A realization is sinking in for publishers as they look ahead to 2024: The era of organic distribution appears to be drawing to a close, and those wishing to drive traffic to their owned and operated properties should expect to pay for it.
Platforms and tech companies have made clear in recent months that they have little desire to distribute content from publishers unless they’re paid to do so, or it’s posted natively to their platforms where they can monetize it directly and vacuum up audience data.
INMA’s researcher-in-residence, Greg Piechota, wrote last week that publishers should “rethink” or “revamp” their distribution approaches in the face of these changes, but the reality is they may have little choice in the matter. Publishers looking to reach new audiences (and most likely large segments of their existing audiences) are increasingly being forced to pay for the privilege and will need to find the budget to do so.
That’s easier said than done. Few publishers currently have business models in place that can support the cost of paid distribution, and the additional overhead could make their current approaches unsustainable. Still, publishers that fail to find paid approaches that work for their specific products and audiences could struggle to survive if organic distribution disappears entirely.
For primarily ad-supported publishers, striking a balance between distribution costs and revenue from the lumpy advertising market could be particularly tricky, and their ability to invest in distribution could ebb and flow to mirror demand from advertisers as a result. This dynamic is already being felt by newsletter-centric publishers, many of which invested heavily in paid acquisition to establish audiences and are now finding themselves on distribution treadmills where they’re forced to spend monthly to maintain their topline audience numbers.
For publishers operating subscription and membership products the economics around paid distribution may prove clearer and easier to manage. The shift could have significant implications for conversion funnels and subscriber acquisition approaches, however, and may fundamentally change the underlying economics of their subscription businesses. Many have oriented their acquisition approaches primarily around attracting and nurturing engagement through organic channels in recent years, for example, but as organic distribution dwindles, paid distribution could become table stakes for subscriber acquisition.
Publishers that do find ways to bake paid distribution into their models may at least find their businesses are more predictable and less exposed to the volatility and changing whims of third parties. That will likely require shifts in organizational mindsets and resource allocation, with audience development and other platform optimization roles slowly being replaced with people (or technology) to manage investments in paid distribution instead.
Most successful digital media companies have one thing in common: the ability to adapt and survive as the ground shifts beneath them. As the era of organic distribution winds down, publishers that figure out sustainable models for paid distribution could find themselves best positioned to succeed (and survive) in the years ahead.