Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today's main story is about churn, but we are also going to talk about platforms.
We have talked about churn (people canceling their subscription) many times over the years, and it's obviously a focus area for every publisher. But one thing I often see is that people think that churn is something that happens when people cancel.
In reality, if you want to manage and reduce your level of churn, you need to act long before that. In fact, most of your churn reduction efforts should be done long before people even subscribe in the first place.
In my latest Plus report I go into this in much more detail, as well as outlining what steps you should take to reduce churn from long before people subscribe, during their subscription, and even after they've left.
So take a look at: Managing churn from start to finish
Another big news thing that happened last week was that Meta (Facebook) is ending support for Instant Articles, as reported by Axios.
This wasn't really a surprise, just as it also wasn't a surprise that Google decided to basically kill AMP last year, and also for many of the other changes we have seen.
You see, what is happening here has been one of the most predictable and persistent trends for the past ... well ... 25 years. And that trend is: Don't rely on the platforms.
In fact, let me tell you a story.
All the way back in the mid 1990s, there was a new platform on the internet called GeoCities. It was a marvelous platform, where anyone could create their own home page, under the GeoCities brand. And many people did, myself included.
It had animated gifs, something we called marquee and blink tags. The first one horizontally scrolling the text, like on a news site on TV, and the blink tag blinked.
It looked absolutely hideous, but back then, it was all new and exciting so millions of people started publishing on their GeoCities sites. At one point, GeoCities was supposedly the third largest site on the internet ... making it the Facebook of the 1990s.
Of course, a few years later, something else came along and GeoCities was no longer enjoying the same focus. And when it was bought by Yahoo in 1999, it had already lost its fascination.
There was just one problem. For all the millions of people who had created a GeoCities site, there was no way to bring that audience with them to somewhere else. It was not their site, it was a site on GeoCities. And so, as the world changed, all of the publishers (albeit we didn't call them publishers back then) had to basically give up everything they had built and start over from scratch.
But not to worry. The new big thing was 'blogging' and quite a few blogging platforms had sprung up. There were sites like Blogger.com, where you could create a Blogger blog. Or other platforms, like the very popular TypePad blogging platform, where you could create a blog under the TypePad domain.
And, again, millions of people did just this.
Of course, this also didn't last. Google bought Blogger, and it started to fade away, and TypePad ... well... it still technically exists, but it has none of the features you expect today.
So, once again, millions were stuck with a blog that no longer matched their need and no way to move their audience away from it. Meaning that people had to just drop everything they had built up and start all over again with something else.
But not to worry. The new platform was Tumblr. It was kind of like a blog, but much faster, and shorter. You didn't even have to write anything, you could just post a single image and call that a post.
So... heh... once again, millions of people created a Tumblr blog, on the new Tumblr platform.
Well ... you know the story by now ... it too got old. It was again bought by Yahoo (there is something weird about Yahoo buying companies when they are past their prime), and well... today it's nearly forgotten.
But, not before all these millions of people discovered that, once again, there was no way to move their audience, causing all of these Tumblr creators to have to give up everything they had just spent years building up, to try to start over from scratch.
Of course, by this stage, we had entered the social era. So ... Now we all had to make a MySpace site, which then flopped, so instead we made a Friendster site, which flopped, and I could go on and on because there have been so many platforms over the years that I have lost count. All of them have flopped.
And then, came Facebook. So what did we learn from all of this? Well, nothing, because here is an example from the Guardian, from 2011, telling all their readers that they should now just read the news on Facebook without ever leaving the social network.
And when this flopped, Facebook created Instant Articles, and all the big publishers started focusing on that ... but, well, now that is also coming to an end.
But, don't be discouraged by this very persistent failure (for more than 25 years), publishers have now learned their lesson. Today they are ... wait, ah dammit ... focusing on TikTok ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I could go on and on about this, and I could give you so many more examples. For instance, look at how many times Medium has let publishers down, or even how newer platforms like Substack start to behave the same way. Not to mention how Facebook recently closed down its newsletter platform.
The only exceptions to all of this are YouTube and Twitch, which for many have been fairly consistent for a very long time. Mind you, the revenue per view on YouTube is today many times lower than what it was, forcing many YouTubers to look for other revenue sources to keep making enough money to make it work.
The point is that the platform will never be our 'destination'. This should be abundantly clear by now. I mean, we have 25 years of data, and all of it very clearly tells us that, as publishers, we should never try to put our businesses on someone else's platform.
This is also true for other parts of our businesses. For instance, advertising. Right now we are making this same mistake. Publishers put their most important revenue stream on someone else's platform, and look where we ended up with that.
The third party ad-tech system we have today is the worst thing that has ever happened to the media industry, and so many publishers are still fighting to maintain it in the hopes it will suddenly fix itself (hint: it won't).
Or think about podcasts. Same problem. While Spotify is building up a premium podcast platform, we, as publishers, are just handing them our podcasts for free. This way people can go to Spotify instead of to us.
It's utterly insane. And we all know what will happen. All the publishers who are giving their podcasts to Spotify for free will be at a massive disadvantage, both in terms of revenue models, features, and control, while Spotify can innovate as much as they like.
Why do we keep making this mistake?
One reason is that we feel powerless. How can we compete with the big platforms? Well, back in 2004, I decided to stop focusing on outside platforms and instead focus my publication on my own domain, which I'm in full control over. Not only do I own the domain (obviously), but I'm also using my own CMS so that I'm not depending on any outside platform.
The result is that, while so many publishers have problems with the platforms, and even many who have gone out of business (like the publishers who bet their business on being on Medium), my business has remained the same.
I don't care that Facebook is now closing down Instant Articles because I never used it. Same with Google AMP. I never used that either. And so, yes, while we may be smaller, in the long-term (for me 18 years), focusing on direct traffic has been the only reliable strategy.
So, my advice to publishers is to do just that. Define your primary business models, and center those around direct traffic. This is better for your website, your newsletter system, your podcasts, your advertising, everything.
The past 25 years have conclusively shown us that we should never put our primary businesses on someone else's platform.
Speaking of platforms, here is something I was reminded about the other day: Now that you can edit tweets (in some countries), it's vitally important that newspapers do NOT embed tweets into their articles. Quote the tweets, screenshot them, but don't embed them.
Finally, I want to show you something fascinating. In Europe, we have been told again and again that the energy crisis is so bad, and it has seemed that very little can be done about it.
But here is something interesting.
Last month, California faced a looming power blackout, and out of desperation, the state sent out a text alert encouraging people to conserve power. The result was remarkable.
Here is a graph from Bloomberg of before and after the text was sent out, and the effect of it was that the public saved so much power, and so quickly, that the whole thing was averted.
Meanwhile, here in Denmark (where I live), the constant focus on the energy crisis has resulted in the public using 12.2% less power during the entire month of September, compared to last year.
It's just a simple reminder that we can change things. If we focus a problem in terms that people can understand and do something about, we can make a remarkable difference.
Remember this, not just when it comes to covering the energy crisis, but also so many other topics. If we center our journalism on the public, we can make a massive difference.
Remember the article about churn above, and then take a look at these:
Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).
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Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter
"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé