Publishers are between a rock and a hard place as they try and figure out where to devote their time and energy. The options are:
Mastodon: My favorite network to use, but not a good fit for publishers’ existing audience models. Mastodon has no effective cross-network search and blocks browser referral data, which means audience teams have no idea how many of their readers are coming from the network. It’s big and thriving, but opaque. And the nature of the way the network software work means that if you do go viral, your servers may effectively be DDoSed.
Threads: Meta’s soon-to-be-Mastodon-compatible Twitter-a-like. There are a lot of non-technical users on the network, but again, there are problems. Referrals show up as Instagram, which once again means nobody knows how many people are clicking through. At the time of writing, Threads has no API and no web or desktop version, which means audience teams have to manually post using their phones and hope for the best.
Reddit: Not to be discounted, but there’s no way for a publisher to own a Reddit page or community. Instead, they can be active participants, helping to shepherd conversations this way and that way. Self-promoting your own posts is frowned upon.
Twitter / X: In a rapid decline and full of far-right hate speech, but still a contender. For now, its referral traffic still outweighs all of the above by an order of magnitude (potentially except for Reddit), which means publishers are having trouble giving it up despite the hate speech.
Facebook: Obviously huge and ubiquitous but pay to play if you want any volume of readers to actually see your posts.
Instagram: Heavily used but links are dependent on the Uber-awkward “link in bio” design pattern. There’s no good way to just let people click through to a story on your own website.
TikTok: Celebrated as the way Gen Z is getting its news and content. I’m skeptical — because TikTok also needs to use a “link in bio” pattern, users rarely leave the app, and publishers must rely on TikTok’s own statistics for engagement. We’ve seen this play out before.
YouTube: Heavily used and near-ubiquitous, but requires a lot of up-front investment to produce content for. Publishers effectively have to create broadcast-level TV studios to participate. It’s not an option for most smaller organizations.
This is a far more fragmented landscape than publishers had to deal with a year ago. Save perhaps for X (a situation I can’t say I’m happy about), Mastodon and Threads represent the networks with the highest ROI, but in their current incarnations provide serious barriers for most publishers.
There are, of course, two more options:
Newsletters: A newsletter, in effect, is a direct relationship between a publisher and a reader. Newsletters have the advantage that no other platform is trying to arbitrate that relationship (although a third party platform like Mailchimp may be involved). They also allow publishers to know exactly who is reading, which may allow them to build a deeper relationship over time. For example, active newsletter readers may be more likely to convert into donors to a non-profit newsroom.
RSS: It’s not dead! Lots of people use RSS, whether through stand-alone feed readers or services like Flipboard and Substack Reader. Publishers will never know exactly how many people are reading, but users tend to have a newsletter-like loyalty to their feeds. It’s also usually a free, default part of a CMS.
Finally, perhaps obviously but also for some publishers not obviously enough, a publisher should always prioritize its own website as a destination. When you own your own website, there’s never a middleman. Newsletters and RSS can both help; social media can be an on-ramp for readers to discover your site. Establishing direct relationships that can’t be destabilized by, say, some billionaire deciding to slow access to links he doesn’t like is a business imperative — and has never been more so than this year.