Pando

Vox had big success publishing straight to Facebook. Should you do it too?

By David Holmes , written on March 23, 2015

From The News Desk

For so-called "media observers" -- those self-appointed gurus who sit around all day creating content about other people's content -- the future of publishing is clear: Sites and apps operated by news organizations are dying. Increasingly, content is published directly to giant social networks that have more users and reach than any single news organization's web and mobile properties will ever have.

The "news website" is looking more and more like an outdated holdover from the days when stories, ads, and crossword puzzles came literally "bundled" into a newspaper. It's 2015, and readers get on social channels like Facebook and Snapchat not only to find and share content, but to consume it. And in turn, the big Silicon Valley companies that manage those channels are far more beholden to advertiser interests than even the most compromised journalistic organizations.

As they say, Internet is the new TV, and Facebook is one of the "Big Three" networks, offering safe and accessible content to the masses. And like with television, you don't call up Modern Family's production company directly when you want to watch broadly-drawn characters act out the American Dream you'll never achieve. You go to ABC.

Facebook was way ahead of this trend, implementing auto-play on videos by default at the precise moment when more people were consuming video on the network than ever before: The Ice Bucket Challenge. (Side note: The enduring influence of the Ice Bucket Challenge on the new media landscape is, to say the least, troubling). And for the past few months, Zuckerberg has been courting media companies in the hopes that they'll publish content directly to Facebook's servers alongside ads that Facebook sells, in return for a cut of the advertising revenue the platform generates. In January, Snapchat jumped on that trend, too, partnering with VICE, National Geographic, and others to host original news and entertainment content directly within its app.

For platforms like Facebook, the calculus behind these arrangements is simple: They will force customers to stay longer in Facebook's app instead of jetting off to some ugly, slow-loading banner-ad filled news site. That not only creates more impressions for Facebook's own ads; it also allows Facebook to fully control how its users experience both content and advertisements. And with its massive team of well-paid engineers, Facebook is far better suited to shape a user's experience than a bunch of journalists, most of whom couldn't code their way out of a free Wordpress template.

So it's worth it for Facebook. It's kind of worth it for users. But is it worth it for publishers?

Today the world saw some of the first clues of how a media company fares when using Facebook as a publishing tool. And the results, while not necessarily indicative of larger publishing trends, are nevertheless notable and impressive.

The marketing team at Vox, the accuracy-starved "news explainer" site and the latest in Jim Bankoff's ever-growing media empire, has published a case study on how it "approaches publishing on Facebook." Like all of Vox's content, the study is eminently readable while raising the distinct suspicion that the reader is missing something really important.

In any case, there are some notable concept-proofs here like how Vox posted in-depth excerpts of its interview with President Obama directly to Facebook, where they scored 250,000 views in 2 hours and 1 million views total. Granted, it's not really surprising that an interview with the president picked up a ton of views. But it's also worth ackowledging that only four other Vox videos have ever surpassed 1 million hits on YouTube, long the king of democratized video distribution. YouTube is still the king, of course, but Facebook is becoming a player of its own in this space.

Nor has Vox's habit of publishing directly to Facebook drained traffic from its own site, as some have feared. On the contrary, the study "largely" attributes the heady ascent of Vox, which after less than a year now attracts 23 million monthly unique visitors, to Facebook.

"Vox.com has seen Facebook referrals increase nearly 200% over a six-month period and at times Facebook has accounted for up to 40% of the site's overall monthly traffic," the study notes.

(As an aside, another interesting point which was revealed not in Vox's study but in a separate self-congratulatory post filed by Facebook is that Vox editor-in-chief and bonafide journo-celebrity Ezra Klein often drives one-quarter of the entire site's Facebook referrals through his personal page. So yes, having a superstar founder's personal brand on the masthead can still be a huge boon for new media sites).

This is just one site and one study, so let's caution against jumping to any broad ecosystem-defining conclusions. Furthermore, Vox's direct publishing gambit is still a matter of baby steps for Facebook, which needs to move slow in convincing media companies to allow their content to live on Facebook and Facebook alone. Despite what Vox calls its "holistic approach to social distribution," most of its Facebook experiments were designed to feed traffic back to vox dot com, proving that the news site is far from dead, and not least of which for a company like Vox Media which has invested massively in technology. With its state-of-the-art content management system and its ability to offer beautiful native ad experiences, Vox Media is one of the few news empires that can truly get away with calling itself a "platform."

And so despite the supposed boldness of its experiments in direct publishing, Vox was essentially using Facebook the same way sites have for years: as a tool for brand-building and promotion. This isn't proof positive that news organizations should let their web domains expire and publish solely to Facebook. We won't know the success of those gambits until we see how much ad revenue Facebook is willing to share with publishers. Vox's success simply reaffirms that users like to consume stuff on Facebook, and therefore by publishing a portion of your content directly there, you can help build your brand and increase site traffic.

That doesn't mean the nightmarish "Internet-as-TV" metaphor won't eventually bear out, however. And while the Voxes and Buzzfeeds of the world may be big and platform-y enough to survive the Great Content Shakeout™ to come, the rest of us will likely be working on Facebook's farm. Hope they like articles that are critical of Facebook!

[illustration by Brad Jonas]