Tech giants won’t change their spots, no matter how hard the government, ACCC, and publishers try

Flimsy brand boycotts and attempted government intervention won't be enough to hurt Facebook and Google, Sabri Suby argues. And the ACCC's plan to make the tech giants pay for news will ultimately hurt, not help, news outlets, he says.

Earlier this week, the ACCC announced it’s taking Google to court for allegedly misleading Australians to get more data to use in targeted advertising. And by the end of this week, the watchdog is expected to publish draft rules forcing Facebook and Google to share revenue generated from news with the original publishers.

Over in the US right now, there’s yet another Senate hearing featuring Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai. These are just a few more examples of governments trying to force the tech giants to change: attempts that have failed at every turn.

Australia’s Digital Platforms Inquiry, the U.S. Senate hearing, and various brand boycotts have all resulted in nothing but tiny shifts that made absolutely zero dent in Facebook or Google’s bottom line.

In 2017, Facebook made USD$40bn in ad revenue, then USD$55bn and then USD$70bn. Clearly, government intervention and Senate hearings aren’t doing anything to damage Facebook’s earnings potential.

Facebook has been attacked by campaigners – mobilising around the #StopHateForProfit campaign – for months, but even their plan for advertisers to boycott the platform for 30 days was only predicted to cost Facebook just USD$250m in ad sales – a tiny portion of the tens of billions it makes annually. And if brands are only willing to step off the platform for 30 days, what does that say about how important Facebook must be to their business?

The ACCC’s latest plan to make Facebook and Google pay for content will ultimately hurt, not help publishers, and will result in nothing but traffic flatlining and news businesses dying. Like it or not, Google and Facebook have the duopoly on attention right now, and forcing them to pay for traffic will spell nothing but bad news.

This isn’t just my opinion: it’s a historical precedent. When Spain told Google to pay publishers for excerpts and snippets in 2012, Google shut down Google News in Spain rather than pay.

Facebook has already made it incredibly clear how they feel about Australia’s orders. Facebook ANZ managing director, Will Easton, said the social media giant was “disappointed by the government’s announcement”, and pointed to a global $100m fund to support journalism during the COVID-19 crisis and $5m in Australia to help news platforms monetise audiences via Facebook.

Media outlets are ultimately in the business of selling advertising, and they need all the eyeballs they can get on their content. Media outlets need to focus on innovating and looking for other ways to monetise, so that journalists can continue providing the vital service that Australia loves and continues to rely on. This includes trying to monetise their services at the front end.

Facebook and Google have built killer digital marketing systems, but many publishers have become addicted to the drug. The truth is, your digital strategy should be strong enough to survive without Facebook and Google. If it isn’t, then you’ve got far bigger issues to worry about.

When publishers blame algorithms and decreased organic reach on their social media fails, what’s really happening is a failure to understand how people think. If you can fully understand a potential customer’s psyche and drill down into what drives them, it’s still possible to gain traction on social.

But in order to fully future-proof their businesses, publishers need to find ways to monetise that don’t rely on anyone else. They need to spend time and money building their marketing stack, pulling in email subscribers, and finding ways to share their stories that are 100% in their control.

Almost every other business in the world has accepted that they need to pay to play on Facebook and Google. The opportunity these platforms provide is simply too good to miss out on, and they’re willing to buy ads to be seen.

If publishers don’t want to play this game, that’s fine. They just need to find a new way to attract readers to their content, to keep them interested, and keep them actively engaging with their articles.

At the end of the day, Facebook and Google are massive public companies with shareholders to please. They’re not going to bow down and completely deform their business model to suit the whim of the government, and any attempt to force their hand will only harm publishers instead of helping them.

This is why having channels that you can control is so important. Rather than trying to change a leopard’s spots, publishers need to learn how to change their own.

Sabri Suby is founder and head of growth at King Kong


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