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Decoding who owns your content on the internet

Who owns your content?

At first glance, this seems like a question with an obvious answer. If your editorial team writes it and it’s housed on your website, then surely all of your content is owned by you?

You’d think so. But in reality, this is unlikely to be the case-as a growing number digital publishers are discovering.

This article is designed to provide you with a crash course on content ownership and highlight where you might be losing control of your most precious asset – data.  It is based on an interview series I was part of in 2020, which explored a similar theme.

The ‘leaky bucket’ of digital publishing

Online publishers typically assume that their content lives on their CMS — and for the most part, that’s true. But if you dig under the surface a little, what you’ll actually find is a leaky bucket that’s hemorrhaging content—and with it, valuable audience data.

Publishers’ tech choices are nearly always to blame for ownership loss. What initially seems like a convenient plug-and-play solution can end up robbing you of the opportunity to engage audiences and grow your business.

A common example of publishers handing over data is the ‘comments’ thread. It’s no secret that the built-in WordPress comments system is time consuming to set up, so it’s easy to see why plugins like Disqus are so popular. You simply drop in a bit of code, and you’re in business. However, choosing a solution like Disqus also means that your content (the comments) now live on a third-party platform.

Now for most digital publishers, having comments housed in a SaaS platform wouldn’t appear to be much of an issue. That’s because most publishers haven’t yet realised the power of first-party data, of which comments are a valuable source.

So let’s get clear about what first-party data is as the terminology can be confusing. First-party data is simply the data you collect and store yourself.

The hidden potential of your comments thread

If you’re a specialist publisher with a loyal and engaged audience, your comments thread has the potential to become a goldmine of first-party data (the best kind of data). In fact, publishers have a huge advantage over other businesses when it comes to collecting rich and diverse audience data. Why? Because media consumption is a habit.  

Think about it: How frequently do you visit an insurance website? Once or twice a year? But how often do you read the news or click through to a story in a trade publication? Practically every day. In fact, some readers spend hours commenting on articles each day. It’s their way of connecting to a community they view as being ‘theirs’ and a chance to share their individual wisdom on a particular topic. 

As a publisher, you can leverage this habitual audience behaviour and emotional involvement to your advantage. It can help you build deeper engagement, increase on-site activity and provide valuable insight for future product development.  

How to increase data from comments boards

A powerful and underused data collection strategy that’s easy to execute (if you’re using a flexible CMS like WordPress) is gamification, which you can theme around your particular niche.  For example, if you’re a sports publisher, why not incentivise active readers? You could run a commenting ‘tournament’ that rewards readers with medals for their comments and allows them to compete for influential ‘coach’ statuses?

Yet none of this is possible with a third-party plugin. 

Never close your comments thread

Even more devastating than using a plugin like Disqus is failing to have a comments thread at all. Audiences will continue to voice their opinions, but they’ll simply relocate from your website to Facebook or Twitter. What’s New In Publishing acknowledged the consequence of this in their article entitled how publishers that closed their comments sections made a colossal mistake.

“[Comment threads are] one area in which hundreds of publishers unnecessarily weakened their position in the marketplace and drove power directly to the major tech platforms. When it comes to unforced errors, the decision many publishers made to close down their comment sections should be considered one of the industry’s worst blunders.” 

Most publishers are striving for greater connection. But they’re now discovering to their horror that the platforms they hoped would connect them to audiences, are in fact widening the gulf.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever use social channels— they are an important tool for digital publishers. But use them strategically as a means for distributing content. Never as the content hub itself.

Your ultimate aim should always be to bring audiences back to your owned platform.

Important sources of first-party data for publishers

The comments thread is just one example of an owned data source. However, there are many more opportunities for publishers to collect and harness crucial first-party data.

It’s likely that you’re already collecting quite a lot of first-party data. It comes in many forms: your email newsletter list, surveys, feedback, user actions. In fact, any kind of audience behaviour that you can track to build a list is an example of first-party data.

And as the cookiepocolypse edges closer, any publisher that wants to continue building informed products or selling targeted ads, must get to grips with the fact that first-party data collection has never been more important.

The problem with third-party data

Third-party data is information or user attributes that have been captured by an external organisation – typically a bot network. These networks attempt to build a rich picture of audiences by collating information, such as device type, country, social networks, etc. As a publisher, you can interact with the owner of that data in order to better target your ads. This is how programmatic advertising works and is a fast and efficient way to sell targeted campaigns. However, because you never actually get access to the data, you’re always relying on the third party to execute the targeting on your behalf. 

The less commonly discussed second-party data is a hybrid model whereby you lease data (typically by an API) to supplement your first-party data and build a more detailed audience picture. 

In both of these scenarios, you are still heavily reliant on another business for your own success. And perhaps more worryingly, the third-party will always know more about your audience than they’ll ever be willing to share with you. That’s a scary amount of power to yield to a big tech company — in an industry that’s largely unregulated and ethically questionable. 

But it’s not just data privacy that digital publishers should be concerned about. By relying on a third-party platform to run your media business, you’re also relying on that third party continuing their current model. But what happens to your business if their business strategy pivots?

Let’s look at a couple of live examples to find out:

Tumblr

At the height of its success, microblogging site Tumblr was hitting 3 billion impressions per month with thousands of creators adopting the platform as their chosen means of audience connection. But when Yahoo bought Tumblr in 2013, there was a backlash from angry users, resulting in plummeting market value and near closure of the platform. Fortunately, WordPress parent company Automattic eventually saved the day and bought Tumblr. But for a while it seemed like the Tumblr creators would be completely cut off from their audience. All this turmoil beacause one tech giant decided to switch business priorties

Adobe Business Catalyst 

More recently, the abrupt closure of Adobe’s all-in-one CMS left thousands of small businesses without a website. A poignant reminder that even the biggest and seemingly trusted tech names can shift their focus at any moment. And given the pace of digital transformation, it’s now more a case of when rather than if.

It will be interesting to see how Apple News plays out for publishers. Right now, the awareness building appeal is obvious – particularly if you manage to hit the homepage. And to be fair, Apple is one of the better platforms when it comes to sharing audited numbers and data around time on site and articles, etc. Yet to run your entire publication as an Apple News business is risky territory – unless you have a serious contingency plan about what you do should Apple pivot their priorities.

Imagine if suddenly all your content needed to include audio, how well could you respond?

Content ownership: What’s a publisher to do?

In light of all this, what should a digital publisher do to maintain control of their content and data while still building an audience? 

Can total ownership utopia ever exist? Probably not, but with some smart tech decisions you can get pretty close.

Here’s what a decade of working with digital publishers has taught The Code Company about ownership:

1. House all articles in a WordPress site –  that you own

In an industry that’s moving as fast as digital publishing, you need the ability to take your business in whatever direction you choose. Housing all of your content in a database that you own gives you the ultimate freedom to extract and manipulate that data in myriad ways. 

For example, let’s say you’re building a new content personalisation solution and need to extract 10,000 articles tagged as ‘recipes’. Or perhaps you want to extract all articles with a word count of 1,000-1,500 words. If your third-party platform doesn’t give you that option then, quite simply, you can’t do it. 

Whereas if you’re publishing on WordPress, you just build an integration, plug it in and off you go. The flexibility of WordPress means it can usually be engineered to achieve whatever you need it to. In fact, you’ll often find that the solution has already been built. That’s why so many creators are now migrating from Substack and Medium to open source champion WordPress.

It’s not new and it’s not particularly sexy, but there’s a reason why WordPress powers 40% of all websites globally (about 64 million). It works. We’ve encountered almost every CMS on the market, and trust us; as a growing digital publisher, you can’t do better than WordPress.

2. Use social media as distribution channels

Once you’ve established your own (ideally WordPress) publishing site, you obviously need to drive audiences to that site. That’s where platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn can be invaluable. But only if they’re used as a distribution channel rather than the content source itself.

Instagram is more tricky as it was never built to be a sharing platform. Sure, it’s proved lucrative for the influencers. But if they ever get de-platformed, they’ve got nothing to move onto. The abrupt silencing of Donald Trump and Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans is surely evidence enough of this risk.

3. Choose third-party services wisely

It’s in no way realistic to suggest that digital publishers should self-manage every aspect of their tech stack. In fact, proprietary systems can (and often do) rapidly descend into chaos.

However, in the WordPress ecosystem, you can find numerous managed platforms that take care of the technical aspects of your website without affecting your data ownership. This means you don’t have to worry about things like servers, PHP versions, security and code upgrades. And you retain complete control of your data, your product and your code. 

Five years ago, managed services for enterprise publishers didn’t exist. Or if they did, they couldn’t handle the complex needs of many media companies. But that’s no longer the case. In fact, managed platforms like WordPress VIP and WP Engine are often our number one recommendation for businesses that want to stay in control of their future growth (and avoid getting caught in the weeds of continual tech battles). 

READ MORE: Do you really need to build your own hosting infrastructure? A guide for growing publishers.

The topic of ownership is fraught with debate and uncertainty. Yet what’s abundantly clear is that if you’re a serious online media business, owning your content is vital. And it all starts with a tech stack that’s stacked in your favour. This means relying less on third-party tools, and building an owned media ecosystem that keeps your content and audience data, safely in your hands. 

Interview Transcript

Vivek:
All right. Hello, and welcome to yet another episode of Own Thy Audience. Today I have with me, Ben May, founder, and CEO of The Code Company. Hi, Ben.

Ben:
Hi.

Vivek:
So, a quick introduction for Ben. I know I won’t do a good job at this, but Ben is somebody who has been a part of the WordPress ecosystem for over a decade now, and he now qualifies as a WordPress evangelist. He speaks passionately about WordPress and the ecosystem. He also currently owns and runs a WordPress VIP agency, based out of Australia, where most of his team also is. He’s somebody who’s passionate about working with publishers, working with media platforms, and brings in a unique perspective on what’s… On how publishers should be operating in 2020. All right, Ben, is there anything you want to add here?

Ben:
No, that’s great. And I think what appealed to this discussion today was WordPress represents that open-source product, and owning your content, owning your platform, owning your product, which I know we’re keen to talk about today. Yeah, that’s great.

Vivek:
Perfect. So let’s dive into the topic of the conversation, decoding who owns your content on the internet, and there is a bit of a paradox right there itself, right? Who owns your content? The inherent assumption is I, as a content creator would own my content. Why would somebody else own it? It doesn’t make sense. But the internet is a funny place, all sorts of things happen on the internet. And a great example is what I think Shubandi mentioned in the emails, wherein she speaks about a specific philosophy page that she follows on Instagram, and she often sends me those quotes, and they’re very interesting, and then Monday, when I asked her that, “Hey, you know what? Who is this person?” And she said, “It’s Instagram.”

Vivek:
She had zero recall of who actually is the content creator. Which is what sort of brings us to this ultimate question, of who truly sort of owns the value that is being [inaudible 00:03:01] through the content. So Ben, you’ve been part of the media industry for a while. You’ve been part. You also understand technology platforms very well. In your experience of working in the ecosystem for the longest time, what’s your version of ownership on the internet today?

Ben:
Yeah. Like I mentioned before, that sort of the appeal and fascination with open-source technology. So obviously part of that is the content itself, having the ownership and access to that data, but it also scales out a whole bunch of different ways from there. So, if you look at publishing, even from the sense of an individual publisher, an individual writer who wants to create a newsletter or start a blog, through to a publishing business that may have editors and publishers and sub-editors and the whole team that create content and things like that. There’s a content management layer where your site lives, so something like a WordPress, but there’s so many other little areas where the value of that content is potentially escaping or not even being considered. Things like commenting is another simple one that we see on even WordPress sites.

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Ben:
And commenting does have some technical challenges in terms of span and user registration, things like that. And often there’s products like, Discuss, where you can just sort of drop in a little bit of code, and all of a sudden the whole commenting system is now running off a third party platform, still living on your site, but again, I go through that view of there’s value in that content that your users are creating, and that we’re losing. So to me, there’s a real holistical approach to where your content lives and things like that. And the other thing we see sort of, I guess, on the frontier right now is the reduction of value in cookies and businesses like publishers and media who have much longer term traffic patterns with customers starting to collect and understand that data themselves, rather than relying on third party ad networks or social media platforms, or whatever else to come back with that information to build that first party data that you can do things with yourself.

Ben:
You can use it to sell ads better. You can use it to target content better subscriptions, you name it. There’s a lot of different aspects to where the content lives and the value around that.

Vivek:
Okay. I’m going to step back and ask you a very, what may sound like a dumb question, but I want you to break down this concept of data. So there is zero party data, there is first party, second party, and third party. What exactly does this mean? Just break it down for our listeners.

Ben:
Sure. So first party data is essentially the best data you can get. That’s the data you collect and store and do something with yourself. Sometimes you’re storing it and you’re not really doing anything with it already. So easy example is, your email newsletter list, or if you have maybe the ability for users to favorite content, or categories, or something on the site, that’s first party data. You’re collecting data based on an interest and attribute and things like that. Third party data, that jumps the end, is basically data, and usually things like attributes or qualities of a particular user, and that’s being tracked historically through cookies and things like that. So big bot networks and traffic networks will say this user, whoever they may be, is visiting these sorts of sites or this sort of category, and they start to build some data.

Ben:
We know that they maybe login to Facebook where they live, what country they’re in maybe. They use an iPhone, or they use an Android, and start to build data on that. Third party data is where you can kind of interact with a vendor who owns that data, and try and do things with that, and you see that most commonly with things like programmatic ad display. As a publisher, you don’t actually have access to that data. You’re relying on a marketplace to use that other data to sort of optimize and target ads. And second party data, which is probably the less common bit of both, is companies that have already done that collection of data. They’re not doing anything with that, apart from letting you kind of lease it almost. And usually that’s done through some sort of API where you already have maybe a data set of users, or IP addresses, or whatever it may be.

Ben:
And you’re interacting with that API and saying, I’m missing on there. I’d love to know what their traffic patterns are on mobile. And I don’t know that. So, can I supplement my own data with second party data? But by all means, first party data is sort of the best you can get, and it’s only becoming more valuable. And I think anyone in publishing and content are uniquely qualified to capture that, because unlike B2B marketing and things like that, you have people who are visiting frequently for long, long periods of time. If you read a particular online news site, you may be visiting one, two, three times a day for years and years and years. So if you could start to understand those things, you’ve actually got really rich data verse. I might look at my insurance provider’s website once a year, and they have a very small window to capture my data and try to understand me at that point, which is pretty hard to do.

Vivek:
Right. And so you explained first party, second party, third party. And then there is this new concept, called zero party data. What does that sort of imply?

Ben:
Yeah, I think that’s still fairly new. I’m not sure where that’s coming from. If that’s in reaction to the fact that we are seeing browsers lock down third party data. And by that, ad tech companies and these sort of other big networks have been able to drop cookies on a device and follow it around on different traffic profiles, and that’s how they build and aggregate this data. So I think that browsers like Chrome are looking to drop that in the next couple of years, is forcing people to think differently about how we can supplement data and get access to that sort of traffic data. So I think that’s certainly one part of the equation for a publishing business. I think the other part is, well, obviously what you’re talking about, is the actual content part of the data that makes up a publishing sort of business.

Vivek:
Right. Now, it’s very interesting, because you mentioned the first party data essentially is all about the user’s attributes. What are they consuming on a website? How are they consuming on the website, and so on and so forth. The problem that is first party data essentially signifies that, as a publisher, they will directly own that data. They would have access to it, they would own it, and they could potentially also use it to their advantage as well. This essentially means that the consumption, the content consumption is creating certain value, or potential value, which publishers can tap into. And let’s sort of go back to the example, where we started from, where that Instagram page, which people read, recall, but can’t name. I think that’s the best way to sum the problem, that people know the content, but they have little visibility of the content creator itself. Which is where the whole question of ownership comes in, who owns that content? Is it Instagram, or is it the creator? What’s your take?

Ben:
I think if you look at that spectrum of what… I think at the end of the day, everyone is a publisher of some sort. Everyone can publish to varying levels, but if you look at the spectrum of owning your own platform, your own hosting, your own data, your own content, everything at one end, and then right at the other end of that, it seems like walled gardens like Instagram, or medium, or Substack, or whatever else that may be. The challenge you have on platforms with that extent is they’re going to give you things like, in terms of analytics, they’re going to give you the analytics they track, and that they decided to give you. If they don’t want you to know time on site, and they don’t make that available, you’ve got no way of knowing that, or the ability… I mean, Instagram’s an interesting one.

Ben:
And I know that they’re just starting to talk about rolling out news even in Instagram, which is tricky, because Instagram is not a sharing or discovery platform like Twitter or Facebook, where you can post something, and follow the link through to a source. Instagram is very insular. So if you’re publishing content to Instagram, or something along those lines, the platform is owning that data. It knows a lot more than it may be telling you what’s happening with that data or content and your ability to leave or have flexibility, or freedom over that data is very limited. So, there is a spectrum of options along that way in terms of accessibility, and sort of openness and things like that.

Vivek:
Right. And the operating word in that answer was what they decide to give. If a Substack, or a Patreon, or a Medium only tell you the number of people who came on the website or your blog or the article, then that’s the line that they’ve drawn in sand, that they won’t reveal more than that. Which often is as limiting as, okay, this is good to know, but for me to action something on top of this idea, which is where your hands are tied, because you do not have that information. So, but again, these platforms are critical because they help you build a following. They help you gain that initial traction. It is almost like a catch-22 situation. These platforms have audience, yeah.

Ben:
And sometimes it’s best to think of them as almost like a syndication, or a distribution channel for your content, but it should never be those platforms are the hub. You should own the core of this, and use those tools to share and things like that. If you look at much larger media organizations, like the LA times, they’ll have audience team people who will be specific to building Instagram versions of their content, ideally to try and get them back. But Instagram are very good for that. Something like LinkedIn, or Twitter, or Facebook, they’re going to be tailoring and optimizing that content out on these channels to bring people back into your site, so you ultimately can track that. Something like instant articles on Facebook, which is a way of pre-loading your content into Facebook. And Facebook is also the experiment with the whole news tab, but it seems very selective.

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Ben:
I don’t think it’s even available in Australia, because it doesn’t show up for me. That’s sort of a bit too much on the walled garden for my liking, compared to something more like… And even though it’s still managed by Google, let’s say, true open-source project that allows you to track the data and do as you wish sort of thing. You’re not stuck in there. You can always opt out of amp and not use that technology. But if you want that instant articles in Facebook, that’s what you’ve got to be sort of thing.

Vivek:
I like the phrasing of spectrum, because it then just makes it easier for me as a creator to decide how much value do I want for myself.

Ben:
Yeah.

Vivek:
And where should I stop on that slider?

Ben:
The trade off is often like the convenience. If you look at something like Substack, it’s a very narrow product, has a very specific niche, and it’s very easy to get up and going, and there are other ones, there’s Review and things like that, and then you sort of get into more generic email platforms like MailChimp and Campaign Monitor. But something like a Substack… At the end of the day, I see a lot of creators popping up at the moment, and some are monetizing and things like that, but you’re building your business based on an existing business model, and you’re sort of hoping that Substack aren’t going to change their commercialization rules, or they’re not going to just shut down if they’re not making certain dollars and their investors pull them up. You’re sort of putting your eggs in a basket you can’t control, but the trade off is, I can just sign up and get started on it, I don’t have to worry about anything.

Ben:
But I see that sort of stuff, and it just, it makes someone like me uncomfortable because I think, if that site was to turn off overnight and just disappear. And if you look back over the course of the internet, it has happened, not frequently, but there have been sites that have just disappeared, and people have lost everything that they’ve published. Servers got destroyed, they lost the backups, didn’t work, and off you go. So I see all these people creating on Substack and things like that, and I think, I hope that it never happens, but that’s the risk you run by using something you have no control over and you don’t own that data.

Vivek:
Yeah, no. I remember back in 2008, there used to be a bunch of blogging platforms. There was Blogsport, there was Blogger, Blogspot, Blogger, whatever. There was WordPress of course, there was Strangler, which was a pretty big thing back in the day. There was Posterous if you recall, it was acquired by, I think Twitter or Microsoft, and then they decided to just shut it down. A lot of people had a lot of their content on Posterous, and it just went kaboom.

Ben:
Even more recently, like Tumblr, the amount of creatives on Tumblr, and then all of a sudden it sort of froze. Ironically got purchased by WordPress, by Automatic. But if you were relying on that, it sort of completely froze for a period, and then their business model changed. It’s a bit different now to what it was originally, like that micro-blogging tool.

Vivek:
Yeah. And something similar sort of has also happened to Medium. Medium came out as a publishing tool to start with. Then it became a destination somewhere in the middle. Then they started selling custom domains, somewhere down the line that happened.

Ben:
And then subscriptions, and they sort of built, and built, and built.

Vivek:
Yeah. Black box subscriptions, where I would just get value, what value? I don’t know. Some promised value, and then today it probably is the most confused version of publishing that exists today as we speak.

Ben:
Yeah.

Vivek:
And it also leads to that question that, “Hey, what do I truly own on the internet then?” So on one hand you said that instead of the likes of Instagram, Facebook and stuff, which is way more controlled, way more tighter, then there is Google lands somewhere there. What’s on the other side? What does that side look like?

Ben:
The side of total ownership?

Vivek:
Yes. Let’s first define what does total ownership imply, and then also, how does it look and feel like? And what would it do to you? What are those pros for you?

Ben:
Yeah. For me, having something like all your content, as an easy example, all your articles sitting in a WordPress site, because you know that you have that database, and if you wanted to build an integration that exported XYZ, and did something to it, transformed it in some way, you could just plug that in and off you go. Compared to, if you said, “I want to pull out, and I have 10,000 articles on Medium, but I want to pull out everyone that’s tagged this way, and I want to do that.” If they don’t give you a way of doing it, you actually have no access to your own content to do that. So, that’s an easy example. Another one, using commenting on sites. So, talking about Discuss, is kind of like a Medium for comments. You just embed this little bit of code, and commenting works. But there’s a lot of value in the gamification and audience building of something like comments, especially. We work with a lot of niche or specialty publishers.

Ben:
So they often have very dedicated, loyal fan base or followers, and they spend hours on the comments every day, and that’s a lot of value being created on your site. And if it’s not sitting on something like Discuss, you can’t create trophies or leader boards or whatever else that suits your industry. If you’re a publisher in a specific niche, you may be able to tie in to what you’re talking about. If you write a lot about sports, you might be able to type in, “If you do this many comments per month, and get this many upvotes, you become like a coach”, or whatever that is. And gamify it, and you give full badges and you sort of reinforcing more people time on your site. So I think those kinds of opportunities is a well of owning that data, gives you the ability to do things with it later on, and have the freedom to move it around, manipulate it, change how it works, things like that. If you’re commenting is just purely done on Medium, it’s going to work the way Medium says commenting works and that’s about it.

Vivek:
Yeah. The fact that your fate depends on somebody’s future decisions, is what a lot of publishers have been to, and it’s just not a pretty place to be in, in general.

Ben:
And often it’s something that’s not thought about until it’s too late almost, or you get a… Another really popular one was, and not so much in publishing, but content management systems, was the Adobe Business Catalyst, which was a content management system that hundreds of thousands of small businesses were using to power their websites, and then Adobe just sort of said, “We don’t want to run this anymore. You’ve got three months until it turns off, you better go build a website somewhere else.” So that only happened in the last two or three years, so that’s a much more recent experience of using these sort of SAS or things like that. So, the trade off is the responsibility to run that. But again, in the WordPress ecosystem, there are a lot of managed platforms that still allow you to own the data and own the product, the code, the everything about it, but they’ll run on a managed platform, so you don’t have to worry about servers, or PHP versions, or code upgrades, and stuff like that.

Ben:
And that things like WordPress VIP, or WP Engine, Pantheon, all the other hosts that exist. So, that’s sort of that middle ground between infrastructure as a service, and software as a service. So Medium is like a software as a service, and using AWS’s infrastructure as a service, you kind of have this middle ground now as platform as a service. So it’s like, we’ll manage the platform for something like a WordPress, or Drupal has the same thing, build a platform on top of us, we’ll deal with all the technical stuff underneath, but run from there. So there’s a lot of that in the last, I think five years, that’s kind of making it a lot easier. It’s still not a silver bullet, making it a lot easier to run those platforms and things like that.

Ben:
Even, I guess the other example for that is Automatic, and parent company WordPress, has built in a news pact product, which has been sponsored by Google and a few other big donors and things like that, and that’s around local news and journalism, same thing. It’s giving you a platform, and it’s giving you some specific tools, and kind of narrowing down the millions of options you can get stuck with WordPress if you just start a new site. They’re sort of saying, “We have QA’d these 50 things. This is what comes with it.” You can set up a site really easy, but again, it’s all open-source. You have full access to everything. The way they test it is, can I just pick it up and move it elsewhere? And if you can, then you own that data. You have access to everything. If you say, “Can I just pick up and move it elsewhere?” And they say, “No, all you get access to is a backup, and it’s a proprietary backup.” You have to then figure out how to reverse engineer it. That’s not really open.

Vivek:
Yeah. It’s amazing these examples. And specifically to the one that you gave around commenting. A piece of which a lot of people just take it as, “So what?” People would assume that piece to be sorted out, but it’s actually in its own way, a big bubble [inaudible 00:24:00].

Ben:
Yeah.

Vivek:
There are so many people doing, trying to make it more interesting, more engaging, more [inaudible 00:24:14] and so on and so forth. And then obviously, it generates an incredible amount of value for publishers. It creates fresh content, so much value. And to get stuck with someone, that just does not sound good. It just does not sound good.

Ben:
Right, exactly. And that’s the thing you’ve got to be really careful of. Some of these bigger vendors, they’re not likely to disappear overnight. But A, you can’t be sure ever, there’s no guarantee. Especially the biggest thing is if it’s a free, Discuss has a free version that people use, and it injects ads, I think, and stuff like that. So if it’s free, you’ve really got no leg to stand on if they disappear. If you pay, that’s usually a sign of a good business model and you may have more of a chance. That would keep me up at night, if that was my business.

Vivek:
No, I completely agree. So interesting. So, there is the domain that you own on the internet. Thankfully, there’s nobody lending out domains right now. You buy to own the domain name, which is the brand, of which [inaudible 00:25:19]. And then the content, which eventually becomes more and more accessible to you as you go on this side of the spectrum, which is either IAAS which is Infrastructure As A Service, or a platform as a service, if you choose one of them, and then [inaudible 00:25:41] going this way. You’ll only probably get your content, but nothing beyond that.

Ben:
Yeah.

Vivek:
Fantastic. So that’s a comparison between WordPress and Medium. What is WordPress, versus a [inaudible 00:25:57], a Substack, or a WordPress, versus a Patreon and so on and so forth. Let’s take this to the next level, which is… So this is obviously where I post my content. Now, let’s look at the distribution channels as well. What can you own from a distribution point of view, and what can you not own from a distribution point of view? We do know for a fact that Facebook painted a story where they told publishers that they own this audience, or their fan for the [inaudible 00:26:33], or the likes is what they own, but that wasn’t clearly the case. We’ve heard enough horrifying stories where Facebook told people that they need pay, which is kind of funny. On this side right now, how would you paint this spectrum?

Ben:
Yeah. I think the purpose of distribution is that you are kind of going after those existing audiences. So, your domain is kind of like the street address, you’ve got an address, but no one’s going to necessarily come to it. Promoting your content through other channels is a way, I guess, of getting it in front of other people that may not have come across. So, that’s even similar as like posting something on LinkedIn and either natively or paid promoting it. And the most common ones we see are things like AMP, which obviously has a good result in search and things like that. But also something like Apple news is a really big one in media and publishing that you’ve got this walled garden of Apple news content, and an audience that may not be going to your site already, or may not know about you. But if you can hit that home page, you may get a new follower and things like that.

Ben:
I think those sorts of platforms, they aren’t a creation tool. They’re purely a channel to distribute content and they’re getting better, because I think they know the reality that commercial publishers need to know things like audited numbers, and time on site, and time on article, and they need to be able to run their own ads and they need it. So, they’re compromising a bit in giving some of that flexibility away, but at the end of the day, I think if you said you were an Apple news business, then that’s highly risky again. I think I was listening to an interview the other day about a magazine in the UK, and they just relaunched and they did a app and Apple news launch. So the Apple news plus, or premium or whatever it’s called.

Ben:
And I think they’ve had about 50, 50 adoption. So 50% of their audience has gone to the native app, and that’s something that they have more ownership over, more control. But purely from the flexibility and things like that of using Apple news plus, they pay like a monthly fee to Apple and they get a whole bunch of other content for free. So, it’s smart to use those channels, but it’s got to be contingency plans of that not being there. How do you pivot and react, or apple, maybe, they’re looking at doing, it’s not really a podcast, it’s like audio versions of news in Apple plus and things like that. And there’s all these other knock on effects, so how do businesses respond to that? So you’ve got to have contingencies, otherwise you’re stuck and have to play the game they want to play, otherwise, you have no leg to stand on, nothing left.

Vivek:
That is so true, getting stuck, and from a decision point of view, everybody accounts with their own legacy, everybody accounts for their own focus, they’re working with their own priorities. Facebook priorities change from text to images, to comments or likes, to videos to now more using their content rather than brand content. But God knows what’s Apple’s focus.

Ben:
It’s always hard to say. These big companies, they obviously have different priorities, and at the end of the day, if they can’t make significant revenue out of Apple news, they may say, “We’re going to shelve it, or retire it, or make it more simplistic or…” It’s hard to say. So you’ve always got to have these things in mind as a risk to manage.

Vivek:
Got it. Yeah. So again, the three authors that I personally follow. There is Ben Thompson, who writes for Stratechery. There is [inaudible 00:30:41] who writes on [inaudible 00:30:42].net, and then there is [inaudible 00:30:46], he’s a media analyst based out of the U.S. All three of them have reduced, have always been their domain, their website first. They have not created a blog in Medium, they’ve not created any massive following, or only Facebook approach, or only a particular approach. They’ve sort of taken a win, calculated most of this, where pretty much everything is published first on their website, then on their newsletter, their email newsletter, and that’s when once these two are done, that’s when they start pushing some of very small snippets of the content on a LinkedIn, or a Twitter, or a Facebook, to attract audience to the final destination. The final destination itself, always, and always, and always remains their own websites, their own brand, where they can truly control the experience of the user, and so trying to convert them into their own audience so to say.

Ben:
Yeah. And it makes sense to leverage those channels where you can, and sometimes you maybe put something up, a full post on that article and things like that. And the thing is, I saw someone talking about this recently, they don’t really use Medium anymore, but they have 6,000 followers on Medium. So, there’s an opportunity to cross link and bring that back in. So you wouldn’t go and say, “I’m going to make a publishing business model on just tweeting news.” It’s going to come from somewhere else and you’ll share it on Twitter. So I think if you think of those platforms the same way, you’ll be in a pretty good position.

Vivek:
Right. And it becomes a very interesting choice for low Medium’s daily publishers, for people who have a long term view, a long term commitment towards content creation in terms of… The way you have created this, the trial actually becomes very simple, rather than being very complex. The choices own the damn platform, own the damn content, and that’s a 100% always. It’s no longer a choice between this versus this, it’s really this and this, but this is from [inaudible 00:33:24].

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Ben:
Yeah. And maybe it’s something… That’s a transition, maybe if you’re in your first year or two of business, and you can’t afford to build a site, or don’t have the time, maybe something like Medium gets you up and running, or maybe something like Substack gets you up and running quickly. But at the end of the day, you’re kind of making somebody else’s site, or product, or platform richer, because of your use and you’re paying them for the privilege, and not getting all of the value that you would have had if you did something with that data. The flip side of that is, there are people who have good products and platforms and publications, but are never going to do anything with that data, and maybe that’s okay. They don’t care. If I’ve got a thousand subscribers to my newsletter every month paying, I’m making more than enough revenue, I don’t need to grow it anymore.

Ben:
I get a few new subscribers, I lose a few, but more or less it works. So, in that case, maybe that’s enough if the status quo is it. And that’s when I think you’re seeing a lot of high profile journalists and columnists from big newspapers and stuff sort of leave, and just go and spin up a Substack. And within a month they can be making 20 grand a month writing their column every day, and that’s maybe that’s enough. So I think that’s where, if you look at an individual… I still would always prefer to do it in an owned platform, but appreciate the fact that for a nontechnical person, if you’re a writer who wants to just get a message out there. One of these less-owned platforms on that end of the spectrum gets you your audience.

Ben:
I mean, you look at influencers on Instagram and things like that, their value isn’t coming from any of the data or content, it’s simply a numbers game. But at the end of the day, if they ever got de-platformed, they’ve got nothing to move on to. If they broke a rule, or Instagram shut down, or abandoned their type of postings, they’ve got zero. You’d hope they could get their domain names so people could find them again, if they even remember their handle. So, as long as people are aware of the risks and the game that you’re playing.

Vivek:
Literally yesterday, a friend texted me that, “Can you ensure that you are not using WhatsApp to send any payment links? Because WhatsApp is coming hard after people who are using WhatsApp to send payment links and get payments out. They want payments will be done on their own platform going forward at some point in time.” And almost to the extent that their account got blocked, and they, as a business, they only had a WhatsApp running.

Ben:
Right.

Vivek:
They were enabling end merchants, sell efficiently on WhatsApp. For their sellers, WhatsApp payments, sending payment links on WhatsApp was extremely important thing. And the moment that got taken away, their pretty much high and dry, and these rules change.

Ben:
Yeah. That’s a good business planning and continuity assessment. If you were a merchant that only took PayPal dollars… And actually this happened in Australia after the bush fires earlier this year, a comedian celebrity raised, I think it was the largest fundraiser in history of Facebook, tens of millions of dollars got raised. But the way it was worded and the specifics, the money couldn’t actually be distributed the way they wanted it to, it’s been locked up in court for months. It was all because it was managed through Facebook’s donation system and things like that. How do you manage that as a business? Things like WhatsApp and payments or something like PayPal, if you only use PayPal and for whatever reason your accounts gets suspended or frozen or whatever else, and you haven’t got the cash, those things can bankrupt the business.

Vivek:
It can. Absolutely, yes.

Ben:
Good thinking has to go into that.

Vivek:
Yeah. But again, [inaudible 00:37:33], the choices will vary whether you’re an individual or a business and what’s your image at the end as well. Then it obviously dictates what you use and what do you not use, but as long as it’s a conscious and aware choice, life is better.

Ben:
Absolutely. As long as it doesn’t come to you as a surprise later on, I guess, is what you’re trying to avoid. That’s ultimately the decision and the more you own, the more you control, the less you have to worry about. Similar comparison, if you rely on Uber to get to work and if it’s down, if you owned a car, you can just get in and drive. But if you rely on another system, you’re at the beck and call of the app’s getting maintenance at three in the morning when you needed to get to the airport. You can’t do anything about that. If you owned a car, you’d be able to just get in and drive and control that situation, so similar comparisons.

Vivek:
Yeah. You just described me.

Ben:
Yeah, there you go. That’s why there’s five ride sharing apps now. So, there’s always one that works.

Vivek:
Yeah. It’s interesting that how something as fundamental as ownership is not discussed aggressively on these platforms, because it’s critical, it has far lasting effects on the business in the longterm. And you get…

Ben:
I would say, if you look at a publishing business, a lot of the value is the content and that archive of content. Their audience, their brand, their traffic, these are all valuable things, but a lot of those things can be affected by the actual content. And if you ever have exit plans, how do you sell everything that’s been created under that name, and all that sort of stuff. So there’s a lot of things to consider, a lot of things.

Vivek:
You know what, thank you so much for this lovely conversation, Ben. Very interesting.

Ben:
It was great to talk about it.

Vivek:
Very insightful, yeah.

Ben May

Ben is Managing Director of The Code Company. He is passionate about working with publishers on clever and innovative ways to solve complex problems. He works with The Code Company team on all projects, bringing his perspective and problem solving skills to deliver great outcomes.

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