For media brands in 2016, it seems that the hip thing to do is ditch your website.
BuzzFeed set the tone this month, when, during a keynote at South by Southwest Interactive, BuzzFeed unveiled Swarm, an ad format that lets advertisers run campaigns across BuzzFeed's websites and social platforms, including Vine, YouTube, Snapchat Discover, Instagram, and Facebook. The ad product in effect makes BuzzFeed a syndicator of content rather than a traditional publisher.
Another recent example is Clique Media Group, which introduced Obsessee, a new brand aimed at Generation Z young women that can be found on many of those social platforms, as well as Periscope. Katherine Power, Clique Media Group's co-founder and chief executive, said that she believed, "at a certain point as publishers we will largely be distributed content on social media platforms rather than on our own domain."
Should brands take the hint, scuttle their branded URLs and embrace a distributed format? It makes sense to adopt strategies to increase share voice, but there are some key issues with the approach:
1. Social Media Networks Are a Shaky Foundation.
It should be noted that anti-homepage sentiment is hardly new. Way back in 2010, Pete Blackshaw, now the head of digital and social media for Nestle, was asking "Do brand websites still matter?"
What did matter back then? Facebook. The thinking at the time was that, since your target audience spent so much time on Facebook anyway, why try to lure them away to your branded site?
This held true until at least 2012, when one study showed that about 50% of consumers thought that a brand's Facebook page was more useful than their actual website.
Shortly after, Facebook became less important for brands. The company tweaked its News Feed algorithm so that fewer organic posts showed up. As more older users piled on, Facebook became less hip. Now, mobile takes up the majority of users' time. Meanwhile, other social media networks have risen to prominence, like Snapchat and Instagram, which have become "must haves" for many brands.
While BuzzFeed's social-focused strategy will increase its share of voice, it's not a winning strategy for brands. As past history has shown, social networks are fickle. They may be hot one year and cold the next.
2. It's Better to Own Rather Than Rent Data.
A bigger issue is data. If you build a huge network of fans on Facebook, then Facebook owns the data about your fans, not you. If you can persuade those fans to come to your site, however, you alone will own that valuable data.
Marketers are just waking up to the importance of harvesting their own data. Just 24% of marketers currently manage their own data platform, according to a December 2015 CMO survey by SocialCode. By distributing your customer outreach on social media sites, you are giving up the opportunity to cultivate first-party data.
Employing such data allows for better targeting of your content. If you identify your likely audience, for instance, your would-be viral video has a better chance of catching fire than it would if you relied on third parties like Facebook, Google and their disparate data.
3. Context is King.
With social networks, there is a constant risk that your content will show up on a feed next to material that has no contextual link to your brand. Your content has just as much a chance of appearing next to a TED Talk as a cat video, and viewers' associations with your brand can vary widely as a result.
Additionally, social networks are still not inherently conducive to branded content. Users use Facebook to connect with their friends and family. When users are focused on their friends' and families' status updates and photos, editorial content will always struggle for engagement.
You have a better chance of controlling the conversation around your content by supplementing it on your own web page. That way, you can cultivate an audience that will be more receptive to your content.
A False Choice
What makes sense about BuzzFeed's approach is their intention to increase their share voice. The mistake is the idea that you need to rely on social networking sites to do it.
Ultimately, the decision to forego a website is based on a false choice. Social engagement can be achieved by optimizing for share rates on your own web site or on contextually relevant sites on the open web, where brands also have the benefit of consistency, context and control of data.