Why Australia’s small publishers are going to survive without Facebook

Call me an optimist, but there’s an upside for small publishers that have been affected by Facebook restricting Australian news content on its platform. It’s an opportunity to pivot, increase your first-party data, reduce your reliance on external platforms, and ultimately provide a better service to your audience.

Call me an optimist, but there’s an upside for small publishers that have been affected by Facebook restricting Australian news content on its platform. It’s an opportunity to pivot, increase your first-party data, reduce your reliance on external platforms, and ultimately provide a better service to your audience.

It’s not all roses though. Facebook’s news content restrictions are going to hurt small publishers who have relied on the platform as a significant source of web traffic. There’s no denying that. You’ll experience a big dip in traffic. And if programmatic advertising is your chosen monetisation strategy for your digital asset, then you’re going to hurt more, and fast. 

King Kong Founder Sabri Suby has said in a blog post in Mumbrella that “today’s response is the final nail in the coffin for many small and local news businesses around Australia who were already struggling to stay afloat”. 

But here’s where I disagree. 

A scenario where Facebook blocks all news content in Australia is fairer for small publishers than a scenario where Google and Facebook provide select publishers with competitive advantages in the form of algorithmic preference and advanced knowledge of algorithm changes. 

Suby also underestimates the power of small, agile businesses that can adapt to change quickly. Because what do we do when we get knocked down? We get back up again. And fight. 

We hustle. 

What are we up against? 

Facebook has restricted publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content. 

This means: 

  • Australian publishers are restricted from sharing or posting any content on Facebook pages 
  • International publishers can publish news content, but links and posts can’t be viewed or shared by Australian audiences
  • Australian Facebook users can’t view or share Australian or international news content on Facebook 
  • International Facebook users can’t view or share Australian news content on Facebook
  • Other content on Facebook will remain unchanged
  • Publisher Facebook Page admins can still access features other than posting on their Facebook page. 

There seems to be some grey area in publishers’ pages that have had their content deleted – I’ve found a few where their content has remained, and others that wouldn’t typically be classed as ‘news’ that have had content removed (non-publishers with important societal functions – government health departments and not-for-profit organisations – have also been affected). Apparently, Facebook will have processes to review any content that was inadvertently removed from users’ newsfeeds. 

I’ll dip into the reasons why Facebook has made this move – then get into the practicalities of overcoming its impact.

Why is Facebook restricting Australian news content? 

The move is in response to the proposed News Media Bargaining Code, which I’m assuming you are well across. Who isn’t? 

Announcing the change, Facebook’s Australia & New Zealand Managing Director William Easton said: “The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”

He points out that its response to the code differs from Google Australia’s – with Google launching its News Showcase initiative earlier this month – because it has a “fundamentally different relationship with news”. 

“Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content. On the other hand, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue,” Easton said. 

Easton said that the News Media Bargaining Code “seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for”. 

Practical steps for small publishers affected by Facebook’s news content restrictions 

Ok. Let’s understand the relationship between Facebook and publishers: 

  • Publishers share their content on their Facebook page > Facebook shares this with the publisher’s Facebook page followers and the connections of users that like, comment, or share the post. 
  • Facebook users share content they deem worthy to their newsfeeds > Facebook shares this with the users’ networks.

For publishers, both scenarios result in brand awareness, a source of traffic, and the potential to develop an ongoing relationship.

These can be found elsewhere. 

Facebook has been a good source of high-volume traffic for many publishers, particularly those in the news and consumer space. But part of its appeal for Facebook users is the convenience of accessing information on all their interests in one place – their newsfeed. Users are likely to still look for this convenience – and they’ll land on other sources of social media to find it. 

Will other social media sources deliver the same volumes of website traffic as Facebook? The jury is out on this one. As much as it’s designed to keep users onsite – the sheer amount of Facebook users means that it eclipses other social media platforms in this respect. (Unless we’re talking B2B, where LinkedIn is a no-brainer).

Recommendation: increase your social media presence on other platforms but with one key goal 

If the News Media Bargaining Code is passed, the Australian Government has indicated that it will apply the code to other major digital platforms too, which increases the uncertainty around the future of Australian publishers’ content on all social media platforms. 

So, while I recommend that publishers increase their presence on other social media platforms, it should be with one, clear goal: convert users to subscribers. 

Form a strategy that is focused on building brand awareness, and delivering the right amount of content to provide value and convert users to subscribe to your e-newsletter. 

It’s a concept that targeted media brands are already across, but it’s one that should be refined given the current circumstances and enacted on steroids.

Some of you might feel confident with the number of e-newsletter subscribers you have already. Some of you might be minimally impacted by Facebook’s content restrictions. Regardless, this is too good an opportunity not to leverage to increase your subscriber base.

Recommendation: double-down on your first-party data and focus on your engagement rate 

First-party data is more critical now than ever. Leverage the situation to collect more data on new and existing subscribers. 

In addition to collecting key contact, demographic, and business information about your subscribers, think strategically about the information that you need to know about your audience to keep them engaged: 

  • What niche/topic within your content interests them most?
  • How do they prefer their content delivered? 
  • What format do they prefer – bite-sized, long-form, video, etc.? 
  • How often are they open to receiving emails? 

Also, ask about how they plan to consume news-related content now that Facebook has restricted publishers from the platform: 

  • Where else do they consume information on your niche or topic? 
  • What social media platforms and news aggregation/RSS feed readers are they using? 

Combine the data from these responses with your existing Google Analytics to get a better understanding of your audiences’ needs and how best you can serve them. 

While diving into your Google Analytics, take note of the engagement metrics of users that came to your website from Facebook in the past compared to other traffic sources: 

  • Facebook acquired users: how many pages did they visit, what was their average time on page, what’s the average bounce rate? 
  • How does this compare to other traffic sources? 
  • What traffic source delivers the most engaged traffic based on these metrics? 
  • How can you amplify this in the future? 
  • Review the ‘behaviour flow’ charts that depict how users navigate your website. 

Talk to your web developer about ways that you can increase your audience’s engagement with your website, and how you can encourage your audience to share articles to other platforms, RSS feeds or channels. If you haven’t invested in an email marketing tool that allows you to segment your subscribers and personalise their experience – do so. 

Analyse the data available to you and use the information to evolve your brand and connect more deeply with your audience. A smaller engaged audience trumps a larger disengaged audience any day – and you’ll need to boost engagement levels to allay any advertiser concerns.  

Recommendation: review and adapt your sales model 

This might not be a popular opinion…if your online monetisation strategy focuses on programmatic advertising or a CPM model, it’s worth looking at ways that you can diversify your online revenue to reduce your reliance on programmatic. 

Publishers that serve programmatic ads are familiar with being at the whim of Google and Facebook’s algorithmic changes, but the precedent that’s been set by the digital platforms by threatening to exit or taking away news sharing services in Australia is dangerous for publishers that rely on revenue directly generated from their traffic. 

On the other hand, if publishers put the work into growing subscriber lists flush with data, boosting engagement rates, connecting with audiences on a deeper level, and tracking the necessary engagement metrics – there is an opportunity to grow the relationship with your advertisers beyond programmatic. 

Perhaps there are opportunities where you can move to a direct selling approach, or offers opportunities to clients that directly involve your subscriber lists, e-newsletters and email marketing. There might be space for exclusive offers to be created at a higher price point – partnerships, collaborations – arrangements that build relationships with your clients that are outcome-driven but less transactional. 

Many publishers who serve programmatic ads already offer opportunities similar to these. But it may make sense to review the balance of revenue generated from each and direct more effort toward long-term, relationship-based client partnerships. 

The solution here will look different for each publisher, but there are opportunities available if media brands are willing to take a hard look at their sales model and make the necessary sales and structural changes to maintain profitability. 

The road for small publishers in an Australia without Facebook news

The ACCC, Facebook, Google conundrum is a speed bump. But like any speed bump, it’s needed. It provides the perfect opportunity for publishers – big or small – to review their business and make it stronger. To build better relationships, to tighten their website experiences, to deliver content and products that their audience really want and need. 

And I think smaller publishers will come out on top. We don’t have big budgets or big teams. But we’re nimble. And, typically, we have smaller audiences who are more loyal. So we’re going to be ok. We just have to hustle. 

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Lyndsie Clark
Lyndsie Clark
Targeted Media Services Network Founder and Editor Lyndsie Clark aims to celebrate and support Australia's print and digital media brands that serve highly engaged, targeted audiences.

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