Facebook recently developed policies and a public relations narrative that it is determined to kill clickbait.
The narrative suggests that Facebook is the good guy. It goes stomping out the “bad actors” in the digital media ecosystem — the websites that load up their pages with ads and come up with headlines that are optimized to generate the most clicks.
“People tell us they don’t like stories that are misleading, sensational or spammy,” wrote Facebook engineers Arun Babu, Annie Liu, and Jordan Zhang in a May 17 Facebook blog.
Apparently, people like these stories a lot.
Facebook has generated billions of dollars in revenue from ads that would technically fall into this category. Most publishers would agree that BuzzFeed is the mother of clickbait and has “most favored nations” status with Facebook executives.
BuzzFeed is a big client of Facebook. Facebook supported BuzzFeed’s clickbait operation for years while taking in untold millions of dollars of revenue. Facebook has given Buzzfeed millions of dollars to produce more content. Facebook also gave BuzzFeed early access to new marketing features, effectively giving the clickbait operation an advantage over high-quality publishers.
Marc Andreessen, co-founder and partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and a long-time Facebook board member, is a close ally of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. Andreessen announced in 2014 that he had invested $50 million in BuzzFeed, something many see as a conflict of interest.
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BuzzFeed has consistently received early access to new tools from Facebook to grow their business — tools that high-quality, non-clickbait publishers never received. By Facebook backing their client BuzzFeed so heavily, Facebook indirectly influenced the birth and growth of other publishers who copied BuzzFeed’s clickbait business model. Now that Buzzfeed has reached scale with its preferred Facebook relationship and very good clickbait techniques, it is jumping off the clickbait train, just like Facebook.
A good amount of advertising dollars were moved over from high-quality journalism to BuzzFeed’s cat and dog listicles and Facebook was the middleman enabling this massive value transfer.
Social media analytics provider Keyhole looked at 1,500 posts by @BuzzFeed on Twitter to calculate how many of them were clickbait and wrote about it in a Nov. 12, 2014 report.
Based on that sample, 63 percent of BuzzFeed’s posts had clickbait titles, according Saif Ajani, Keyhole co-founder.
Facebook has been a massive profiteer and enabler of clickbait operations and now that it controls nine out of 10 new digital ad dollars with Google, it has room to clean up the damage it created and act like the good guy.
I have been in this digital media industry for over 10 years and I don’t recall an actor that has drained so much value out of the industry while putting very little back in. Facebook is the crack dealer who exploits the community (publishers) and then invests money in more and better policing in that same community, once the profits and dominant positioning are clear from the original crack dealing.
When analyzing Facebook’s self-righteous attack on clickbait, we must first ask ourselves why are publishers feeling so desperate to load up their websites with ads and get more clever with their headlines? Where is the desperation coming from?
Google and Facebook have a “duopoly” over digital ad revenue, accounting for more than 90 percent of all new ad dollars, according to Axios. A new report by market research firm eMarketer reinforces the difficulties facing digital publishers as they try to create revenue opportunities amid a scarce digital ad environment.
The eMarketer study estimates Google and Facebook will continue to devour the $83 billion U.S. digital ad market, with Facebook growing to account for a third of all display advertising and Google growing to take 78 percent of all search ad revenue this year.
Facebook is absorbing an inordinate amount of pressure on the media landscape by soaking up more and more advertising revenue. Facebook itself is driving down CPMs or cost-per-thousand ad impressions, forcing publishers to be more creative and more desperate in trying to maintain a profitable business model. Additionally, Facebook has a poor track record in working with small and medium-size media businesses, showing minimal care for them or the sustainability of the industry.
This void from a lack of care and service opens up doors to “clickbaity” ad tech actors to come in and work with publishers to deliver revenue. Facebook has stretched this door wide open by soaking up so much advertising in the zero sum game while also showing little interest in the problem of how small and medium-sized publishers generate a profit against the backdrop of a Google and Facebook duopoly.
Many publishers are unhappy with the monetization on Facebook’s Instant Article pages, Digiday reported. Important partners like The New York Times gave up on Instant Articles after tests found that links back to the Times’ own site monetized better than Instant Articles. Many others have cut back on content pushed to the IA platform.
Rather than attacking clickbait, Facebook is better off addressing publisher profitability and dropping more of its cash hoard to its media partners who give it free data and content.
Facebook is not to be blamed for getting acquisitions right (Instagram), for working hard lobbying the Obama administration to keep quiet on consumer privacy and antitrust, and for getting a lot of other things right.
However, experienced media executives know that Facebook’s PR narrative is just as misleading as the clickbait it is suddenly trying to remove from the platform.
If Facebook’s exclusive partner BuzzFeed is the mother of clickbait, Facebook is the father.
I recently talked to other C-suite media executives at the Digiday Moguls summit in Colorado and a consensus is forming that Facebook is a net negative for the media industry.