Publishers freely handing over their content to social networks is an act of vanity

In the latest edition of The Drum, News UK chief marketing officer, Chris Duncan, claims that with Facebook and Twitter growing in influence, and more and more users using them as a source of news, publishers’ handing over their content for distribution on social networks “where the advertising revenue accrues to the social media platform” is an act of “vanity”.

Almost two thirds (63 per cent) of social media users have admitted to using the platforms for news discovery, according to a survey conducted by Pew, a figure likely to increase with Twitter’s ‘Project Lightning’ and Facebook’s ‘Instant Articles’ which allows news organisations to publish directly on the site.

“In an ideal world they [social media sites] would like you to supply the content for free and let them control customer experience, duration, story flow, story selection, advertising placement, advertising sales and these are all fairly significant pieces that make up an independent press,” explained Duncan.

“Social is a massive opportunity for us to connect with large scale audiences but as a distribution and marketing platform rather than a publishing one.” According to Duncan News UK is taking a more pragmatic approach to the content it places behind paywalls by implementing subscription technology provided by Zuora. This follows changes to the Sun’s model in June which saw the publisher make more of its content available for free online.

The plan aims to help News UK benefit more from its exclusive content and gain more traction on platforms like Facebook that are “shutting down” organic reach.

“Since [the paywall’s] launch elements of the Sun have always been free,” said Duncan. “We always had to show some content before people paid in and over the last couple of years we’ve worked out which bits of the Sun bring people in to subscribe and what keeps people in as subscribers. In an environment where news is frequently and predominately free we’ve learnt a lot about how you need to differentiate paid news from free news.” When the news broke earlier in the summer Duncan said reports of the publisher “abandoning paid content” were not surprising but that it was definitely “false”. He added:

“If you look at the Mail, the Guardian and the Telegraph pretty much all of them are running blended models with some elements of paid and some elements of free so the changes that we’ve made are not so extraordinary”.

Since News UK erected the Sun’s paywall Duncan admits it has been a learning process with many changes in the media industry, citing The Sun’s Louis Tomlinson exclusive from earlier in the week as a prime example.

“We put that story [One Conception: US beauty pregnant with 1D Louis’ kid] up digitally at 10pm and by midnight it was largely copied and republished by our free competitors,”

“There’s a pragmatic element around stories like that which is, if I choose not to make it free but it’s essentially going to be free-to-air then I’m not going to be able to retain any kind of brand attribution in breaking that story…to get around that it requires some stories to be distributed for free in order for people to realise it was the Sun that paid journalists to go out and get these stories.

“What worked two years ago doesn’t work in the same way and not changing your behaviours would make very odd business sense.” Another growing concern for many online publishers is the increasing popularity of ad blockers, particularly in Germany where two local broadcasters recently failed in an attempt to ban people from using the Ad Block Plus tool.

However, in 2014 it was reported that the Sun’s paid-for subscribers topped 225,000 meaning the rise of ad blockers is less of a concern for News UK than other publishers though Duncan admitted he is mindful of creating a “premium experience” for readers.

“Publishers have to understand why customers have made that choice to block ads and make sure advertising is tailored and relevant and how their business model can support the fact that not everything can be ad-funded,”

“We believe we’ve built a good revenue stream in subscriptions and what we need to do now is increase our audience, make our marketing more efficient and grow advertising revenue in a way that appeals to subscribers.”