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An Open Standard for Commercial Content Syndication

There has been some talk recently on the need for a new way to distribute and remix news. See more info here, here, here, and here.

I want to add my voice to the growing chorus. I have been thinking since July 2010 about the development of a distributed, open standard that supports commercial content syndication. There is a lot to be said on this subject, and all of the above links are well worth reading. My end goal is not just to talk about this standard, but rather to make something happen. I am determined to push the ball forward on getting this standard developed. I see this post and a few others that I plan to write as a way to keep the conversation going.

For this blog post, rather than just echoing what other links have said, I want to focus specifically on why open commercial syndication works for publishers. There are two main reasons.

  1. Publishers need to fully control their content.
  2. The economics of digital content indicate that syndication of this type makes sense.

To expound on point 2, publishers consistently fail to maximize the revenue potential of their best content. A regular pattern exists across most online publishers (especially news) where a relatively small number of visitors to content sites account for a large proportion of overall content consumed (example figures: 20% of unique visitors account for 80% of content consumed). These visitors constitute the dedicated core of the site’s audience: people who identify with the publisher, like the editorial packaging, or in the case of many daily newspapers, are geographically associated with the publisher. Publishers do a pretty good job monetizing this group. If they could truly focus on providing the best experience for these particular people, they could do an even better job at monetizing them.

The remainder of the visitors (the lion’s share) consume a much smaller percentage of the content. These are people who either:

  1. Searched for something on a search engine and landed on the site.
  2. Received or read about a link to the site from somewhere else, increasingly through friends via social media.

Attracting visitors from search engines has been a primary focus of publishers for a few years now. Many publishers have become very good at attracting visitors by optimizing their SEO practices. Despite these efforts, this strategy has not yet resulted in materially higher revenue for publishers and is not sustainable in the long term. There are two key reasons for this:

  1. Online publishers still operate with the goal of maximizing page views (although this is slowly changing). This encourages the practice of creating content that will attract the largest audience from search engines, as opposed to creating great content that will find its way into the hands of the people who really benefit from that content. As a side note, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the search engine work hard to match content to consumer, as opposed to having the content producer work so hard to satisfy the demands of the search engine? And on that point…
  2. In order to return the best results, search engines will continue to refine their algorithms, making it more difficult for publishers to create a lasting advantage by utilizing SEO.

Social sharing, however, is on the rise and is making up larger and more significant portions of publishers referral traffic. The key here is that the publisher’s best content is being shared and linked to. This stands to reason. Your friends wouldn’t tell you about an article or post  unless they thought you should read it. As opposed to SEO, this method of content sharing is sustainable and on the rise.

Publishers cannot effectively monetize these users because they typically don’t stick around a website after reading the original article. They are not regular visitors to the site, not loyal to the brand, and the user experience on the site is not crafted to keep them engaged. If a publisher could effectively distribute these visits for higher dollars, they would take advantage of that opportunity.

  • What does Jay Rosen know about content syndication?

    [...] he’s fairly sure about journalism. Since most of my thinking these days is about how an Open Standard for Commercial Content Syndication represents one way to sustain high quality journalism, I thought I would relate his thoughts to how [...]