Distributed media, a shift to mobile and monetising content – what lies next for publishers?
*UPDATE* Maymann's slides from our Memorial Lecture 2015, Re-shaping online news and media, are available here.
*UPDATE* Watch a video of the Memorial Lecture here.
By Hannah Marsh
Breaking stories only to hand over control over who gets to read them and how goes against the grain for many new organisations.
But as distributed media – like Facebook’s Instant Articles – becomes a viable option for publishers looking for valuable digital audience share, is it something they’re going to have to get used to?
For many it’s an uncomfortable partnership, but Jimmy Maymann, Executive Vice President and President of AOL Content and Consumer Brand and former CEO of the Huffington Post, says he sees the opportunities offered by social media networks as largely positive.
“I actually agree with Facebook’s notion that they can create a better, faster user experience,” says Maymann.
“What they’re saying, and to an extent they’re right, is that if you, as a publisher, have a loyal following, your audience will share your content – and that’s the best distribution you can get. Content that’s shared by friends and family will travel much further.”
It’s not a straightforward development, and Maymann admits the major challenge in relinquishing distribution control is losing the data that has become a crucial part of curating content. In short, publishers risk flying blind at the mercy of Facebook’s notoriously complex algorithm, unable to analyse user data and respond accordingly.
“If you become less relevant because you don’t have the same insights you used to, people will look elsewhere,” says Maymann.
“Your brand awareness will decrease. That’s not a great thing as a news publisher.”
With some of the world’s most respected news outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian and BBC News signing up to distribute through Facebook, Maymann points out that you’re also entering an extremely competitive space.
The shift to distributed content sits naturally for Maymann with another major swing for publishers – the adoption of mobile technology by users seeking content.
Large screens, fast connections and sophisticated technology mean most of us walk around with a mini-computer in our pockets.
“It’s a much more personal device than your computer,” adds Maymann. “It’s almost a part of you –people get very upset if they misplace their mobile.
“Think about that from a sociological point of view. It’s going to change how we think about content. If, like at The Huffington Post, almost 70 per cent of users come through mobile, that’s a whole new starting point – you’re a mobile-first organisation. With that comes opportunity, but also challenges.”
One of the biggest challenges for publishers is the concept of monetising digital content, but Maymann has long been fascinated with the commercial opportunities thrown up by the web. His undergraduate thesis, written over 20 years ago focused on exactly that.
His early insights led to him co-founding GoViral, an online video distribution company, acquired by AOL in 2011 for a reported $96.7million.
Shortly after taking on the role of CEO at AOL-owned The Huffington Post in 2012, Maymann made video content a key focus in transitioning the organisation. He was helped in this regard by the launch of HuffPost Live soon after he joined, a video streaming channel that anticipated the rise of digital video as a critical medium.
“We went big on video early and it’s now becoming an essential format,” says Maymann.
“Our decisions start with the audience; they want more video. But from a monetising perspective, it’s also a much easier format.
“Advertisers recognise it from TV and are interested in that experience, they want to pay out much more – so it’s great for the consumer and great for the publisher.”
Innovations like this mark a challenge for traditional news organisations. Can they keep up with the agility and pace of digital native publishers? Maymann says to focus on the differences is misleading, and that publishers have more in common than they think.
“The Huffington Post has been around for 10 years,” he says. “Whether you’re a traditional player or a digital native, when you’ve been around for 10 years you start to have a history.
“You very quickly build organisation inertia; it becomes difficult to do things in a whole new way.
“That is much deeper rooted for traditional players with a longer legacy, but you’ll find it in younger, faster-moving companies as they evolve.”
Maymann points out that The New York Times Innovation Report, leaked in 2014, revealed a legacy organisation facing similar challenges to digital native The Huffington Post.
“A lot of the things they address are things we have gone through – they’re just later and with a lot more baggage to bring on the journey,” he says.
Maymann is firm on the subject of native advertising – advertising that fits carefully into the platform it’s featured on.
Describing it as the ‘lifeblood’ of newer, digital outlets, he says it’s crucial that editorial and advertising remain separate.
“Eventually we will find a subscription model for publishers which will help,” he says. “Until then we need new advertising models and I think right now, native advertising is one of the better answers to that.
“You can’t blur the lines, you have to be authoritative and trustworthy. We’re a publisher, that means first and foremost we want to create content that our audience wants to read.
“But you need to monetise it. These Chinese walls need to exist, but if the lines blur, you’ll lose out in the long run because the audience is smart enough and they don’t want that.”
In a media landscape that’s constantly evolving, it’s hard to predict what the next major innovation will be. But Maymann says that picking the right trends is something publishers that have committed to their digital futures are learning.
“I think of it like surfing,” he says. “You’re lying in the waves and when they’re rolling, it’s not easy to tell which ones you’ll get up on. But you get better and better at looking for the right ones.
“Hopefully we’re getting better and better at seeing what’s going to roll into a macrotrend that we need to be a part of.”
Jimmy Maymann was the guest speaker at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Memorial Lecture 2015.