Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
This article was published as a guest post at AllThingsD, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
A few weeks ago, Forbes Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin and I sparred at the Rebooting Media Live event in New York. With an audience of top digital and media executives, I shared the results my company is getting from social — that social users are more than 2.5 times as valuable as users from search. Lewis surprised me by saying that when it comes to behavior on the Forbes Web site, he is seeing the opposite.
With all due respect to Lewis, who is one of the greatest innovators in media, I left realizing that there are different ideas of what “social” can mean on the Web, and that not everyone knows where the gold lies. Putting the whole picture together, there are four different models for social that, despite sharing the same name, are completely different concepts.
Social = Viral Hit
For those on the marketing and advertising side especially, the word “social” often means that you or your client are jealous of someone else’s success. Viral hits are largely based on breakthrough creative, though great distribution is an often-forgotten second factor. Who wouldn’t want to be responsible for the next Old Spice guy? Of course, these kinds of hits are easy to ask for and hard to achieve. And if you do achieve it, you’ll need another viral hit to bring your audience back again.
Verdict: Good luck!
Social = 1,000,000 Fans
Here, the theory goes that social means getting lots of fans, and then something magical is supposed to happen. Like the boys’ adventure with the “South Park” underpants gnomes, it usually ends up with a lot of time and money spent, a big collection achieved, and a big question mark over “what now?” It doesn’t matter how low your cost per fan was, if the value per fan is near-zero. It’s not the size of the fan base that matters — it’s what you do with it.
Verdict: Bad strategy.
Social = Comments
Another concept of “social” is that it’s a medium for conversation. With programs like @ComcastCares, brands have used this approach to shape their brand images and reputations — and it has worked. On the publishing side, the Huffington Post and other publishers have succeeded in using social engagement to drive deep participation and connection among an inner circle of its audience. Hosting a conversation certainly builds a relationship. A “Like,” comment, or share from a user can all get you more exposure on the margin, but, as Lewis noted on our panel, the friends who come that way don’t stay very long and don’t come back much. They came for their friends, not for your Web site. That’s why, even though engagement strategies are great for your core audience, they won’t single-handedly drive the large, loyal audience we all crave.
Verdict: Smart, but it’s not enough.
Social = Lasting Relationship
A lasting relationship with an audience is the holy grail of every brand online. In fact, it has made Amazon the most valuable e-commerce company on earth, and it’s made Disney and the NFL valuable over decades. But what some haven’t realized yet is that the most valuable mode of social is in keeping these relationships connected.
Do you have any idea how valuable a “Like” is? Any seventh-grader goes all atwitter when his crush says, “I like you.” It’s permission to see someone more, get to know them better, and talk to them all the time — not just once, but every day. If you are doing it right, a “Like” or a “Follow” begins a two-way relationship: One where your audience is asking for programming from you every day, week and month; and giving you their interest data about what works and what doesn’t. With that relationship, you can choose what content you create, and when and how you share it. That relationship isn’t once-and-done — it’s ongoing.
And data from our experience shows that it translates into a million visits a week from our fan base — almost one visit for every fan, not to mention dozens more impressions right in their home page, the Facebook news feed. Done right, social can already drive more traffic than search, making a new top venue to recruit, and more importantly, retain an audience.
More and more, I talk to marketers and publishers who have hundreds of thousands or millions of fans and followers, and yet have no idea what to do with them. They haven’t realized that they have subscribers at the ready, waiting for great content and experiences — the currency of their relationship.
Nor do they understand the tremendous value of those subscribers: If you give your friends what they are after, they’ll keep coming back for more, and they’ll bring their friends. This is exactly how companies like Groupon and Zynga have reinvented their categories and created businesses worth billions of dollars in the process.
Verdict: There is nothing more powerful than a lasting relationship.
We’re back with the Media Industry Social Leaderboard, fresh off the presses with February results. For any newcomers, the Social Leaderboard is a ranking of the top 50 media publishers by their effectiveness at driving traffic from Facebook and Twitter.
From January to February, social traffic composition was flat, with the average staying at 7%. The gap between Facebook and Google traffic coming in to the Top 50, which had been rapidly closing since November, froze in February with Google holding on to its 30% lead for one more month.
Only four publishers in the top 10 improved their social traffic scores this month: NBC (+1.5%) took third place by trading places with Us Magazine (the biggest loser in the top 10 with -3%, now at #5). Break (+2%) and TMZ (+0.5%) leapfrogged the pack of MTV, NFL and MLB, pushing those three back to #8, 9 and 10.
But the biggest mover and shaker was Wetpaint Entertainment. Wetpaint took an even more decisive lead by adding 7% to social traffic composition since January, vaulting it into the elite group of publishers who, based on Compete data, receive more traffic from Facebook than from Google (in good company with People, Yahoo!, AOL, MSN, Fox Sports, and The Post Game).
With 29% of traffic coming from social, Wetpaint is outperforming its closest competitor by nearly 2x. Is this a data aberration? Some kind of leap year phenomenon?
Let me fill you in on the story behind the 29%: over the last two years, we took a gamble by building a new platform for social media distribution. It wasn’t a sure bet, and not many other publishers were doing it, but we had seen compelling evidence that social was the only way forward for the media industry.
We threw all of our time and talent at the problem, building up a fan base while developing and testing and refining new strategies for delivering content through social channels. We collected tons of data in real time about the preferences of our fans, and then we leveraged that insight to personalize and program their newsfeeds.
Today, the rest of the media industry is just starting to figure out the value of winning fans and courting likes. But because of our early investment, we’re already two steps ahead – we’re focusing on what to do with our 1.7 million fans. We’re delivering over 1,000 posts a week, each one targeted for the right fan with the right content at the right time.
And it’s starting to pay off.
A year and a half ago, I called an end to the decade-long obsession with search. I claimed that SEO is dead, and I set my sights on perfecting a strategy for its successor, SMO (social media optimization).
Since then we’ve succeeded wildly in driving social traffic (we are now #1 compared to all of the 50 largest web publishers); but as my friend Jack asked me recently:
Has the success in social come at the expense of search?
The answer may surprise you, as it has me. By focusing on social, we’ve achieved even more – in fact, unprecendently more, in search. Here, I’ll show you:
Could it be that by forsaking SEO in favor of social, we earn more search traffic? Seems perverse. I went looking for an explanation, and I dug up some interesting info: behind content, social signals are the most important factor in search ranking.
In this interview with Duane Forrester, Senior Product Manager for Bing’s Webmaster program and former head of SEO for MSN, he offers a glimpse of what really matters in the black box of a search engine’s algorithm – and in his words, what matters most for publishers. He lays out the three most important factors, in order:
2. Social Media
3. Link building
This is big news for an industry that’s had years of conditioning to believe that link building and keywords are the Holy Grail of SEO. In 2010, 60% of companies spent more than $25K on SEO, while a measly 25% spent that much on social.
Looking at this gap, it’s clear that there’s about to be a whole new wave of investment in SMO. Not only is social a bigger factor than traditional SEO in search rankings today, but it’s trending up. “At some point, social could be more important than content,” predicts Bing’s Forrester. “But that assumes you have excellent content in place.”
Publishers: if you have that excellent content in place, put down your old SEO playbook and start investing in social. What does investing in social look like? It means repackaging your content for a social audience, and then delivering it to them at the right time and in the right channel. At Wetpaint, each piece of content gets a tailor-made package (we tweak the title, the timing, the images, even the content itself) depending on its destination.
The best investment in search is an investment in social. Really, that’s not perverse at all. As Bing’s Forrester explains, “When you delight someone with the best user experience possible, we pick up all those signals that person shares about their delight, and those signals influence our perception of your quality.”
Now go forth, get social, and delight in the search traffic that follows.
Last week I shared how most publishers are realizing just a fraction of their potential audience because they lack a social distribution strategy, and showed which topics are most likely to be shared by connected audiences.
But is topic the only aspect of content that influences sharing? Could articles with topics as disparate as gardening and bull fighting share some other characteristic that would make them both go viral?
The Journal of Marketing Research published the study What Makes Online Content Viral? in 2011 to appease inquiring minds. Researchers analyzed 7,000 New York Times articles over 2 months to determine what factors made an article more likely to earn a place on the Times’ “most-emailed” list.
But wait a minute…are the factors that predict email sharing the same as those that predict Facebook or Twitter sharing? Here’s where we run into the difference between broadcasting and “narrowcasting.” Remember that purple rash I mentioned last week? I’ll email that WebMD article to my significant other (anxiety! practical value!) but I most certainly won’t tweet about it.
I looked again at the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 to see which of the study’s findings held up on the social networking stage.
Sound familiar? It mirrors the formula for success that Nieman Lab found Buzzfeed using to achieve record results. And, notably, practical value, the #2 driver of email virality, falls all the way down to the bottom of the list on Facebook.
In social network sharing, emotion is king. As Jonah Lehrer of Wired puts it:
“We don’t want to share facts – we want to share feelings. Because people have a deep need to share their emotions, there will always be an insatiable demand for funny baby videos, angry political rants and Justin Bieber songs.”
Before you go and replace all of your content with funny baby videos and Justin Bieber songs, remember that this isn’t about sacrificing the integrity of content for traffic. It doesn’t work that way. This is about engaging readers on the most important axis of all: the axis of significance. Emotional content helps us connect with friends online in a deeper way than a how-to video might.
But what if you’re a publisher of practical content? No need to despair:
“The future is going to be about combining informational content with social and emotional content,” says Jonah Peretti (founder of Buzzfeed).
We all have a powerful emotional drive to live a great life, and getting there means knowing how to be healthy, how to fix a leaky faucet and how to maintain successful relationships. Oprah’s tagline “Live Your Best Life” is a beautiful example – no one is better at linking home décor and health advice to something far greater and more aspirational. Publishers in the midst of developing a social distribution strategy (especially those of us not lucky enough to traffic in Bieber songs) will be wise to follow her lead.
After I published the Media Industry Social Leaderboard numbers for January, I realized that I haven’t spent much time talking about the other social operating systems. While Facebook is the clear #1 traffic distributor, there is a race on for second-in-command. Twitter holds its solid lead (with 61% of the non-Facebook social referrals); however, Pinterest has shockingly pinned the #2 spot, beating out Tumblr.
The odds may not look incredibly promising now, but Pinterest is undeniably gaining clout in certain niches – they became the top social referrer to marthastewart.com this past summer. Tumblr, neck and neck with Pinterest at 17%, is another underdog with potential.
While these are certainly horses to keep an eye on, your bookie should remind you that Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Google+ combined account for only 0.2% of total traffic to the Top 50, which is well below Facebook’s 6.7%.
It’s time again to check our horses and see who’s pulling ahead in the social publishing race! And the race is definitely on – 85% of the top 50 publishers increased their social traffic this month.
No looking back now
Until I started charting the incredible growth of social and its impact on the rest of the web, I wondered if it might be more hype than actual paradigm shift. But the evidence is mounting beyond reasonable doubt, and this month’s results point to the continuation of rapid growth.
Facebook traffic to the Top 50 grew 9% in January (after growing 17% in December). Not only that, but Facebook is closing the gap with Google: The gap between how much traffic Google sends and Facebook sends to the 50 largest publishers is down to just 30%, from 55% in November. At this rate, I expect Facebook to surpass Google traffic to publishers some time this year.
Favorites hold their lead
At the wire it’s Wetpaint Entertainment (with 22.2% of traffic coming from social) followed by People, followed by Us Magazine. Coming on strong on the outside is CBS, pulling ahead of NBC for 4th place by drawing 14.4% of their traffic from social (up from 11.7% in December).
Wetpaint Entertainment increased its lead this month, adding 1.4% to its social traffic and widening the gap with #2 People by an additional 0.5%. People and Us Magazine increased their social traffic composition by 0.8% and 0.6%, respectively – just slightly more than the Top 50 average of 0.5%. CBS was the biggest mover by far, adding 2.7% to its social traffic.
Ladies and gentleman, place your bets. It’s still anyone’s race, but one thing is for sure: if you’re spending all of your time on SEO and SEM, you’re backing the wrong horse.
Paid vs. Earned Media is the third and final video of our Rebooting Media think-tank series. This time we asked:
What are the implications (and opportunities) of social web distribution eclipsing paid impressions?
See our thought leaders tackle this question and read conversation highlights below.
You pay for earned media, too.
There is no earned media without paid media. Social network distribution hinges on quality content at the outset, which means that investing in your content before you publish it in the social feed is crucial.
“People loved the Old Spice ads. They were great and funny and they blew up on YouTube, and there was a lot of earned media behind that. And none of it would have existed if there wasn’t a TV spot that was made and bought and placed and that was very, very good.” —Greg Clayman, The Daily
“A lot of the ‘earned’ arguments came from viral sensations wearing as a badge of honor: ‘we spent no money on traditional marketing.’ People forget the impact that print, radio, and television have on online traffic. When I was at MTV Networks, I used to joke that the channels were only there to promote the websites.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined
Social is better than search for brand building.
Search advertising lacks the brand-building potential of TV and print. Social, on the other hand, is ideal for brand-building. Advertisers have been slow to embrace this, and we need to provide them with a compelling return story before they’ll be willing to make the leap.
“On the advertising side, there’s an argument that social has the potential to be a vehicle for brand advertising in a way that search can’t be. But what should be the metric for brand? Brand impressions are so much further up the funnel before you have an action. I think people are trying to find some metric between CPM and CPA.” —Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch
It’s time to find the magic metric.
Even though social has been around for a while, most people don’t know how to measure success. At Wetpaint we’ve made huge strides in this area, and other people in the room were clearly ready to make this a priority.
“There’s a tremendous amount of money being spent by the film studios specifically on television advertising, and it’s a very inefficient spend; it’s carpet bombing. Virality and targeted advertising are a much more efficient spend, but so far digital media hasn’t been able to show the lift those properties need; they don’t see the payback. They know it’s happening, but they don’t know how to quantify it.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined
“We don’t have a choice. We’re either going to figure this out, or we’re going to live another ridiculous couple of decades without understanding why money is spent. Have I seen a magic metric? Not yet.” —Wenda Harris Millard, Media Link
THAT’S ALL, FOLKS
I hope you enjoyed our Rebooting Media think-tank series, and most importantly I hope it pushes you to join the conversation.
What does the next decade look like? One thing is for sure: it will look nothing like the last one.
Search vs. social, curated vs. created, owned vs. earned – these are not binary outcomes. How do we combine them in a way that meets the needs of the audience?
These are early days still, and there’s a huge opportunity for media players with the imagination, the brains and the courage to get there first.
Want more? Download a PDF of the full published collection of perspectives prepared by these participants and others at Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web.
And if you missed part 1 or part 2, you can find them here: