Big Tech and publishers: Four strategies for navigating the relationship
Much has been said about the uphill battle publishers face when it comes to dealing with Big Tech companies, principally Google and Facebook. By leveraging their newsfeeds, search results and advertising potential, there is no doubt that these platforms dominate content distribution online, as well as having a significant impact on wider cultural discourse. Yet media organisations have long been figuring out ways to rebalance or opt out of the relationship altogether.
Solutions that broadly work for all parties may eventually be found, but in the meantime, publishers large and small must consider how they are going to navigate the dominance of these platforms. After dozens of candid conversations with media executives around the world, we identified four broad approaches, outlined in full in our report Big Tech and You.
Strategy #1: Lobby, negotiate, legislate
Some larger media companies have decided that cutting a deal with Big Tech directly is the way to go, such as media giant News Corp, which announced in February this year that it would be sharing its stories with Google in exchange for “significant payments”.
For smaller publishers, there’s strength in numbers. In the EU, the UK, the US and Canada, national media organisations are lobbying for reform and tougher regulations. In July this year, we saw results: France’s regulator issued a EUR €500m fine against Google in July for not negotiating “in good faith” with the press industry over licensing fees.
“France is one of the few countries to have implemented the EU’s copyright reform, which grants press publishers a right to ask for remuneration when their content is displayed on online platforms — the so-called neighbouring right,” reports Politico Europe.
Another well known legislative example is Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code, passed into law earlier this year amidst fierce opposition from Big Tech. Canada’s National Post reports that, on 3 September this year, “Google reached an agreement with Country Press Australia, which represents 180 independently owned regional and local newspapers and online platforms across Australia – demonstrating that smaller titles benefit from this approach.”
Strategy #2: Innovate
Publishers are very good at innovating their way out of problems, including over-reliance on digital advertising. And innovating is exactly what Southeast Asian publisher Summit Media did, when CEA Ashish Thomas realised their entanglement with Big Tech. “When I joined Summit two years ago, I saw that we were dependent for 70 per cent of our digital revenue on Google,” Thomas told FIPP.
After an unsuccessful attempt to renegotiate with a Google Asia representative, Summit went its own way with innovation, and in November 2020, the company was dependent on Google for only 33 per cent of its digital programmatic revenue. In part, it achieved this by focusing on improving staff understanding of technology.
“The challenge in publishing business is that we don’t understand tech well enough,” says Thomas in Big Tech and You. “There is a lot to be learned from Google and Facebook – they are not all that evil as many claim. So, we took charge of our own data. We built our own data platform, did a lot of ‘firsts’ in the market. We hired many engineers and partnered aggressively with technology players to arguably make one of the best data management platforms in South East Asia.
“Hire good people and then teach them how to run programmatic, technology solutions, platforms and deliver great solutions for consumers and advertisers alike. And then we started beating Google, delivering twice the CPM that Google delivers in the country! We did private deals giving more information to our clients and delivering better formats than Google.”
Strategy #3: Collaborate
If innovating your way out isn’t possible, consider collaboration instead. As we reported, there are a lot of publishers who have had very strong, very profitable relationships with Big Tech, and with Google in particular. One of those is Archant Media, whose CEO Lorna Willis secured a EUR €700,000 investment from Google to make all of Archant’s current and archived content (170 years’ worth) available in audio format.
Something Big Tech has real expertise in (it’s in the name) is tech. While thrilled by the success of their collaboration so far, “Our challenge now is content distribution, not content creation,” Willis told FIPP. “What would be more useful from Google, bluntly, is a team of Google developers over six months embedded in our business to build me the technical infrastructure and sites that perform brilliantly against core vitals, enable agility in response to algorithm updates, etc., not another reporter.
“That would mean we could be agile and effective,” she added. “It would be far more useful for me than for them to help with journalism. That would be like me saying to Google, I can help you with your tech and innovation!”
So there is real scope for tech platforms to supply publishers with the tools to thrive. Willis emphasises the need for collaboration between platforms and publishers, rather than going back and forth about who owes who. “This should be a symbiotic relationship. We need each other. And there has to be constructive conversation to make it work.”
Strategy #4: Exploit
Not all media companies view the publisher-platform relationship antagonistically. On that basis, why not exploit them for what they do so well – which is getting more content in front of more people? Facebook, after all, still has by far the largest user base of any social media platform, so publishers with large audiences can still claim a slice of the pie.
“Organic traffic from social media is very much still alive and kicking,” Echobox’s Senior Content Manager, Ashley Kibler, told FIPP recently. According to Echobox’s research, Facebook continues to drive the lion’s share of social referral traffic: in 2020, over 13 per cent of all traffic to news publishers’ sites came from the platform, even after the platform’s highly publicised algorithm change in 2018.
On the other hand, smaller publishers or those with a specific objection to Facebook, like New Zealand’s Stuff, may decide it isn’t worth the effort of posting there, since most of the ad revenue goes to Facebook.
“We stopped advertising with Facebook in March 2019, and I have to say that specific action of not paying Facebook had zero effect on our traffic or any other metrics,” Stuff CEO Sinead Boucher said earlier this year. “And so that in-turn led us to the feeling that we should perhaps think more about what our relationship is more generally with these big platforms, versus making our own decisions for ourselves and avoiding the cycle of chasing social audiences.”
Remember, no one is saying that Big Tech needs protecting
Ultimately, the momentum may now be swinging in publishers’ favour, especially after 18 months of unprecedented global crisis. As we’ve widely reported here at FIPP, the “pandemic bounce” saw a terrific boost for the media industry at large, with subscriptions and readership skyrocketing as the public clamoured for information they could trust.
What’s more, “Beyond the increasingly frequent content deals, consider this: Big Tech has no friends,” writes John Wilpers in the conclusion to Big Tech and You. “You’d be hard pressed to name one legislator or regulator anywhere in the world on the side of Big Tech. You don’t see laws being passed to protect Big Tech, right?” Onwards and upwards.