There has been a sea change in the way content today is being created, distributed and consumed.
The distinction between publishers and platforms online has never been more uncertain. This ambiguity has only been compounded by the emergence of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as new content distribution platforms, along with hybrid players like Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Bleacher Report. So, is it better to be a publisher or a platform? Or is the old distinction becoming in fact, obsolete?
In the simple content world, we used to know, there were distinct differences between platform and publisher models. It seemed so clear and fundamental that it was easy to pick a side.
Platform models were content and content-creator agnostic. They were all about facilitating the production and distribution of content. They were not about the content itself. Every user had the same access and means to create and publish content, while empowering audiences to decide what content was relevant and let the masses decide what would rise to the top. This was largely done through a mix of clever algorithms and user behaviour and feedback. Platforms did not pay for content creation but for technology, and they did not usually feel responsible for bad content or copyright infringements.
In contrast, pure publisher models were the complete opposite. Access and means to create and publish content were limited to staff editors or freelancers. Audiences had very little say, while all content decisions were made by publishers: they drew a clear line between content consumers and content creators. They paid for content creation, and less for technology, and they were responsible for bad content or copyright infringements.
There were pure platform players like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Tumblr. And there were pure publisher players like the New York Times, Bloomberg and ESPN. But look today and it’s not so easy to make that distinction.
YouTube invests heavily in content creation. Facebook has direct relationships with brand advertisers, discussing premium ad formats and content creation. Twitter has an editorial team and traditional publishers like Forbes have moved towards the platform model by allowing contributor programs.
A much bigger group of hybrid players has evolved and become mainstream – including BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Bleacher Report, Medium, Bustle, Mic and Elite Daily. All of them are in the middle of this spectrum, embracing democratization and technology, and even opening up their means of content production and distribution to people outside their systems.
While the last ten years have clearly been about technology and technology-driven platforms, they’ve had the biggest impact on the media industry because they tore down the barriers for entry. The costs of participating in the shiny world of content creation were going down and digitization made it simple for almost anybody to create content (text, photo, audio and video) as well as making it accessible. In that period the distinction between publishers and platforms made sense. Today though, everything is creatable, editable and publishable by almost anybody who has access to a smartphone.
We now find ourselves overwhelmed by a massive abundance of content for we have entered a period that is all about content relevancy. The big platform players are flooded with content and suddenly must act like publishers to ensure their relevancy while facing new competitors like Snapchat or WhatsApp: closed, personal networks that do not have the same relevance problem and which might therefore compete successfully against them.
One could argue that the traditional publishers were well positioned in this new world order to provide direction and guidance. Most of them, however, have embraced neither the democratization nor the technology that contemporary content creation demands but continue instead to cling on to those good old days when they basically owned a monopoly.
And then there is the new generation of hybrid media companies that are trying to find their own path and build new businesses during these uncertain times. Some of them have built strong new brands that help audiences find and discover relevant content. Some have developed smart new business models around customized branded content, influence on e-commerce and very specific and relevant target audiences. Each of them is about finding the perfect spot in this new spectrum between platform and publisher.
The predominant challenge of innovation in the content and media industry is not to enable everybody to create content. That problem has been solved. The innovation has reached the mainstream.
The main challenge today is to help relevant content cut through all the clutter and rise to the top in a meaningful, pluralistic and diverse way. The answer to that innovation challenge doesn’t lie in just a publisher or platform model.So, will this be the time for a new breed of content providers in the form of “platform publishers,” or “publisher platforms,”? Call it whatever you want. But it’s the future of media.
“Brands will stop disrupting what people are interested in and become what people are interested in” – Eric Schamberger, Partner, Tenthwave Digital LLC
“The future of the marketing department is half marketing and half publishing” – Joe Pulizzi, Founder, Content Marketing Institute