Webpages in decline, plus a discussion of power

On this week’s People vs Algorithms, we dug into the issue of power, why many people feel more disempowered than ever, and how AI will shift power around. Plus: BuzzFeed’s latest pivot. Listen to People vs Algorithms on Apple | Spotify| other podcast platforms.

In today’s newsletter, I wrote about a shift I’m seeing to build publishing brands around how well you can know your audience. Often audience data was simply exhaust from the publishing process. It’s now at the center. Also, highlights from yesterday’s online forum focused on getting off the traffic treadmill. First, a message from EX.CO.

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From unknown to known

Site launches were once events. New publishing brands would debut with calling cards for how they would find a seam. 

The site was important because it was the home base, even if the majority of distribution took place through social networks and search engines. All that was designed to bring people back to a website, even if the design work shifted more to the article page than the homepage. 

Now site launches are muted affairs. Sherwood News is a fine looking site, and I like how it has integrated Chartr and emphasized charts and data visualizations. These cards for aggregation are nice too.

But what’s most interesting about Sherwood is that it’s starting with a giant email list thanks to its incubation inside Robinhood. That’s the value center. 

That reflects a stark reality: the webpage is in decline. I get pushback when I mention how hard it is to imagine people in 10 years hitting back buttons on web browsers and closing dozens of popups. It already feels outdated, and the inconvenient truth is the webpage is needed to serve ads rather than serve content. The weight of monetization is moving away from ads on pages. Perhaps superformats are next

That doesn’t mean sites won’t stick around and play a role, only that the value center of a publisher has moved to what you know about your audience vs how you publish. Danny Chricton, former TechCrunch managing editor, said something smart on the Media Empires podcast: He’d start a publishing brand with the CRM rather than the CMS.

The CRM is the database of connections to an audience. The CMS was about publishing content to unknown users who often arrived from platforms and left as anonymously as they arrived. 

It’s at the CRM level where a publisher understands their audience and who they are. A bunch of unknown visitors has little value, but a database of direct connections, even in the tens of thousands, can be very valuable. 2024 could be the year of the “reg wall,” as publishers trade access to content for information freely given rather than surreptitiously collected.

Mark Zohar, CEO of Viafoura, made this point during The Rebooting’s “Getting Off the Traffic Treadmill” online forum. Publishing businesses are moving from CPM models to LTV models. A CPM model is made for fly-by traffic. When people randomly end up on your site, you tend to focus on wringing as much revenue as possible at that moment. It’s why the UX horror shows persist and why publishers loudly proclaim themselves to be premium but happily run SEO and content rec chop shops in the back. 

Viafoura estimates a community member is five times more valuable than a “user.”

This isn’t much of a shift for those in B2B, where analytics data was usually ignored. Web visits were never a major KPI. I spent a lot of time in meetings about email, and then about how to “light up” email addresses in the database with further information like the person’s sector, company, job title, location, budget responsibilities. 

Traffic from Facebook was worthless, or at best marketing to introduce the publication to new people. Most didn’t have value, other than eating up ad impressions that were bought to reach completely different people. (Bigger numbers also help in sales kits. People suspend disbelief if you tell them your audience has hundreds of thousands of CMOs.)

Email lists are only one step in understanding an audience. Most publishers have only a sketchy understanding of their audiences. 

The rest of a brand’s strength is often how much of their audience they can identify along key criteria and then activate in some way, whether that’s attending a virtual or in-person event or buy a product. 

Many of the brands of the scale era were a mile wide and inch deep. The new era of brands will flip that on its head.

Getting off the traffic treadmill

In partnership with Viafoura, The Rebooting held an online forum yesterday to discuss how publishers adapt to the post-traffic era. Dotdash Meredith Chief innovation officer Jon Roberts joined me and Viafoura CEO Mark Zohar. Some highlights:

Publishers need to go direct. Forget “peak subscription,” the imperative for most publishers is to understand their audiences better – these are smaller than they might like to think or claim in sales kits – in order to have durable ties. 

“Moving to that walled garden way of thinking is a path forward for publishers,” Mark said.

Beyond SEO. For all the sky-is-falling talk around the unreliability of search and what’s to come with generative AI search, Dotdash Meredith “doesn’t talk about SEO inside the company,” Jon said. Search is an important distribution channel, but Jon sees SEO as synonymous with gaming Google rather than create the best content that real people will find valuable. 

“If you’re trying to chase what the algorithm needs, it’s not going to work,” Jon said.

Intent traffic is the exception. In general, knowing more about your audience is critical. But publishing is a diverse industry with diverse business models. Intent models built on service content – figuring out the best condo insurance in Florida – don’t need to know anything about the visitor to both deliver and extract value. 

“We see a huge value in our anonymous user base,” Jon said. 

You can watch the replay of the session here. Thanks to Mark and Viafoura for their partnership. Check out how Viafoura helps publishers move from passive audiences to active communities.

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