Aggregators vs. traditional publishers: why are aggregators winning?

Forget platforms and publishers and platisher hybrids for a minute. Let’s talk about traditional aggregators (who also fall somewhere on the spectrum). Aggregators are websites that collect specific content from other sources, often curating content on their own site. Although they can create content, they are mostly known for collecting it.

An optimist would hope that the source of the good content gains all of the success. But it’s simply not the case as aggregators can oftentimes outperform traditional content creators. Let’s explore why.

Theory #1: online aggregators are able to package and market content better than traditional publishers

Aggregation is not new to new media. It has a firm tradition in print media, where newspapers often took facts compiled by local smaller newspapers and ran those facts in their own stories and vice versa. The Associated Press is also arguably an aggregation service, and nearly every print news publication uses this service (they just pay for it), according to media professor Steve Buttry.

Of course, a lot of aggregator sites on the web are new media. They aren’t based in that “you scratch our back we scratch yours” mentality. Since attribution online is easy via linking, many of these sites do just that. This is where their success lies: they are able to package the content in a more accessible way. Those snippets containing the most important pieces of the story are desirable for our short attention spans.

What would you rather read: a 2,000-word article or a 500-word one? Aggregators use this short-form content technique to keep audiences engaged. Of course, there’s a big difference between posting snippets and sentences to prove a point vs. posting entire paragraphs of articles from other content creators.

Let’s look at one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world, The New York Times. In its leaked internal report that was released this past May, one of its major concerns was not seeing this traffic.

“On Oscar night, The Times tweeted a 161-year-old story about Solomon Northrup, whose memoir was the basis for 12 Years a Slave. After it started going viral on social media, Gawker pounced, and quickly fashioned a story based on excerpts from our piece. It ended up being one of their best-read items of the year. But little of that traffic came to us.”

As Bill Keller for The New York Times once wrote, “There’s often a thin line between aggregation and theft.”

Theory #2: aggregators and hybrids are social media masters

Online aggregators are a part of a new media culture that outsmarts traditional media publications with its social media marketing techniques. What drives a lot of traffic to site nowadays? Social media. Facebook drives nearly a quarter of all traffic to websites, and for BuzzFeed that referral traffic even surpasses Google.

Traditional publishers have been gearing towards a more digital shift for years with the decline of newspaper circulations. The New York Times is one of the last of these traditional publications to make the shift to a more digital newsroom, laying off 100 staffers but hiring more multimedia journalists in the process. It’s great content that’s being shared, but it’s the company that best markets this material that reaps the most benefits.

Theory #3: a better comments section

This one is more speculative, but I’d suspect that comments sections play a part into which source people sometimes click on for the same content. Oftentimes, people are compelled to read an article to jump in on the conversation, and aggregators are more likely to keep their comments sections. Traditional publishers often carefully monitor what is published and what is not, and a large amount of news sites including The Huffington Post, ESPN, and USA Today have banned anonymous comments all together. For aggregator sites (and ones that do create some original content), a contemptuous comment section could actually increase traffic.

Plenty of new media publishers are doing well on the internet because they understand how to package news for a digital audience, they are online marketing wizards, and they maybe have a comments section. It’s the traditional publishers that seem to be losing out, especially to aggregators who can do all of this just as well as new media publishers.

Image: Justin Swan/Flickr

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