distribution.

At a dinner The Rebooting held earlier this week, one publisher made a passionate, at times profane, case for focus. Not more than 10 minutes later, this person was making an equally passionate case for why publishers worried about traffic to their old-fashioned webpages needed to be on TikTok. There’s a schizophrenia that sets in when easy answers run into realities. And the current reality, as it has been for 10 years, is publishers are at the mercy of algorithmic gods. 

Last week, The Rebooting held a dinner in partnership with Impact to discuss the opportunities around commerce and affiliate, which has proven to be a growth area for many publishers. What I noticed is the familiar tension of publishers who built commerce as a core part of their businesses and those that dabble. The chase for incremental revenue means publishers end up half-assing a lot of efforts and then wonder why they didn’t pan out. Many publishers are making tons of money off commerce by developing the kinds of real performance marketing capabilities that are required. For others it’s a rounding error. One publisher with a high-profile product recommendations play even mused if it was worth it. 

That stood in contrast to publishers that made commerce an integral part of their models. In affiliate, publishers are playing catchup. There is an entire world of affiliate publishers that have operated in their own corner for some time. Publishers are late to the game. And so there have been shortcuts they’ve taken, mostly in relying on their search authority to grab algorithmic distribution. Building sustainable businesses takes time and focus.

Some of this is just the law of big numbers. Big legacy publishers have cost bases that make these kinds of incremental opportunities rounding errors. The chaos at Condé Nast is part of that. All the reply-all protests and marches on the executive offices aren’t going to change the need for this kind of company to adapt to market realities. The $1.4 Reddit windfall is not going to be plowed into money-losing content operations. There’s a naivety in believing that. These businesses must be made to work on their own.

The current “big” opportunities in publishing – commerce, subscriptions, events – are often not the kind of massive markets as advertising used to be for publishing when it had far less competition – and far more traffic. In the Information Space, publishers with bloated costs battle it out with scrappy influencers and creators, not just the platforms. 

Just as the blog era spawned a new crop of digital publishers, the creator economy will do the same. A brand like Epic Gardening is well-positioned to make commerce work seamlessly. Kevin Espiritu built a following on platforms like YouTube (2.8 million subscribers) and TikTok (3 million followers) and now has a thriving commerce business. (I recommend this breakdown of the business on the My First Million podcast.)

But many publishers have treated their commerce operations as extension of SEO. That reliance on algorithmic distribution quickly came to the forefront, as publishers around the table fretted about Google turning off the taps. It is already elevating Reddit in many search results and has for a long time been inching away from its traditional role as traffic distributor to keep much of the traffic for itself. One publisher estimated to me their search traffic has already declined by 60%. They’re turning to content recommendations and paid traffic.

A participant texted me later the bear case:

“The imminent death of SEO-as-we-know-it is going to kill affiliate and commerce for publishers.  Trusted source or not, audiences are literally about to lose the primary way they discover this content to begin with.”

That’s led to something of a back-to-basics movement of starting the shift to focusing on specific audiences. Most publishers I speak to admit they have more work to be done to pare extraneous areas and narrow even more on their core audiences. Business decisionmakers isn’t going to cut it anymore, much less a broader demographic. 

And that’s because the media business isn’t tech. It doesn't scale like a SaaS business, much less a platform, and the tech impulse of looking for the biggest possible total addressable market is the road to ruin, or at the very least a brand that tries to be everything to everyone and winds up meaning not much to not many. 

Algorithmic sameness

The loss of control over distribution to algorithms hasn’t just upended business models but changed the nature of content. Even the most hyper aware can fall into the trap of shaping their content to please whatever the algorithmic god of their persuasion demands. 

This cat and mouse game gave us such cultural treasures as the “you won’t believe what happens next” headline conventions, the monotone TikTok voice of and the interminable back stories before we get to a recipe. 

Kyle Chayka, a writer for The New Yorker, has written about this impact to our broader culture for years. His new book, Filterworld, explores the “flattening” effect this has had, as we are pushed by algorithms to gravitate towards the median. 

Also, Troy, Alex and I discuss the plight of the middle manager and whether we should trust the people shaping the AI world.

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