Rise of the Distributed Domain

New platforms and traffic patterns give rise to a new form of measurement that’s critical to digital media success.

The battle for audiences will be fought and won “off-platform,” on distributed platforms where published content is presented and consumed away from a publisher’s own controlled user interface platform (app or website)…sort of. Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Google Newsstand, Google AMP1, Snapchat Discover — these are all important players in the game of reach. And there is no shame in wanting that reach. Journalism cannot have an impact without a reader or a viewer — but when you grow your audience off-platform, what are the implications?

Many have written doomsday scenarios around this, and many of the points seem somewhat fair. There are merits to both sides, and we will continue to debate this for some time. But to start, are we even speaking the same language? What exactly is distributed? What’s on-platform? Never mind how we count it all or prioritize the players.

Strategy lies in the contours of many of these off-platforms. Given that much of what we’re talking about is technical and nuanced by implementation, the winners will be the ones who understand where the opportunities are and build positions there quickly.

Distributed semantics?

Google AMP is not a distributed platform as defined above. And it really has nothing in common with Facebook Instant Articles other than the fact that it’s 1) mobile and 2) fast. AMP is based on a technology that’s been around for a long time; HTML was written by your publisher’s developers. Google just gathered the industry to rally around a mobile standard to make it perform better. The traffic goes to YOUR domain2 and, as such, falls in the traditional “referral traffic” bucket, a.k.a. “on-platform.” It’s owned and operated content: You control it and can edit and optimize it in real time. You also control the user journey, conversion funnel and monetization levers, including all associated advertising pieces. Let’s call this good ol’ domain and referral traffic.

Snapchat Discover, on the other hand, is a distributed platform in its full glory. It was one of the first off-platform products that publishers embraced as a vehicle NOT meant to drive traffic back to the almighty publisher’s own domain. The presentation is uniquely custom to Snapchat, the edit and optimization of content is only partially controlled, with the monetization and analytics entirely out of the hands of publishers. Chat applications such as Kik, or even chatbots — they will likely all fall in this bucket. Facebook Messenger? Well, that’s still to be seen. In general, these distribute off-platform experiences that are more custom, built specifically for specific platforms and devices. This is generally a new and creative space for publishers, but the monetization and analytics pieces are still unfolding. These characteristics all define the pure-play distributed off-platform paradigm.

What about Facebook Instant Articles? Is it distributed? Again, there is nuance here. The truth is actually somewhere in between the publisher’s own domain (on-platform) and distributed (off-platform). While Facebook Instant content technically lives off-platform, it offers many of the same elements that referral traffic to a publisher’s domain does. Not fully, but a ton more than, say, Snapchat Discover — to start, comScore counting and monetization equal to that of web traffic on Publisher’s X domain. Also some control over content presentation, editing and optimization within the article, and even some extra features to play with. There are some elements that are lost, like the conversion funnel pieces that are very important to publishers who are looking for subscribers. But Facebook is also pushing to open more tools for publishers to give them better levers. This marks the rise of the Distributed Domain: something that sits in between referral traffic on-platform and pure-play distributed off-platform.

Platform specialists

An important point to note is the strategy involved in thinking through all of the platforms. However, this is not strategy in the traditional sense. It does not come from sitting in a boardroom or reading through trade publications. This comes from working within the platforms and understanding the live changes and opportunities that are occurring. The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece on The Rise of the Platform Specialist:

“Publishers are increasingly posting content directly to platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat, so readers don’t need to visit each publication’s own website or app. But each platform they work with has its own technical requirements, processes, hurdles and pace of evolution.”

“Publishers need to understand how many people are accessing their content, how to generate revenue from it through advertising and other means, and what type of content is best suited to which platform. Meanwhile, someone needs to be on the lookout for the next hot app or service.”

Every publishing company that values the distributed landscape must have someone within their organization who sits between editorial and business that is helping to manage these platform relationships. This role is vital in that it manages the relationships, helps to shape the production on the ground level in the newsroom and also guides the company strategically on decisions around volume, monetization, user retention and the like.

Adaptive storytelling

Platform specialists are in some ways organic outgrowths of adaptive storytelling. Adaptive storytelling is the platform-by-platform approach for creating and producing journalism across various surfaces and devices. The idea is that what is created (written, designed, produced) for the likes of Snapchat Discover is not the same as what is created for, say, Apple News or video that is built primarily for a desktop viewing experience. Adaptive storytelling or adaptive journalism also takes into account the devices on which users are consuming content:

“It’s a return to storytelling with a device-first sensibility. One of crafting news and news experiences that put the user first. The most exciting part is that it gives room for experimentation — demands it, in fact.”

There are “gifts of the device” that the publisher can take advantage of when creating the content. For example, viewing 360 video on mobile is an experience that can be tied into your phone’s accelerometer and viewed by physically moving your phone around. This is not something that a user can experience on desktop.

If you take this adaptive storytelling approach to the platform and distributed world, you’d know that both YouTube and Facebook now support 360 video within their platforms. It would be the job of the “platform specialist” to understand those new capabilities, and to think about what creating that kind of content means within a newsroom and where it falls on the priority list.

Strategic outlook

Platform specialists and adaptive storytelling are very much a part of how we are thinking at Mic. We’re also looking at our goals for growth in two clear categories: Unique Visitors (on-platform) and Distributed (off-platform). For now, if we can count comScore and fully monetize, it goes into the former. For Facebook, Instant Articles slots in there. If Apple News begins to count comScore, it would also fall into the Distributed Domain for us. Publishers will likely see more of this Distributed Domain category, as platforms open up and work with publishers in a more integrated way.

Why does it matter? Because it’s the future. But aside from that: Additive channels across the distributed landscape are how digital players will grow big audiences. Fully understanding how to count, optimize and ultimately monetize these channels will be key. We’re still in the early days, and the landscape will continue to shift. We are widely optimistic, bullish even, that every single new platform offers an opportunity to reach new users. We just want to make sure we are accounting for each and every one of them in the best way possible across our business.

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