“Over the past 20 years, we have seen publishers online focus more and more on what we call random news and features. We end up just producing a bunch of random articles that nobody cares about. The solution is to be specific. And that means saying… ‘We are not random. We are not just clicks on a random scale. We are more specific in what we try to do as a business.’ ”
Is Facebook a niche media company? Accepted wisdom when it comes to defining niches in media seems to be that they are built around subject areas with companies going deeper into those spaces to cultivate and ultimately monetise community-based audiences.
One person who has a slightly different view of what niches are in the media, and how this definition could change publishers’ perspectives, is Thomas Baekdal.
He recently wrote an article that piqued our interest in which he argued that Facebook was a niche. So, he agreed to talk to MX3 to expand more about his theory.
As we discovered, he also has some fascinating and insightful views not just on niches but also the creator economy and how, if generative AI had become widespread five years ago, the media landscape would look very different.
Thomas, who is based in Denmark but works with companies across the globe, marries his consultancy media work with the cultivation of his platform Baekdal Media. The site delivers a range of reports about the media industry, focusing on future trends, editorial and business strategies, monetisation models and more.
It is offered at three tiers. Baekdal/Basic is a free newsletter about media news and trends. Baekdal/Plus is a weekly newsletter for journalists, editors, and audience development managers. And Baekdal/Executive in-depth media reports helping editors-in-chief and executives define their publications better.
He has a somewhat unique perspective given that much of his experience in digital media stems from the fashion industry rather than the media. It was the lessons he learned in the mid-00s that formed the basis of how he sees the media world now.
Facebook as a niche!?
But come on – can you really describe the huge, sprawling, content-diverse social platform Facebook as a niche? Thomas clarifies his terms.
“The first problem is that niches mean a lot of different things. In journalism, we often think about it as a topic or maybe an area. So we say that politics, for example, is a niche.
“But when I talk about niches, I think they can be a lot more than that; they can be a type of behaviour. So a podcast is a niche because it’s a specific form of consumption that is distinct from other things. The reason why Facebook is also a niche is because it is tied to a specific type of movement. People come to Facebook as they want to see what their friends are up to or they are bored and are looking for something to click on.
“The fundamental thing here is that it is a moment where you are not specifically focused on any specific post or topic, if you just go to the Facebook feed.”
Thomas believes that this behaviour pattern doesn’t actually fit well with what the media is trying to achieve.
“There are two fundamental trends that have been proven not to work for the media. The first trend is traffic at scale. We can’t get that to work. The reason is that it’s only the big platforms that have tons of people who are posting their own things can get that model to work, and for everyone else who can’t do traffic at scale, it just doesn’t make any sense.
“And now that Facebook has dropped a lot of the links to publishers the whole trend is just coming tumbling down.
“The other trend is randomness. Over the past 20 years, we have seen publishers online focus more and more about what we call random news and features. We end up just producing a bunch of random articles that nobody cares about.
“And so the solution to both those trends is to be specific. And that means saying… ‘We are not random. We are not just clicks on a random scale. We are more specific in what we try to do as a business.’
“This is regardless if we are a paper magazine, newsletter or podcast. We have to somehow find a way to get people to think I want to have a news or media moment, where people come to the news because they want news, not because they just are clicking a random link on Facebook.”
Why Europe leads the way in niche publishing
Thomas also makes the point that he believes the days of media companies chasing traffic so they can scale won’t be returning.
“I think that era is over, and it is not coming back. The whole concept of putting up quizzes about which Disney princess you are is gone for good.
“People click on silly things and that’s just human nature. But there’s been a noticeable shift throughout the Internet of what kind of content works and what doesn’t work.”
Another interesting perspective that Thomas holds revolves around the geography of where the trend toward niche media began. The English-speaking world tends to see a shift that has occurred recently as a reaction to the issues of scaling audiences, however, Thomas argues that it is a trend that has its roots in smaller countries.
“If you look at the Nordics, Holland and Belgium and all the smaller countries. They can’t do BuzzFeed because the population required to deliver that type of scale doesn’t exist.
“So every other country outside the US has had to try to figure out how they can do things in a different way that still makes sense in their language.”
Thomas believes that this trend has been exacerbated by the decline in traffic that media sites are getting from social media.
“If you are a US publisher you still have a lot of traffic from social media platforms. It’s significant. But if you are operating in a smaller European country and if you lose the same proportional amount of traffic, it’s basically game over because suddenly you’re down to a level where you can’t run a business anymore.”
Will the creator economy end up defining niche content?
One of the side effects of the shift to niche publishing has been the growth of what has become known as the creator economy – individuals building up audiences for their niche content via email newsletters, podcasts and sometimes blogs and websites.
We are at the beginning of a journey with these creators, and it will be fascinating to see if they are able to evolve from individuals and small groups into fully-fledged, flourishing publishing companies.
There is a precedent in that the mid to late 00s saw a wave of individuals create businesses from the back off blogging, YouTube channels and podcasts.
I wondered if Thomas believes that this process is going to be repeated in the coming years. It turns out he is not convinced that it will.
“The problem with the creator economy is that much of it is built on free content – newsletters, podcasts etc. There are a ton of people thinking that if they just create a newsletter they can make a living from that. People don’t realise how difficult it is to run a media company.
“The problem is that we hear about the really famous people, who already have a huge number of followers and then they create a newsletter and then suddenly they have 10,000 paid for subscribers. That is not achievable for everyone.
“The other thing is that in order to turn this into a business, there is a huge gap between just creating a newsletter and actually becoming a media company. And I know that all too well, I’ve been dreaming about trying to expand my business. So instead of it just being me, I wanted to have a business with five, six people. But the problem is, that the difference in scale between being independent and having even a small publishing team of five or six people In terms of revenue, it’s a catastrophic difference. I haven’t figured out how to do it myself. So most of the people who start on a subject will never get anywhere else.”
Can generative AI help niche publishers to scale?
Finally, we address the issue of the day – generative AI. Much has already been written about the potential of AI in delivering mainstream content, but might it also help niche publishers to scale?
“Right now, there are two very different forms of AI. One is the kind of AI that’s all about creating as many articles as cheaply and as easily as possible. And that’s AI for the low-end market. It has no role if you are an independent, ambitious publisher, as it simply degrades your value. And if you’re already a small publisher, you need to enhance your value as much as possible.”
Thomas does, however, see the potential of AI in a second guise.
“I work with a publisher who is into healthcare. Now there’s a huge opportunity to use AI to help create more personalised healthcare solutions that can be used in a public sense. So instead of just having a magazine that is writing about generic health tips, they can actually use AI to tailor content on a very personalised level.”
For mainstream generative AI, Thomas thinks technology could have had a very different trajectory had it become mainstream five years ago.
“There’s actually a very interesting point about this that relates back to the era of scale publishing and Buzzfeed and Vice, etc. One of the reasons why AI isn’t working for English language publishers is because they’re too late. If they’ve done this five years ago, back when BuzzFeed and those quizzes were at its peak, then all these content sites celebrity/culture AI sites would have absolutely boomed.”