Is a user’s heaven a publisher’s hell?

  • 1
  • July 10, 2015
Scott Mason

Scott Mason

Head of Content

The user finds herself in life, the universe and everything in digital marketing. She is the primary focus in the minds of all great marketers. Ignore her at your peril.

But what if too much focus on the user makes life harder for marketers or, more specifically, publishers and content creators? What if the eternal quest for the perfect user experience destroys the souls of the very people planning, producing and populating it?

In a similar manner to when Facebook Instant was announced a few weeks ago, Apple’s introduction to Apple News, the goliath’s new content curation app, threw up the argument about the future of great content and how we take it to people who want and need it.

What does the future of such app development mean for publishers and content marketers? How does it affect how they approach content? Will it make their lives better or worse?

Time, as it always does, will tell, but the evolution of editing and content curation has re-gripped my mind of late and the fruits of those thoughts have found their way onto this here page.

Selling fruit

It could be argued that Apple simply wants to be the juiciest apple of them all and will do everything bigger and better than Facebook and Google to achieve it. It’ll host the best content with the best design in the best app and force consumption on the masses.

This cynical point of view is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that Apple is actively recruiting for Editors for the News app in California, whose sole responsibility will be to work with “some of the world’s finest publishers” to find “the best and most timely” content to host for its users. Surely, this is just another gimmick; the app market is over-saturated as it is.

However, it’s obvious that users want the best content with the best design in the best app, so Apple News is good news for people who like to keep things neat and, of course, people who like great content.

Apple evidently wants it all (why wouldn’t they?) and their designers certainly make content look and feel very beautiful and accessible for users. For publishers, though, there’s a certain smack of totalitarianism in the very creation of Apple News (as well, I hasten to add, as the likes of Facebook Instant, so this is not to pour scorn on Apple alone).

Optimisation for users leads to frustration for publishers, insofar as apps like Apple News control the content that makes it onto the screens of those who matter.

Apps like Apple News and Flipboard look fantastic, but the premise is still content curation that is, by nature, controlled by somebody other than the actual creator of the content.

With that in mind, there are two immediate challenges that publishers face here:

(1) Apple News adds another layer of editing to the content publication process


Apple’s Editors will “manage relationships with some of the world’s finest publishers” to “help News users find the best and most timely coverage of major news events”, so they’re akin to fruit pickers for a supermarket. They’ll pick only the best-looking apples and pears to put on the shelves for the public to peruse.

This is great for great content, but it’s only great content according to the Editor and her subjectivity.

Content that has already been edited and approved by the publisher must go through another round of approval before the Apple News audience can see it, which takes the whole concept one step further than traditional journalism in decades-old newsrooms.

This naturally means that publishers have a bigger job to do to get their content in front of relevant users, especially if they don’t happen to have strong relationships with Apple’s Editors.

In that case, the future of content consumption will be more about handpicking and force-feeding than free-searching.

The answer? Build relationships. When something like Apple News becomes a way to get content in front of relevant users, build the necessary relationships and do it. There’ll only be another innovation in a year’s time that’ll force a rethink. It’s the survival of the fittest, after all.

This does present the argument for small publishers with limited resource, who’ll almost certainly encounter difficulties in actually getting their content in front of the fruit pickers in the first place.

However, whilst I’m most certainly not ignoring the following by any stretch of the imagination, The power struggles of publishing feels like a rather lengthy essay in itself, so I’ll add that one to the ‘To write’ list.

(2) Apple News will become competition for actual news sites

The app will allow publishers to republish their content in a much slicker format (this itself raises eyebrows as far as app indexing and duplicate content are concerned), but to the detriment of their own site metrics when it comes to traffic and engagement.

If a content experience with a brand is better in Apple News than it is on its website, users will, of course, be naturally drawn to the former.

Apple News will have its own reporting functionality, so the brand engagement will still be measurable (albeit slightly more laborious). However, fighting for budgets for site improvements and promotional activity for content might become more difficult and probably pointless if content hosted on external apps is performing better than content on the related website.

The challenge, then, will be deciding how to balance content budgets across the ever-growing list of media. On-site metrics and, indeed, websites as a medium will likely become far less important as the immediacy and accessibility of content evolves via the likes of apps and wearable tech.

Apple News might see content marketers shuffle budgets around to accommodate, but, in its most basic form, it adds yet another task to the day of a publisher who wants and needs to get their content in front of a target audience.

Curation apps like these may, via the unerring investment in the development of their user experiences, inadvertently reduce the mere website to the mouldy fruit that nobody wants.

The answer? It’s the survival of the fittest again. Those who don’t adapt to their surroundings won’t reap the benefits of a long and fruitful life. When something like Apple News comes along, the least productive stance, of course, is to renounce it out of principle of control.

It might be brilliant, it might not, but at least test it to see how readers respond to it.

Publishers, keep thinking like users

The internet as a medium, whether we’re talking about apps or sites, is not about telling users what content they should be engaging with; it is about giving them the freedom of choice, the freedom to browse and the freedom to consume whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want.

Innovative media like Apple News, Flipboard and Facebook Instant are all part of the user experience revolution that’s presently charging its way through the digital marketing sphere. It’s the revolution that makes life a little harder for publishers, but often so much better for users.

As long as publishers keep people happy with consistently great content, people will keep publishers happy with consistently great engagement.

The way in which the content is consumed is simply part of the ever-changing environment to which we must continually adapt, so a user’s heaven can also be a publisher’s heaven (but only for the publishers who want to go to Heaven).

It only becomes a hell for the publishers who can’t and don’t keep up with the increasingly innovative ways for their readers to consume their content. Granted, it’ll take a bit more effort to make said content work, but it’ll take just as much apathy to make the audience and the brand drift apart for good.