Destinations are Dead

The symptoms are all around us, to the extent that I think we can safely say that the destination is dead.

Deep linking, crowdsourcing and search technology were bound to change the way we think about destinations on the web and in mobile.  I’m just surprised it’s taken 15 years and not 15 days.

The symptoms I refer to are the tactics publishers use to prolong the relationship with the content consumer, and push off the inevitable abandonment of the content destination when you arrive there.  You see them every time you click on an interesting bit of content from a friend’s social feed.

First, you’ll likely get a big, interruptive ad.  Sometimes it’s an entrance interstitial or splash page, but it’s almost always something that immediately stands between you and the content you want to view.  After all, the publisher needs to monetize you before the real begging can start.

Next will come the prompts to share what you’ve only just started to read.  No longer content to post sharing icons at the end of every article, publishers are asking consumers to share before they’ve even been able to formulate an opinion on the article they’re reading.

Then you’ll get the “Want more of this?” solicitation – usually something that hopes to get your e-mail address for a newsletter, or something that wants access to Facebook so it can solicit you in your own feed and get access to your friends.

And finally, you’ll be hit with the content syndication links – the sponsored bits of content both the publisher and his network hope will catch your attention and prompt a click.  Half of those links are to other bits of content that the publisher offers.  The other half consists of links to external articles, for which the publisher will earn money, even if you leave his site.  All along the way, you’re being bombarded with banners and text ads.

Why is all this effort being expended in the short time it takes you to view one article, slideshow or video?

It’s because the publisher realizes you’re probably not coming back.

Well, you’re not coming back in the sense of thinking of the site you’ve just visited as a destination.  You won’t head to the home page when you get some spare time.  Moreover, you probably won’t think of the content as coming from a distinct destination at all.

This is nothing new.  Things have been heading in this direction for 15 years.  It’s just surprising that it’s taken this long.

In 1999, we had portals.  We called them that because they were entrance points to the web.  They would showcase content, and since so many people started their digital content consumption at the same places, the content that got the most views tended to be the content that was featured most prominently by the portals.  It resembled the network TV model in TV’s golden age when the big three dominated.

These days we have aggregators – things that visit destinations for us and skim the cream off the top.  Whether those aggregators consist of a Twitter feed, a relevant subreddit or a well-placed Google search doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we might be huge fans of Salon, The New York Times or YouTube, but we rarely consume them by starting in any of those places.  We start with our aggregators.

That’s not to say that home pages don’t get traffic anymore or that destinations don’t experience any sort of organic traffic – they do.  But publishers have learned that significant scale comes from appealing to our aggregators and not by appealing to us as a destination we ought to check in with every day.  Nobody has the time.

It may have taken us longer than any of us Internet old timers might have thought, but we’ve come the closest to the true democratization of content than we ever have in history.  And it explains why content farms are at a distinct advantage in the business of producing content, when compared to old school publishing brands.  Content is commoditized.  And in the era of commodity content, there aren’t any destinations.

Tom Hespos is a contributor at The Makegood and Founder and Chief Media Officer at Underscore Marketing, a boutique firm that creates and manages digital marketing programs. Look for Tom’s column the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month.