Questions are being raised about whether news publishers should keep expanding their relationships with Google and Facebook, and even whether they should pull out altogether. But you don’t hear that talk from the Local Media Consortium, which represents more than 70 newspaper, broadcasting and other local media companies who produce 1,600 digital publications focused on hometown news.
In this Q & A, consortium CEO Rusty Coats – recently promoted from executive director – tells why the LMC and the platforms are busy building on their relationships even as knotty issues sometimes arise:
Are there Google and Facebook products or services that your publishers especially like?
Right now, we’re having great success in revenues with Google in the ad exchange we’ve built for buyers, and continued success with other Google advertising-facing products across the spectrum. With Facebook, we’ve brought their CrowdTangle to our members for their data on social media. As we approach our industry, we have to have a real balance between revenue-facing operations and partners and audience-facing operations and partners.
Are there any tweakings you and your publishers want to see on the Facebook side?
We’re working with them now on a study we did regarding how we’re monetizing their Instant Articles product versus monetizing our mobile and Web pages. Some of our members were looking at their Instant Article pages and didn’t see them monetizing to the degree they wanted. They walked away from the pages and didn’t look at them again. It behooves us as publishers to look at platform products continually and not “set and forget” a strategy because the economics can shift drastically from year to year.
You’re talking to Facebook about using Instant Articles to build up the digital subscriptions of your publishers. Facebook initially proposed giving users 10 free articles before they had to make a subscription decision. How are those talks going?
A 10-article meter for a local publisher is a non-starter. That’s a much higher bar than most of our publishers have.
Do you see progress with Facebook on the number of free views?
I think so. I think the way to go is to work down from that number [10 free looks], rather than start low and work up from that. We’re still in a “conversation” rather than actual product phase.
Facebook is trying to develop a stronger relationship between its users and local news providers, like your publishers. Can this lead to getting those subscribers more directly engaged with your members?
Yes, we are pushing forward on this. It’s a priority for us to use their platform as a way to get quality information and timely information to the broadest possible base of their users.
Are your publishers working to provide a more welcoming mat to Facebook subscribers?
It’s a good strategy for us to be continually looking at our sources of traffic and how we engage with them. We are using CrowdTangle to get inside of who is over-indexing in “social,” who is under-indexing in social. We used them extensively during Harvey and Irma, when some sites went pretty much dark and some were doing very well.
One of the Google Analytics features your members use extensively is “Fuse.” What does it do for them?
Right now, we have 225 member publications using Fuse and are about to go live with 600 more. Fuse lets publishers index traffic they’re getting from email subscriber newsletters, from social, from search, how loyal those users are, how long they stay on the site, what their “bounce” rate is, how many pages they consume.
When you have all this data, you can see what strategies are best for you to pursue. One strategy might be great for someone coming to you via email, and another might be great for social traffic. You don’t treat all traffic the same.
LMC is big on peer-group data comparisons. Please explain.
I don’t want to toot our horn too loudly, but that’s one of the values of LMC. It’s not just the partners we bring in or the economics of those partners. It’s being able to have dashboards that have a “god’s-eye” view, if you will, of certain metrics. If I’m running digital operations for “company A,” I may think I’m doing everything right because all my internal metrics show that I am. But what I lack is a comparison to peer groups that can show me where I’m excelling and where I am not.
This goes beyond CPMs. It goes to engagement, average revenue per user, user experience, bounce rate, pages consumed. Being able to see yourself benchmarked against a number of your peer companies on strategic initiatives you need to make good decisions about is invaluable.
By the way, our peer groups are grouped on an anonymous baseline. We don’t want to see one-to-one comparisons, especially if they may be embarrassing.
With all this new data at the peer-group level, does this take strategy for improving the user experience to a whole new level?
Absolutely. Even a year ago we did not have tools like Fuse to do this kind of comparisons, benchmarks and dashboards.
So when you’re saying you’re more optimistic today, it’s because you can quantify that judgment?
I’m a glass-half-full person naturally. But now I have them data and our members have the revenue.
Compare your relationships with Facebook and Google today to a year ago?
A year ago, our conversations with Facebook were nowhere as meaningful as they are today, and in some cases didn’t exist. While some of our publishers have a relationship with Facebook, we did not have an industry-facing entity having large-scale, strategic conversations with Facebook.
A year ago with Google, we were solid with many of their products, but this year we have a much deeper relationship with them. For example, recently at the Google Partner Leadership Summit in Chicago I did the “fireside chat” with Sridhar Ramaswamy, their SVP for revenue in advertising.
That’s how intertwined we are now with these big platforms. And the reasons I’m bullish about these partnerships getting even richer is because they are mutually beneficial. They bring in audience and revenue, and let’s not discount the benefit of bringing in quality publishers and broadcasters to these platforms.