Pando

Publishers should trust Facebook like drivers should trust Uber

By Sarah Lacy , written on June 30, 2016

From The Disruption Desk

Facebook has once again announced changes to how posts by media organizations appear on the News Feed. And once again, some publishers are shocked.

I hesitate to make this analogy, but publishers relying on Facebook are starting to look a whole lot like drivers who keep trusting Uber to make their lives better.

From a post we wrote when Uber slashed wages earlier this year, setting off a wave of protests that changed nothing:

Uber knows exactly how badly it is treating drivers. And there is no bottom. Or at least no bottom that involves drivers. 30 cents today will become 15 cents later, and down and down until self driving cars finally make drivers obsolete.

Uber has made no secret about this. The company has constantly boasted that the more drivers it signs up, the more it will push down wages. CEO Travis Kalanick has said on multiple stages that he longs for the days he can get rid of drivers completely.

In a few of those lines, you could just replace “Facebook” for “Uber” and “publishers” for “drivers.”

The degrees of “don’t have a choice” vary wildly: Drivers who rely on Uber for a living wage feel trapped given how much the industry has destroyed taxis, and many are trapped in abusive leases. While publishers may not starve, many feel like they had no choice but play Facebook’s game to keep up with competitors in traffic and hence continue to be able to sell ads.

But there’s one clear similarity: There is absolutely no mystery where these companies stand. Sure both of them talk a great game about how much they value drivers and publishers respectively. And the aggrieved parties will argue that Uber would be nothing without drivers, many publishers could argue without news and sharing of content that isn’t just your friends and family’s baby photos, Facebook would be smaller with less engagement.

But Uber has made clear it wants wages as low as possible and eventually wants no drivers at all. Facebook has been similarly clear with its platform time and time again: It exists only to benefit our business.

The outrage from drivers is more depressing, because many of them don’t have options. The outrage from publishers when-- once again!-- Facebook signaled a change in its rules yesterday just felt more pathetic. When Facebook made its push with instant articles, publication after publication wrote hang-wringing articles about the risk of relying on Facebook with your business. And yet, publisher-after-publisher remade their model to be more video heavy after the last time the algorithm was tweaked. And then focused on Live Video. And now, well, the only way publishers can react to this is to embed content in pictures of your friend’s cat.

This simply cannot be a shock anymore. At some point, it’s just media Darwinism.

Another reason I don’t have a lot of sympathy for publishers: Facebook did right by its users in this move. It was a reaction to thousands of publishers gaming and flooding Facebook with mostly meaningless content. I go to Twitter for news. I mostly want to connect with friends and family on Facebook.

Leveraging platforms for distribution is fine. We all do it. Here’s Pando’s Facebook strategy: If we have a post that’s doing well, we boost it with a $10 marketing campaign. We trust Facebook to execute that campaign. To be good stewards of our $10. That’s it.

Big players like the New York Times and Buzzfeed may be annoyed by this news, but it will only cause them to rearrange a few chairs. Jonah Peretti learned from his experience at Huffington Post. It relied heavily on gaming SEO to grow-- a strategy that wouldn’t have remained viable long term. That was a big reason Jonah Peretti wanted out and a clean slate to start Buzzfeed around sharing. It’s a big reason Buzzfeed hasn’t remained reliant on Facebook but continues to experiment with lots of platforms and produce lots of different kinds of content. Buzzfeed has a core of high quality journalism across business and politics wrapped in a candy coating of cheap tricks. And that candy coating changes every month or so.

For small publications like ours it should be further reinforcement that you have to own your audience and own your destiny. And it should be an advantage in a world where Facebook keeps fucking with larger players who have more resources and -- for a short time-- seem to grow audience more quickly. There’s no quick fix. Email newsletters are a better option for distribution, connection, and relationship with your audience.

One of the four $100 million+ exits in the history of digital content, DailyCandy, was entirely built on email. Fast Company recently detailed how CB Insights ending each newsletter with “I love you” helped generate $1 million in revenue. Sure MailChimp and Gmail can fuck with you a little, but it’s mostly your space.

Those in the middle who’ve fired writers and hired video teams to respond to Facebook changes, who’ve pegged their venture dollars on a quick fix of growth, those are the ones who will be screwed the most. And frankly, it’s hard for me to feel sorry for them.


Rather than shaking an entitled fist at Facebook, learn from them: They continue to grow because they serve their audience. If you serve Facebook’s algorithm more than your audience, why should you have one?