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What's Up With Not Giving People The Articles They Ask For?

Written by on May 16, 2016

I have noticed something strange that more and more publishers do on their mobile/tablet sites. Instead of giving you the article you asked for, they will try to distract you to look at something else.

Here is one example (of many) from The Next Web. They had tweeted about an article related to the recent discussion we had in the media about Facebook editing news, and I clicked on the tweet to see what they had written.

But instead of actually giving me the article, they gave me this:

You see what's happening here?

Instead of showing me the article, they just give me the first part and then a 'Read more' button, which is then followed by some social widgets and a list to other articles that I might want to be distracted by.

I'm not sure why so many publishers are doing this. Maybe there is some secret traffic tactic at play here that I don't know about, but it looks like the most stupid thing you can possibly do.

There are two problems with this.

The first problem is that they are assuming that the audience have no intent, even though they have all just clicked on a tweet mentioning a very specific story. In other words, these publishers seem to assume that people are behaving the same when they arrive at the site (after the click) as they did before they arrived (when they were just scrolling through their social feeds).

The second problem is that this is forcing people to have the wrong behavior. You are encouraging people to have no specific interest, intent or loyalty by distracting them with random noise rather than focusing on delivering specific value.

Imagine if a fashion brand started acting this way.

You would see a tweet for a jacket, click on it, and end up on a page that looked like this:

This is what these publishers are doing. Instead of giving people what they came for, you say 'who cares about that, here is some random noise for you instead'.

Right?

Why would you do that? If people are clicking on a link to a jacket, for what possible reason would you not give them that, with as much detail and value as possible? Have we become so lost in the art of optimizing for random views that we no longer understand how to bring real content to people?

And, of course, brands don't do this. If a fashion brand did what these publishers do, they would go out of business, because acting that way would kill their conversation rates.

You want to know what would work? Here is what:

What you see here is an entirely different type of page. We are no longer trying to distract people to click on something else. We are no longer hiding the main product they came for. Instead, we are taking the best of both worlds and using that to our advantage.

People clicked on a link to a jacket, so this is the main focus on the page. The jacket is shown 100%, we can read about the details, we can look at the pictures, and learn about its features.

But then we take that a step further and say, "Well, the jacket is cool, but look how amazing it looks with this blouse and these pants." And we bring those products into the page as well. Not as a distraction, but as extra value on top of the already full value we got from seeing the jacket.

This is how it's done. This is how you convert people. And this is (mostly) how brands like Peak Performance are doing it. I added a bit more detail in the above example to make it even better.

But this is not what publishers are doing. They are instead removing the value and just trying to distract people to get more views. Publishers are removing people's intent and just optimizing for more noise.

As I said, there might be some traffic tactic that I'm not aware of that makes this work, but it's far more likely that publishers are just looking at the wrong data.

And this is just one example. We see many other examples of destruction of intent from publishers. Here is another example:

At first glance this sounds both amazing and mind-bogglingly shallow. 383 million monthly view sure sounds like a lot... until you realize that's with 650 videos per day. The result is only about 19,000 views per video, as helpfully pointed out by Mark Higginson.

And mind you, here we are assuming that these video views are not heavily inflated by being counted as anything that autoplays for 3 seconds with no sound.

Daily Mail also claims that its videos have 80% completion rates, which is a more interesting metric. Although not by much. There is a massive difference between people completing a 40 second video and one that is 40 minutes long.

Can you imagine how massively the Daily Mail's video completion rates would drop if the videos were 15 minutes long?

My point here is that we are losing our focus. All this optimization around single metrics is creating a future where the content itself is a mere afterthought. It's like publishers today do not even consider the content itself as having any relevance to their optimization tactics.

Right?

What I want you to do is to take a step back and take the long view. Ask yourself: Is this really what people want?

When people click on a link to an article, do they want to see a page where they have to click a second time to read the article? No, of course not.

Do people want 650 really crappy videos per day about idiotic things designed purely to optimize for heavily inflated view numbers? No, they don't.

And we have seen this so many times before.

Remember email spam in the early 2000s. It was really bad and it almost completely destroyed the future of email. But then the companies who made the email clients stepped in and created the email spam filters. And today, email is quite useful and all your spam is automatically filtered out.

Next came the SEO spam. Remember Demand Media and their eHOW site? Same concept. They completely stopped caring about the quality or the value of the articles themselves, and just focused on publishing as much as possible. It too got so bad that it started to threaten the very future of search. Remember how angry people were at Google because of how crappy the search results had become?

So what did Google do? They did the only thing they could do. They created a new algorithm that blocked this SEO spam from appearing in Google Search. As a result, just like with email, Google search today is once again quite good, and Demand Media flopped.

Then came the banner spam. Tons and tons of really bad advertising and crappy tactics designed contrary to what people wanted. And the result of that is the same too. Today we have ad blockers and Google has created its AdMob policy to filter out bad behavior.

Then came the social spam. Remember all those 'you won't believe what happens next' links on every single social channel? Same concept. It was seriously crappy content designed merely for the sake of the click. It had no value and it was just wasting people's time. What happened to that? Yep, it was blocked as soon as Facebook realized that people hated it.

And today, we have video spam. Thousands of really crappy videos from publishers who are completely ignoring any form of real journalism. It's content optimized views.

While this still works today because people haven't adjusted to it yet, it doesn't change what it is. And we all know what will happen in 2017 (or possibly earlier). In 2017, Facebook will have listened to its audience, who are now seriously annoyed with having thousands of crappy videos autoplaying in their newsfeeds, and they will block it.

Facebook will come out and say:

Hey wait-a-minute. I know we said we wanted you to do video, but this is crap. This is not what people want, and your crap is starting to hurt Facebook's future. So, from today, publishers creating these videos will experience a dramatic drop in reach.

Right?

More to the point, this whole thing is a scam. These publishers are selling ad views for something that isn't actually a view. It's traffic that has no intent, no value, and no conversions.

It's a scam in exactly the same way as what we saw in the past was a scam. When email scammers started selling email views, when SEO scammers started selling search views, when social spammers started selling likes, and now when video spammers are selling views. The content views they are selling isn't the product that brands think they are getting. Brands think they are getting potential customers. But this isn't delivering that to them.

Mind you, I don't really care what will happen to Daily Mail. As an analyst, I think it's only a matter of time before they will end up like Demand Media. They are doing exactly the same thing, and the patterns are very predictable.

What I do mind, however, is what I see happening with all the other publishers. Take The Next Web, for instance. I think of them as being a very good and valuable publisher. I think their articles are very good, and they are doing valuable journalistic work.

But then when they start to design their site with tactics that are directly contrary to building this value, that's when I get worried. And it's the same with every other publisher.

We know what will happen in the future. We know that the content strategies that we see today will fail. You only have to take one step back to see that. So, it's vital for publishers to take that long view instead of being dragged down by the noise of the moment.

Again, I'm reminded by what I see on YouTube. YouTube as a whole is pretty crappy. It is filled with all the crappy video that we see elsewhere, and YouTube itself doesn't seem to realize it yet. Just look at their Trending tab or their focus on YouTube Red. It's not really what you would call valuable content.

Right now, this might be driving the most views overall, but we also know that it will fail over time. YouTube, like every other publisher, will have to find a way to make YouTube Red valuable.

But then look at the many successful YouTube creators. True, some of them are creating crap too, but a lot of them are taking the long view and making truly amazing content that isn't designed for the latest tactic.

People like Marques Brownlee, Derek Muller, Jemma Wilson, Jimmy DiResta, Dianna Cowern, Devin Graham, Amy Shira Teitel, Paul Soares Jr., Donal Skehan, Bryce Langston, and I could go on and on and on.

All of these are amazing in their own way. All of them focus their work on creating long term value, and all of them are winning because of it. Most of all, none of them is focusing on optimizing for the latest short-term content tactic.

And what will happen is that, five years from now, all of these will likely still be winning, and probably even more so than today.

So, as an analyst, I see three paths right now.

  1. The first path is the one I see with the YouTube creators and the digital natives. The ones focusing on building up momentum and long term value that is worth subscribing to, and worth partnering with for advertisers. It's a slow growing path, but it's the one with the best future.
  2. The second path is the Demand Media path, where some publishers will optimize for the latest content spam today and simply crash once their particular content form is blocked from working.
  3. The third path is the one where publishers find a new way to spam people. Because we know this will happen too. We started with email spam, then SEO spam, social spam, and now video spam. All of these will fail, but something else will also take their place as the next idiotic form of content. Maybe it will be bot spam (very likely), and then maybe VR spam. And some publishers will find a way to spam the next thing before the old thing kills them.

As an analyst, I only see one of these paths as being worth betting on, and that's the first path.

The second path is basically suicide. And the third path, while it may work, is a high-risk short-term focus that only works for 6-12 months at the time before you have to do something completely different again.

Mind you, investors really like the third path. They love high-risk, high-reward investment where they can build up a ton of scale really quickly only to sell the whole idea off to some clueless company who haven't realized that it's about to fail.

But you don't want to be the one left with the hot potato.

So... which path will you choose?

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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