The value of traffic in the age of AI

Scott Purcell
By Scott Purcell | 19 January 2024
Scott Purcell.

This article, by Man of Many co-founder Scott Purcell, is reprinted from the third edition of Man of Many's MoM's the Word Newsletter.

The publishing industry has faced unprecedented challenges over the past year. From the distressing record of job losses to a marked decline in referral social media traffic, 2023 has been a year of upheaval. As we enter 2024, the industry braces for further disruption and change (or, as we often frame them to our own team, 'opportunities'). The looming deprecation of cookies is predicted to cause a precipitous drop in programmatic ad revenue, fundamentally altering online advertising economics. Additionally, integrating AI into search algorithms, notably Google's Search Generative Experience (SGE), is poised to redefine content discovery and consumption, posing new challenges for both brands and publishers.

1. The Value of Authentic Organic Traffic and Native Content
In an era of digital inundation, where users are constantly bombarded with content, particularly short-form mindless videos, the true underlying value of authentic organic traffic and native content has skyrocketed. A study by IPG Media Lab highlights that native ads and content are viewed 53% more than traditional display ads, emphasizing the importance of content that resonates with and engages the audience on a deeper level.

In the realm of native content campaigns, the average engagement time remarkably ranges from 2 to 5 minutes, a clear indicator of robust and active audience involvement. This engagement duration starkly contrasts the fleeting attention span typically observed in the industry, where a mere second is spent on display ads and only 2.5 seconds on out-of-home placements. This stark difference underlines the effectiveness of native content: users are not just passively glancing but actively engaging, spending longer with your brand. This level of interaction signifies a conscious choice by the audience to engage with your advertising, showcasing the inherent value of native content in capturing and retaining consumer attention.

Brands seeking a genuine, active, engaged audience should capture this crucial opportunity. With the immense value publishers bring in creating content that resonates deeply and authentically, they are uniquely positioned to craft experiences beyond surface-level engagement, offering brands a gateway to meaningful interaction with their audience. This approach transcends traditional impression metrics, instead focusing on establishing genuine connections and delivering insightful, impactful experiences that captivate consumers and drive genuine traffic. While social media's ultimate aim is to keep you on their platforms, publishers have the ability to drive much-needed informed referrals through to purchase.

Brands partnering with publishers can thus leverage this expertise to effectively reach and engage their target audience in a more substantial and lasting manner.

2. Impact of AI and SGE on Google's Search Results
The integration of AI into search engines and search result pages, especially Google's SGE, signifies a seismic shift in the digital landscape. This change is not just technological but also economical. In 2022, Google's revenue from search ads was a staggering $162.45 billion, accounting for 58.1% of its total earnings. As AI becomes more prevalent in curating and presenting search results, there is a potential risk to this revenue model. For brands, this shift means adapting to a new paradigm where visibility in AI-curated search results becomes crucial.

Targeting and spending with publishers with established authority and credibility who stand to gain in this new environment would be a smart bet, as AI algorithms tend to favour content sources that are recognized as trustworthy and authoritative.

Further, Google faces a complex balancing act in preserving its dominant ad revenue stream while integrating AI into its search engine. The company's reliance on search ad revenue, which formed a significant portion of its earnings in 2022, is at risk of being disrupted by its own innovations in AI. This introduces a strategic dilemma: advancing AI integration without undermining the primary revenue source. For publishers, this represents an opportunity to emphasize the value of their content in an AI-dominated search landscape, where quality and authenticity are paramount.

3. The Rising Value of Publisher Content
The proliferation of AI-generated content (or, as some have referred to it, the tsunami of crap) has inadvertently highlighted the irreplaceable value of original human-written publisher content.

At Man of Many, we've implemented our own policies regarding Artificial Intelligence, firmly upholding the priority of original, human, and expertly written content. While we are cautious about incorporating AI-generated content on, we fully recognize AI's significant role in enhancing our business processes. From utilizing custom GPTs for various operational tasks to exploring the potential of AI-driven chatbots, we are actively engaging with AI technologies. Our approach is to harness AI for innovation and efficiency while maintaining the high standard of authentic and expert-driven content that our audience values and expects.

We also understand that high-quality, current data is crucial for training and improving these models in the AI and machine learning ecosystem. Recognizing this need, major tech companies are entering into significant licensing agreements with publishers. For instance, in 2023, OpenAI and Microsoft brokered deals worth millions to access up-to-date, reputable publisher content. This trend underscores the growing importance of original reporting and insights, which are key in training AI models and providing them with the required fresh, accurate data.

It costs Google millions of dollars to crawl the web, and if all it's finding is regenerated crap from AI, this does not hold much value for them or for users. Instead, it seeks to find and reward content that adds to the existing knowledge base, where much of the value lies.

4. Trust in Publishers vs. Influencers
In the age of AI and the proliferation of so-called self-proclaimed expertson TikTok touting financial investments or untested medical advice, the trustworthiness of content sources has become a focal point in the digital landscape.

A recent Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) investigation found that over 80% of influencers engage in potentially misleading advertising practices. This revelation casts a shadow on influencer-driven content and highlights the contrasting reliability of established publishers. Publishers like Man of Many, adhering to strict editorial policies and standards recognized by industry bodies like ACMA and the Australia Press Council, offer a bastion of credibility.

This trust, earned over years of consistent, transparent reporting, is a potent tool for brands looking to partner with publishers. The depth and authenticity of content from such publishers foster deeper connections with audiences, creating a fertile ground for meaningful brand engagement and effective product education.

5. The Changing Traffic Landscape and Referral Revenue
The digital traffic landscape for publishers has undergone significant changes in recent times. A marked decline in free traffic from major social platforms has been observed, particularly amongst news publishers as news media bargaining arrangements are being litigated and negotiated in countries like Australia and Canada, coupled with questions about the efficacy of paid traffic. Research by Parse.lyindicates that referral traffic from Google and Facebook has decreased by approximately 40% for some publishers.

In this evolving context, traffic from trusted publishers for brands becomes increasingly valuable, as it also becomes rarer. Not only does this traffic tend to result in longer site engagement, a crucial factor for deep audience education about products and services, it also has the ability to drive substantial revenue for brands. Man of Many's own experience in generating millions of dollars in referral revenue for affiliate partners is a testament to the power of traffic sourced from trusted publishers. It demonstrates how publisher-driven traffic can deliver prepped, informed potential customers, a stark contrast to the often fleeting, less engaged audience driven by social media platforms.

6. Industry Trends and Publishers' Diversification of Revenue
As the publishing industry stands at a pivotal crossroads, with traditional revenue streams under threat and emerging new opportunities, Man of Many is strategically adapting to these transformative times. The anticipated decrease in programmatic ad revenue, largely due to the deprecation of cookies, has been a catalyst for us to innovate in diversifying our revenue streams. This approach aligns with insights from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) report, emphasising the importance of leveraging first-party data to offset potential ad revenue losses.

In light of the industry survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which reveals that nearly two-thirds (63%) of digital leaders express concern over the sharp decline in referral traffic from social media, Man of Many is focusing more on direct channels and direct messaging platforms like Instagram's new Broadcast feature. This shift aligns with the broader industry trend, where around 77% of publishers are turning their attention to their own platforms in response to the changing digital landscape.

Expanding into new verticals such as original video production, merchandise, podcasting, and events, Man of Many is deepening brand engagement and offering unique experiences. Our merchandise line aligns with the lifestyle and interests of our audience, while our video content, podcasts and events provide platforms for immersive brand experiences and community engagement. These initiatives reflect our response to the survey findings that publishers are increasing their efforts in video (+64 net score), newsletters (+52), and podcasts (+47).

Additionally, we're optimizing our ad stack to prioritize viewability and enhance user experience, balancing effective monetization with audience satisfaction. This approach aligns with the latest IAB recommendations, aiming to improve the user experience on our platform, thereby enhancing the impact and effectiveness of advertisements for our brand partners.

Furthermore, the industry's shift towards subscription and membership models is echoed in our approach, with 80% of surveyed publishers considering this an important revenue stream. This aligns with our own efforts to explore similar models and other innovative content delivery methods. As publishers aim to strike lucrative deals with AI platforms, we are mindful of the survey's finding that only a third (35%) believe these benefits will be shared equally, prompting us to approach these opportunities with caution and strategic planning.

7. Looking Forward and the Roadmap for 2024
Facing a confluence of challenges, including regulatory pressures and the saturation of digital ads, publishers are compelled to adapt, but for the reasons stated, the value publishers have to offer remains promising. The prospect of AI-generated content crowding the market brings both challenges and opportunities.

These industry changes necessitate publishers to focus more on producing original, authoritative content that can stand out in an AI-dominated landscape. Additionally, the potential of AI to disrupt traditional content distribution models means publishers must innovate in content delivery and audience engagement through new avenues like events, podcasting and subscriptions. Embracing AI for its advantages while navigating its challenges will be key for publishers looking to stay relevant and profitable in this new era.

As we look ahead to 2024, Man of Many is excited about the opportunities that these industry shifts present. Our audience, peers, and industry partners can expect us to continue delivering high-quality, engaging content across our platforms while exploring new ways to connect and provide value in a rapidly changing digital landscape. Smaller and more agile publishers are better equipped to navigate the ongoing and dynamic changes expected to persist into 2024 and beyond, and hopefully position us not just to withstand current industry challenges but to thrive.

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