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    Publishers Debate: Compete or Collaborate with Walled Gardens?

    Sarah Hartland | Industry Analysis | 26th November 2019
    Publishers Debate: Compete or Collaborate with Walled Gardens?

    Publishers are rightfully concerned with the fact that huge search and social content conglomerates such as Google and Facebook are dominating the digital advertising market. Typically, they have reacted to this state of play in one of two ways: by either trying to compete with these so-called walled gardens, or by joining forces with them.

    But which approach leads to the best results for the people who really matter: the advertisers?

    Should publishers give in meekly to the ‘can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ mentality that’s been lining the pockets of these companies for well over a decade?

    Or should they take stock, take a stand, and find profitable ways to compete against them?


    We’re in a Unique Age of Digital Domination

    The advent of digital has brought with it a dilemma for publishers and their advertisers. It is possible to reach a wider audience than ever before – but, in most cases, only if customers are willing to pay a premium for exposure with the globe’s biggest and most influential Big Tech firms, such as Google and Facebook.

    Many publishers are embracing the challenge of taking on these closed publishing ecosystems. They have confidence in their methods, and they want to prove to their customers that their brand is in fact in safer hands when it’s away from the monopolistic claws of the big corporates.

    Others, however, believe that the walled gardens created by such companies are making it nigh on impossible to compete for reach in the wider market, and that inter-provider collaboration is the only way to guarantee results for their customers (and keep their business afloat).

    The Case for Competition

    A growing percentage of today’s publishers are refusing to collaborate with Google et al because they’ve been burned by them in the past – or because they simply don’t trust them to deliver the exposure their advertisers need.

    The topic of trust has come to the fore in recent years. A series of antitrust investigations have been exposing the monopolistic practices of Big Tech, particularly in the US, where 50 state attorneys general recently opened investigations into Google’s advertising policies. High fluctuations in traffic from these providers haven’t improved their reputation for stable, consistent results, nor have the withdrawal of many features from these platforms that were intended to help publishers share, and profit from, their content.

    Facebook’s Instant Articles, for example, died a rather timely death after just two years thanks to inconsistent reporting and a lack of opportunity for monetization.

    Read Also: Sales Teams MUST Understand How They Differ From Big Tech

    The technical challenges involved with cooperating with these companies are also proving to be barriers to successful collaboration. Many Big Tech firms, not least Facebook, expect publishers to build their own separate content injection API, a process that is costly, time-consuming and inconvenient.

    In fact, walled gardens are notoriously cagey with their data as a whole, making it difficult to remove and activate key information from their own systems and thereby rendering it incompatible with other aggregation platforms that might have better (read: more relevant) features for publishing houses.

    This has led to many publishers relying heavily on their own first-party data as their main insights to the market. Doing so might be seen as restrictive, but the upside is, at least the company in question has complete control over how much of this data is released, and who sees it.

    When considering the case for competition, we also need to look at the way in which the buying public are responding to ads from various channels. Research has proven that people are sick of screens covered with paid search ads. In fact, a report from Nielsen goes so far as to say that local media receives three times higher consumer trust and 2.5 high positive sentiment compared to ads from high market-share platforms. The bottom line? Customers are losing faith that what they’re being presented with by Big Tech is going to meet their needs. And as a result, they are becoming more receptive to ads from magazines, TV and newspapers; the kinds of placements dealt with by smaller, perhaps local firms.

    Read Also: Is the Google Antitrust Probe a Sales Opportunity for Publishers?

    It’s no wonder, then, that publishers struggle to keep up with these ever-changing goalposts – and want to base their strategy around their own models instead. By shunning collaborations with walled gardens, these companies can focus their efforts on forging stronger partnerships with other smaller, more niche providers who may be able to deliver similar value, just in a different way.

    The Case for Collaboration

    Google and Facebook are not only dominating the publishing space but directing it. In essence, they are doing a lot of hard work by blazing the trail. All collaborators need to do is keep up – and use the features and innovations delivered by Big Data to the advantage of their customers.

    Sure, this means letting go of control over certain data. But a key argument for collaboration is that shared data equals better data. Having access to the insights shared by walled gardens benefits the whole of the market - as long as this data hasn’t been manipulated for these companies’ own gain, of course.

    And here we are, back to the elephant in the room. The issue of trust. Those who are still keen to collaborate should be encouraged by the fact that some big tech CEOs, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, do appear to be addressing publishers’ concerns head-on. Zuckerberg admitted just last month during a media conference that  “we can do a better job of working with partners to have more transparency and also lead time about what we see in the pipeline.” He and his team are adamant that they “optimize the [news content publishing] system for facilitating as many meaningful interactions as possible” – not to keep users on the surface for as long as possible, as they have been accused of in the past.

    As much as we may protest their own-property-led algorithms and their historic unwillingness to nurture ties with publishers and news organizations, we must remember this: regardless of their practices, Google, Facebook, and the other major content players aren’t going to disappear any time soon.

    Yes, more needs to be done when it comes to establishing a more level playing field for publishers (and proposed policies such as the Journalism Competition & Preservation Act are going to go some way to alleviating publishers’ concerns). But the fact remains that these companies are leading the market because they have nailed a model that, for the most part, works. According to a survey from Adform, some 13% of publishers even believe that walled gardens simplify revenue generation and the distribution process. Despite the bad press, there are publishers out there who are happy with what’s on offer and who will keenly collaborate

    Which approach will work best?

    Both approaches have their own merits. The only way that publishers can decide whether they want to compete or collaborate with Google and Facebook is to consider their long-term goals, then determine how the features on offer from each platform will help them achieve them. They also need to think about where they stand on content sharing and control, data ownership, and the availability and accuracy of their reporting metrics.

    There’s no reason why publishers can’t adopt a dual strategy that allows them to compete and collaborate in equal measure.

    And there’s no reason why publishers can’t adopt a dual strategy that allows them to compete and collaborate in equal measure. After all, collaboration doesn’t mean giving in to Big Tech. It just means keeping their biggest adversaries onside – and using access to Big Tech’s products and policies to better inform their own strategy.

    Can we really compare smaller publishers with Big Tech firms, anyway?

    Regardless of the relationship they have with Google and Facebook, smaller publishers must remember that they offer something different from the tech giants of today. They’re unique from Big Tech in three important ways:

    1. Advertisers trust them, because they have control over where their customers end up on the web.
    2. They can not only prove campaign ROI, but also deliver recommendations that add value to their offering. It’s an element of personalization that Big Tech struggles to emulate at scale.
    3. Crucially, they the capabilities to deliver omnichannel campaigns in a much more agile way than the bigger firms – and this is key in a market that’s increasingly embracing the combined power of digital, print, OOH and events advertising channels.

    There is most definitely an argument for publishers to focus to their own strengths, not Big Tech’s well-documented weaknesses.