Think Apple News is Going to Save Your Traffic? Think Again.
In a year where Facebook has pushed publisher content further down the news feed (and further down their list of priorities in general), Apple News has seemed to be a relative bright spot in the ongoing tug-of-war between publisher and platform. Pre-installed on millions of devices, Apple’s news aggregator allows publishers to reach large audiences in a clean environment, then monetize them through both ads and paid subscriptions.
For some publishers, the resulting bumps in traffic have made Apple News’ potential to supplement declining pageviews appear promising. However, as a recent Slate article points out, this traffic has yet to translate into real revenue. Some optimistic publishers are gladly queueing up for future monetization opportunities, waiting around as if it were the release of any other Apple product. But in the meantime, publishers should exercise caution to prevent themselves from pinning their hopes on yet another platform to drive pageviews.
A “Publisher-Friendly” Platform?
Dedicated to maintaining the user experience associated with their namesake, Apple News' team of publishing veterans handpicks their featured stories, giving avid news readers a reprieve from noisy Facebook algorithms.
The careful hand of this team has won over users and publishers alike, earning Apple News its reputation as the most “publisher-friendly” of the platforms. In addition to its potential for expanded reach, Apple News has consulted with publishers to provide ways to generate revenue within the platform. Publishers can serve ads in the Apple News versions of their articles, as well as sell subscriptions directly through Apple, removing much of the friction from the paid subscription process.
Unfortunately, Apple’s tight grip on the user experience doesn’t just mean that Apple owns what happens on their platform; it also means that Apple owns the audience. Apple News keeps readers within the platform itself, which cuts publishers off from 1) their ever-important first-party data and 2) the increased revenue publishers can drive with that data.
Publishers may have the ability to place ads in Apple News, but advertisers are understandably hesitant to buy into a space where they know little about the audience. The lack of data also stifles publishers selling paid subscriptions. The New York Times points out that Apple retains full ownership of the paid customer relationship, refusing to part with so much as an email address. It’s a steep price for publishers to pay — to say nothing of the 30% cut that Apple takes off the top of each paid subscription.
As a result, publishers are seeing modest returns from the platform. While Apple News may open up monetization opportunities in the future, the present tells a very different story: Slate reports that the revenue they saw from 6 million Apple News views was equal to what they made from just 50,000 pageviews on its own site. Perhaps just getting readers to see content is a positive, but when readers rarely remember the source of a news article when they arrive at that article via platform, it’s not much of a consolation prize.
The Importance of Audience Relationships
Apple justifies their cut of each subscription by maintaining that they bring in subscribers who wouldn’t otherwise convert, but it’s hard to say whether these readers would have eventually converted because Apple News prevents users from getting a direct channel to reach and nurture these readers. This points to a broader problem with platforms.
Even with the potential afforded by Apple News, looking to a platform to supplement traffic is still a classic case of building an audience on borrowed land. As publishers who amassed large audiences on Facebook have found, a single shift in the platform’s priorities is all it takes to cut publishers off from their platform audience.
Strong reader relationships are at the foundation of publisher success. Without a direct link to the audience, publishers will find it difficult to grow and nurture these relationships, ultimately limiting the lifetime value publishers will drive from each member of their audience. While Apple’s tools for driving paid subscriptions may provide initial conversions, it remains to be seen whether publishers will be successful at keeping audiences engaged and subscribed without a direct relationship.
Making the Most of Apple News
With Facebook’s days of delivering endless traffic long gone, many publishers are instead approaching Facebook as a way to bring readers to their owned channels, and publishers can do the same with Apple News.
Some publishers show abbreviated versions of their articles in Apple News, requiring readers to click through to their site to see the rest of the article. Other publishers have started including newsletter subscription forms in their articles, giving them an opportunity to get a direct link to their audience, through which they can deliver content straight to the reader and gain first-party data from them.
While Apple News may lead to traffic spikes for some publishers, it’s important to avoid falling into the same old trap of betting too big on the platform. Whether the traffic is delivered by handpicked curation or a cold algorithm, it’s pursuing traffic for traffic’s sake that led publishers to let audience relationships lapse in the first place. Apple News may be “publisher-friendly,” but history shows that an overreliance on any platform that stands between you and your audience is not, over the long term.
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