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Remember when digital media upstarts like Mashable, Buzzfeed, and Vox Media were the new talk of the media industry? Well, those days may be coming to an end. In what has been described as a “fire sale,” Mashable was recently sold to Ziff Davis at a heavily discounted price of just $50 million. Moreover, significant layoffs are on the horizon.
Just 12 months ago, VC investors had valued the company at $250 million, a new focus on video content seemed to be paying huge dividends, and advertisers were buying into the concept of “native advertising.” So what went wrong?
Maybe “native advertising” is no more profitable than “traditional advertising”
What made Mashable so unique was its push into “native advertising” – a sort of mix between content and advertising that forever blurred the line between what was “real news” and what was really just a very clever ad. You can think of sponsored stories, in which advertisers pay media sites to publish content on the site, as one of the most popular types of native advertising. For a time, this was a cash cow for these media companies. At a time when traditional advertising had all but dried up, here was a fresh new source of revenue.
But guess what? It looks like the days of native advertising may be coming to an end. If you parse the press statements coming out of Mashable and Ziff Davis carefully, you’ll see that there appears to be a new emphasis on “affiliate commerce.” In this new business model, the way you make money is by simply posting content with plenty of links to websites that are selling things. If readers buy those products, then you collect a commission. So – here’s the scary part – get ready for lots of new content on the Mashable site along the lines of “Top 10 televisions to buy this holiday season.”
It’s better to focus on one industry or vertical
Another lesson from the Mashable sale is that trying to go wide into a huge number of content areas is less effective than going deep within just one content area. Again, if you parse the press statements carefully, you’ll see that Mashable is going to double-down on the tech industry and the “tech lifestyle.”
After an ill-fated period in which Mashable was branching into all sorts of new content areas with the potential for clicks and links, it’s now clear that the best possible content strategy is to focus on only one thing and do it very well. As many new readers as Mashable might have been pulling in by going very wide, it was also turning off an equal number of readers who viewed Mashable as a tech-first publication. People soon got tired of all this watered-down content.
Video is not the savior we all thought
The third and final lesson from the Mashable sale is perhaps the hardest one to accept, and that’s the notion that video content is not going to save media companies. For the past 12 months, companies like Mashable have been moving away from text-driven content (i.e. articles) and moving toward slick video content that had more potential for attracting advertising sponsors. Again, if you read the press statement from Mashable, there’s an allusion in there to the misguided efforts to focus so many resources on video.
So, going forward, what’s the big takeaway lesson from Mashable and the other digital media startups like Buzzfeed (which itself is also hurting, as evidenced by recent plans to layoff 100 workers)? We may have reached a point of “peak viral” – the moment when the collective Internet is being crushed by all the crappy content out there vying for our eyeballs.
Internet users are getting tired of inane listicles, stupid articles (“Which ‘Game of Thrones’ character are you?”), assorted forms of link bait (“You won’t believe what your favorite celebrity from the 1980’s is doing now!”), and desperate media executives trying to turn the Internet into a dumbed-down version of TV with ad-friendly video content everywhere. The Mashable sale should be a wakeup call for everyone.