An Online Publisher Argues For Its Continued Relevance

Editor’s note: Brian Fitzgerald is the president and co-founder of Evolve Media.

In the digital media landscape, independent publishers are akin to magazines; they both cater to specific demographic groups and provide authoritative content that engages like-minded individuals.

Interest-based publishing has flourished for decades, spanning across publishing and broadcast platforms, connecting with discrete audiences. However, the rise of the Internet brought low barriers to entry and increased the ease of self-publishing, creating a fragmented ecosystem. As more and more ad spend moved to digital, marketers had to turn to scaled solutions because buying disparate audiences became inefficient.

As a result, social media platforms became the go-to solution for marketers because they offer wide reach at a relatively low price. And in order to compete, digital publishers have to produce sufficient inventory to offset the discounts on “sellable” inventory that have become industry practice.

This is a Herculean feat for today’s publishers because the cost of producing professional editorial is far greater than for the user-generated content that dominates platforms. Social media networks, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are garnering the lion’s share of ad impressions and revenue, squeezing out the specialized publishers that produce content for enthusiasts. And this pursuit of efficient scale may stifle the voices of independent publishers and their communities.

User-generated content platforms: goldmine or minefield?

While user-generated content isn’t professional editorial content, it does have its merits. Consumers are able to share personal media and provide helpful information through reviews and recommendations. From a business perspective, user-generated content is a boon to media companies because it allows them to aggregate huge amounts of content relatively cheaply when compared to traditional publishers.

However, it’s inherently difficult to moderate. It comes with numerous inherent risks, not the least of which are offensive material and trademark or copyright infringement. Despite detection and filtering algorithms, the risk that your ads will run alongside content that isn’t brand-safe is ever-present. Without editorial oversight, there’s no guarantee that people will generate the kind of content you want associated with your brand.

Brands are growing more concerned about positioning themselves against certain kinds of user-generated content, and rightly so. In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in brand risk for companies who advertise on big platforms, sometimes with disastrous results. Along with ad fraud, buyers ranked brand safety as the top issue in programmatic advertising in 2015.

Publishers create safe, trusted environments for brands

Independent publishers have committed editorial teams that create well-lit environments to foster conversations among enthusiasts. Their readers enjoy specialized content crafted by experts and engaging with communities of like-minded people. Advertising for products and services is contextually relevant, fitting in seamlessly with the rest of the content.

In contrast, social media websites are large horizontal platforms that cater to disparate audiences and cover a vast array of topics. Marketing messages are often lost because they drift across these networks without context to anchor them. Moreover, the content that populates these platforms lacks the authority of seasoned writers and editors. And so ads don’t receive the same positive brand association with user-generated content that they do within a trusted environment.

Imagine posting an ad for your company’s new skincare line in a general content feed. It’s lost in a flurry of competing messages, all vying for a consumer’s attention. But when consumers read an “Editor’s Pick” for the best new skincare product on a respected beauty site, you create a meaningful connection with them, especially if they’re loyal readers. The editor has earned their trust, creating a more enjoyable and informative experience.

The independent web at risk

Because agencies and advertisers funnel investment into social media, these platforms are growing rapidly. But this is a myopic strategy focused on short-term gains. Publishers are a genuine long-term investment that bring a different value proposition that deserves to be recognized. However, they cannot compete with the sheer volume of inventory and the discounted impressions offered by social media networks.

Publishers are like retailers that ensure customers have trusted, high-quality products, while user-generated content platforms are more akin to eBay: a necessary part of the ecosystem, but one whose offerings can’t be trusted blindly. Publishers not only provide trusted content for consumers within secure environments, but they also create context for marketing messages. In other words, they offer an environment that can’t be infinitely scaled.

Advertisers need to commit to investing in the future of publishing. Not out of charity but out of self-interest. As other scaled media buying options become scarce, the cost of advertising on social media platforms will increase, leaving marketers disempowered and without a voice, too. Advertisers can help independent publishing, while helping themselves, by limiting the concentration of power in the hands of a small group of platforms.

As programmatic advertising continues to grow in popularity, independent publishers will become increasingly important because they offer what user-generated-content platforms can’t: brand safety and real editorial expertise. Publishers are valuable players in this ecosystem — we can’t afford to tune them out.