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Hey, Facebook Stole My Homepage Audience! (And What to Do About It.)

Why do we see the same stories on the homepage of just about every major news publisher?


Publishers talk about losing audiences to social platforms, but that’s not exactly true. Are audiences shifting more of their time to Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram? Of course. But simply labeling these sites as “social” overlooks what they do best: They deliver highly personalized content experiences.

With a mix of news, media commentary, opinions (and, of course, the laundry list of cat photos) uniquely customized to more than one billion people, Facebook became the first personalized media company. As long as publishers think of Facebook as just a social platform, they’re missing the bigger lesson –– people expect personalization in everything they see online.

Why is it, then, that you and I see the same stories on the homepage of just about every major news publisher? Because digital publishing has fallen short on personalization. While so much energy and technology have gone into ad targeting, publishers must bring the same efforts to the content itself, which is the currency that attracts users and keeps them coming back.

Why do you and I see the same stories on the homepage of just about every major news publisher? Because digital publishing has fallen short on personalization.

Based on metrics I’ve seen while working with several major media companies, homepage visitors often consume almost four times more content per session, and come at least twice as often during a month compared to other site visitors. These are a publisher’s loyalists and, therefore, most valuable audience. Because homepage visitors are the lifeblood of any publisher site, personalization should start there. Has there ever been a successful brand that hasn’t been obsessed with serving its loyalists?

Yet so much attention goes to the “side door” audience — people coming to a publisher from search, or increasingly, from Facebook and other social networks. Side-door audiences can pump up numbers like unique visitors, but they don’t show nearly the same engagement.

How publishers can win back the homepage

Winning back homepage audiences starts with giving every person a unique experience. The technology and algorithms are already in place to do this; it’s a matter of understanding the nuances of how people want to receive content — and a matter of publishers shifting away from old mindsets.

A few practical steps to get there:

Leverage third-party data. Few traditional media companies have the resources to build a true data-science operation. And publishers don’t have visibility into what audiences do beyond their individual sites, even though a more complete view of their activities could enrich the data picture for each reader. To truly understand and serve readers, publishers should partner with third-party companies that have a full view of the reader journey and can help them personalize content.

Evolve your content strategy. Publishers should stop thinking in terms of averages. Content recommendations are often based on what’s trending. In many instances, all users are shown stories that others have found interesting. That’s the old mass-media approach. Personalization is about tapping into both the conscious and unconscious mind of the reader to provide them with content that sometimes is unrelated to what they were previously reading.

Design for a personalized experience. Somewhere along the way in digital journalism, we got the idea that editors should be in charge of layout. In just about any other medium — print or broadcast –– the people creating the content aren’t responsible for programming it or deciding when or where it appears. Editors should own content creation, and defer to personalization technology to determine where — and for whom — each piece of content appears.

Balance the unique and the universal. Journalistic values dictate that some stories, such as breaking news, an exclusive interview, or a piece of sponsored content, be seen by as many readers as possible. That’s not going to change. It’s an important way for a publisher to build its brand and, yes, monetize. But each publisher needs to balance the unique and the universal, which is what ultimately sets it apart. And if a publisher is going to pursue paid editorial experiences, these “native” ads should be comparable to the quality of storytelling featured on their homepage.

There’s a sense in digital publishing that something has gone horribly wrong — that publishers are doomed to lose out to newer, nimbler and more “social” platforms. The reality is that digital publishing is still working toward its original promise, evolving from mass media to personalized media.

Matt Crenshaw is the vice president of product marketing at Outbrain. He is responsible for setting the product vision and delivering solutions for publishers and brands that build audience relationships and grow revenue. Reach him @mcrenshawATL.

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