Why Facebook-Style Big-ism Is Bad for Digital Media

Digital Investors Crave the Next Huge Thing -- But Ubiquity Isn't Necessarily the Best Way to Reach Audiences

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Foreign Affairs, the venerable magazine published by the Council on Foreign Relations since 1922, recently made a big announcement that was two years in the making.

It didn't release a new mobile app. It didn't debut a revamped website. Nor did it start issuing its influential journalism via Instagram or Snapchat.

No, it -- drum roll, please -- announced a boost in combined total circulation for its print and digital editions. Specifically, per Foreign Affairs' press release, "Between January 1, 2012, and January 1, 2014, total audited circulation rose from 151,077 to the current 165,002 figure -- representing an increase of 9.2 percent."

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I confess that my first reaction to that news was: How adorably old-school! Because, you know, nobody in the pure-play digital-media world ever talks about -- or would ever think to brag about -- slow, steady incremental growth.

It seems that everything in digital media these days, inspired by the Facebook model, is supposed to aspire to hugeness/ubiquity. Twitter, for instance, gets grief because it has a mere 240 million global users vs. Facebook's 1.2 billion. Pity the poor fool whose digital platform or content "only" reaches 100 million -- or 50 or 10 or 1.

And never mind growth curves -- success is judged by whether or not a digital property is seeing so-called hockey-stick growth. (See WhatsApp's rocket ride from 0 to 450 million users in five years, which somehow made it worth $19 billion to Facebook.)

That sort of big-is-beautiful, everything-to-everybody approach makes investors happy, but long-term can it keep users -- and marketers -- happy?

Facebook would argue that precisely because it's so big it can better serve both users and brands. And, sure, the network effect does, in fact, make massive social media more useful in many ways. (Though it also obviously simultaneously degrades the signal-to-noise ratio when pretty much everyone is oversharing content. Which is part of the reason why Facebook continues to tweak its algorithm to make the deluge more manageable.)

And at least theoretically, Facebook's size means that marketers can effectively hyper-target various subsets of Facebook users while still reaching critical mass.

But to get to its unprecedented size, Facebook had to morph from being something special and targeted (remember, it started as a network for college students) into something more akin to a generic platform or utility. And that means that even if you can round up enough of the people you wish to reach by various defining characteristics -- slicing and dicing by demographics, likes, expressed interests, etc. -- it's kind of a crapshoot trying to engage with them at any given moment because who the hell knows why anybody is on Facebook at any given moment?

You can hope against all hope that they'll give your message or your ad a glance, but they're probably really just there to gawk at party pictures, to stalk an ex, to lose themselves in Candy Crush Saga or otherwise tumble down into the Time-Waste-o-Matic Facebook rabbit hole.

Whereas, you know, if someone actually pays for and picks up a copy of Foreign Affairs, they're doing so for a very specific reason. You know their mind-set: They're going to engage with that specific content because they're deeply, genuinely interested in it.

We need more digital entrepreneurs who are willing to stop toadying to investors who harbor pipe dreams of striking it filthy rich by backing the next all-things-to-all-people massive thing -- the next Facebook.

We need more tech folks who know a little something about the history of media, the history of advertising against truly engaging content, and the limits of the human attention span. Folks who know that an audience is actually a finite thing -- and that's a good thing.

Really, you've got to hand it to the grown-ups at Foreign Affairs. They've effectively declared to the world that, hey, there really aren't that many people who care passionately about nuanced analysis of foreign policy and such. Over time, FA found about 151,000 of them, and then beat the bushes over a two-year period and found another 14,000 or so. That sort of math makes total sense when you think about it.

If only we could get that kind of clarity in the digital-native landscape -- both on the platform side and the content side.

As for the current high-flying purveyors of pure-play digital content, wouldn't it be nice if, say, BuzzFeed or Business Insider or any number of other famously growth-addicted properties one day declared, "We're now at a point where we've found the best possible, most loyal audience and we're as big as we need to be"?

Can you imagine? Advertisers getting to reach a specific, discrete group of people instead of some amorphous, ever-growing blob of click-bait-caught unwashed millions?

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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