Now Double Your Audience

Want more traffic?  In a business where more reach and engagement means more advertising revenues, every publisher wants more traffic.  So, what if you could double your traffic with no additional investment in content?

For a while, I’ve been writing about how digital media requires as much emphasis on distribution and audience development as on content; and how social networks offer the greatest opportunity to build audience.   But we just hit a new milestone that finally crosses into new territory:  proving that mastering social distribution can double your traffic.  And a model with twice as much engagement can be twice as valuable.

The milestone for us happened last month, less than 24 months since we launched our Wetpaint Entertainment property:

When you consider that the leading web publishers are getting less than 6% of their traffic from social on average, that’s some serious untapped audience potential.

Facebook Search Will Be Better than Google (5% of the Time)

This article was published as a guest post at AdAge, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

In May, I predicted that Facebook would introduce a search offering by the end of 2012. Recent reports suggest that the battle for search may heat up even before the weather cools down – Facebook was already starting to link Open Graph with search results in June.

But the big question remains: Will Facebook’s search engine be better than Google’s anytime soon?

On the whole, no way.

Then is Facebook spending mega dollars to develop an algorithm that needs constant upgrading – one that will almost certainly be inferior to the search engines we already have – all for naught?

Here’s the thing: a Facebook search product doesn’t need to be better. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t need to be better all the time. If a Facebook search returns a better result once in twenty searches, it will be a success.

We tend to think of search as a winner-take-all market (in part because Google has practically taken it all with its 66% market share). And for the majority of searches, it’s true that Google can’t be beat. If I’m looking for an address, a specific article, the origin of a phrase, or that Mark Bittman recipe for pasta alla gricia, Google is my best friend. But what about when I’m searching for something less specific and more taste-based? On this front, the market leader leaves a whole lot to be desired.

“Good books.” “Restaurants in Bali.” “Car mechanic in Seattle.” The list I get from Google isn’t right – good book, interesting restaurant, reliable mechanic according to whom? Recommendations are the thin-edge-of-the-wedge: an entry point into search where Google is weak. Pinterest and Yelp have already staked out important segments of this otherwise unclaimed territory. But Pinterest isn’t going to help me with auto mechanics, and Yelp is struggling with its own “there’s no accounting for taste” problem.

The fact is, I’m already turning to Facebook for this kind of information – it’s just poorly organized. When my car window got stuck halfway open (not a tenable condition in my perpetually-drizzling city), I remembered a post from a few months back about my friend Jen’s amazing new mechanic and scrolled down through her timeline to find the name of the place. But what if I couldn’t remember which friend had posted? And how do I know that another friend didn’t rave about a mechanic just as great but in a closer neighborhood?

Searches for hotels, restaurants, books, movies, and music – just a few of the categories that would be greatly improved with access to friends’ recommendations – account for 650 million Google searches in the US every month (according to data pulled from Google’s keyword tool). That’s almost 6% of the 11.7 billion searches Google processed for US users in May. If Google brings in $36B in search ads annually, that’s a $2 billion slice of pie that Facebook could lift right out of Google’s lunchbox. And they could do it without even developing a full-web search.

In theory, Google could preemptively lock up that lunchbox by building their own recommendation search. They will almost certainly try to do just that, but they will lack the data to build a credible offering. Facebook has a 100X or better data advantage when it comes to recommendations, and that data advantage continues to snowball: Facebook logs 2.7 billion Likes every day to Google’s 20 million +1s. (Google doesn’t release the actual number of +1s, but let’s be generous and assume it’s roughly in proportion to the time spent on each network.)

Facebook is in a position to push with its greatest strength – a big and beautiful dataset of people and their relationships to brands, places, things, and other people – on Google’s most vulnerable point. And once Facebook gets a foot in the door with recommendation search, it won’t take much for them to push the door all the way open. The first time Facebook serves me five great beach reading recommendations from trusted friends is the last time I’ll even think of Googling “good books” before a vacation. And the same goes for choosing a new bank, finding a dentist, switching internet providers, buying car insurance, and on, and on, and on.

Pretty soon, 20% of my searches will be just as good or better on Facebook’s social search. And when Facebook finally does tack on whole-web results to the package (internally or through a partner like Bing), I’ll be much less inclined to leave Facebook, which is already my home base, to search for that Mark Bittman recipe on Google.

Survey data suggests that I’m not the only one who would be willing to give up the Google entirely if Facebook had a passable search offering. 17% of respondents in Greenlight’s 2012 “Search & Social Survey” would “definitely” or “probably” use a Facebook search engine as an alternative to Google. Another 27% indicated that they might be willing to make the switch.

Facebook search will win us over slowly, by degrees. They’ll start with what they know – the likes and dislikes of you, your friends, and people like you – and they’ll woo us with exceptional answers to a few key questions. We’ll keep the old, reliable search engine around for a while…but as soon as Facebook makes the move, Google’s days will be numbered.

June Social Leaderboard: Traffic from Facebook Flat to Slightly Down

Facebook has maintained its squeeze on sending traffic out to web publishers for another month.

The average publisher on the Social Leaderboard lost 0.1 percentage points in social composition from May to June.  The most social publishers fared the worst, with the top ten losing an average of 0.6 percentage points month-over-month.

The Top 3:  Wetpaint Entertainment, NFL, People

Even after losing 1.5 percentage points since May, Wetpaint Entertainment held the top spot on the Social Leaderboard with almost 30% of traffic coming from Facebook and Twitter.  The #2 spot was taken by NFL, which climbed three spots on the leaderboard and drew 12% of total traffic from social channels in June.  After holding second place for two months, People fell to 4th place, and  MTV held steady at 3rd.

Average Loss: 100,000 Social Visitors

Each month, we measure social traffic two ways:  by composition (percent of traffic from social); and by total volume (number of social visits).  In June, volumes also saw a slight decline.  Wetpaint fared better than most, adding 100,000 visitors in June and becoming the 11th  most social publisher by volume (not counting portals) with 1.4 million social visits.  The Huffington Post still holds the top spot in the volume ranking, with 6.5 million social visitors in June.

Guess Who Squeezed Traffic Even More? 

While Facebook traffic to publishers was down this month, Google traffic was down even more.  This could be a turning point – the gap between Google’s and Facebook’s traffic contributions to publishers has been widening in Google’s favor since March, but the June results show a reversal of the trend.  Will Facebook finally close the gap and officially become a more important traffic source for publishers than Google?  Check back next month to see if  the trend continues.

Details for Social Leaderboard Publishers:

MONTHLY RANKINGS

Jun

May

Apr

Name of Publisher (Owner) URL

Monthly Uniques

% from Social

Change

1

1

1

Wetpaint Entertainment WETPAINT.COM

                 4,172,874

29.3%

-1.5%

2

5

5

National Football League NFL.COM

                 4,005,954

12.0%

1.6%

3

3

4

MTV MTV.COM

               10,314,480

10.8%

-0.1%

4

2

2

People PEOPLE.COM

               12,424,002

10.5%

-1.0%

5

7

9

TMZ TMZ.COM

               11,485,750

8.7%

0.1%

6

4

3

NBC Universal NBC.COM

                 5,210,665

8.5%

-2.0%

7

8

10

Yahoo! YAHOO.COM

             155,141,946

7.3%

0.1%

8

10

11

Major League Baseball MLB.COM

               14,857,814

6.8%

0.1%

9

9

8

Patch (Aol) PATCH.COM

               11,178,542

6.7%

-0.4%

10

6

7

CBS CBS.COM

                 5,130,686

6.2%

-2.7%

11

11

12

Aol AOL.COM

               48,274,409

6.2%

0.0%

12

28

31

E! Entertainment Television EONLINE.COM

                 6,036,527

5.8%

2.1%

13

15

16

Entertainment Weekly EW.COM

                 5,648,180

5.5%

0.3%

14

14

19

TV Guide TVGUIDE.COM

                 5,701,617

5.3%

0.0%

15

16

17

IGN (News Corp) IGN.COM

                 8,385,741

5.3%

0.1%

16

19

21

CNN CNN.COM

               42,355,439

4.9%

0.1%

17

18

22

MSN MSN.COM

               93,297,562

4.9%

0.0%

18

20

20

FOX News (News Corp) FOXNEWS.COM

               25,048,343

4.8%

0.0%

19

17

18

US Weekly USMAGAZINE.COM

                 6,349,666

4.7%

-0.3%

20

23

23

BBC News BBC.CO.UK

               12,572,110

4.5%

0.3%

21

13

15

Discovery Channel DISCOVERY.COM

                 9,501,796

4.5%

-1.0%

22

21

13

TIME TIME.COM

                 6,980,029

4.3%

-0.1%

23

22

27

The Huffington Post (Aol) HUFFINGTONPOST.COM

               38,557,478

4.1%

-0.2%

24

12

14

Break Media BREAK.COM

                 8,666,861

3.9%

-2.0%

25

29

29

New York Daily News NYDAILYNEWS.COM

               10,818,073

3.7%

0.0%

26

24

26

National Geographic Society NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM

                 5,410,317

3.7%

-0.3%

27

35

6

The Guardian GUARDIAN.CO.UK

                 8,035,982

3.7%

0.7%

28

25

24

The Washington Post WASHINGTONPOST.COM

               16,253,595

3.7%

-0.3%

29

26

25

New York Times NYTIMES.COM

               25,415,028

3.7%

-0.3%

30

33

33

Nickelodeon (MTV Networks) NICK.COM

               10,489,580

3.6%

0.4%

31

31

30

IMDB (Amazon.com) IMDB.COM

               34,449,740

3.5%

0.3%

32

32

36

Bleacher Report BLEACHERREPORT.COM

               10,126,821

3.4%

0.2%

33

27

28

CBS News CBSNEWS.COM

               10,775,680

3.3%

-0.5%

34

30

32

FORBES FORBES.COM

               11,733,587

3.3%

-0.1%

35

38

35

Los Angeles Times (Tribune) LATIMES.COM

               14,005,725

3.2%

0.5%

36

36

38

Cartoon Network (Turner) CARTOONNETWORK.COM

                 9,270,980

3.0%

0.1%

37

34

34

Food Network (Scripps) FOODNETWORK.COM

               13,629,536

2.6%

-0.4%

38

37

37

Wall Street Journal (News Corp) WSJ.COM

               12,259,307

2.5%

-0.2%

39

41

40

FOX Sports (News Corp) FOXSPORTS.COM

               17,869,805

2.0%

0.0%

40

40

39

Reuters REUTERS.COM

               10,285,882

2.0%

0.0%

41

39

41

USA Today (Gannet) USATODAY.COM

               16,604,354

2.0%

0.0%

42

42

43

WebMD WEBMD.COM

               14,952,061

1.8%

0.0%

43

43

42

CNET (CBS Interactive) CNET.COM

               22,956,989

1.8%

0.0%

44

44

44

Bloomberg BLOOMBERG.COM

                 6,373,252

1.7%

0.0%

45

46

45

everyday Health EVERYDAYHEALTH.COM

                 9,426,117

1.6%

0.0%

46

45

46

Businessweek (Bloomberg) BUSINESSWEEK.COM

                 6,490,385

1.6%

-0.1%

47

48

49

LIVESTRONG (Demand Media) LIVESTRONG.COM

               14,265,338

1.2%

0.1%

48

49

48

About.com (NY Times) ABOUT.COM

               51,103,478

1.1%

0.1%

49

47

47

ThePostGame (Yahoo) THEPOSTGAME.COM

                 7,594,651

1.1%

0.0%

50

50

50

Mayo Clinic MAYOCLINIC.COM

               10,112,971

0.9%

0.0%

51

51

51

eHow (Demand Media) EHOW.COM

               50,306,160

0.8%

0.1%

 

 

 

 

Social Success = Search Success

We’ve seen it at Wetpaint, but it’s not just happening for us.  Social success and search success now go hand in hand for all web publishers.

If you look at the top 50 publishers on the web, there’s a strong correlation between Facebook traffic growth and Google traffic growth:

For every 1% growth or decline in Facebook visits, the top 50 web publishers in our Media Industry Social Leaderboard saw a corresponding 0.5% change in Google traffic.

Correlation but not causation, you say?  I have it on good authority (aka Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan) that social signals will soon be the leading factor (if they’re not already) in search engine rankings.

It’s time to drop the notion that an investment in social has to come at the expense of an investment in search.  It’s now abundantly clear: social traffic and search traffic go together.

Update:  The original version of this post included an incorrect chart.  The correct chart is now shown.

Facebook’s Reach Generator, Now on Sale for 100% Off!

Regular readers know that I love Facebook, and that I think they are well on their way to building what could be the largest media business ever created.

That said, one of their recent advertising offerings – Reach Generator – has struck me with incredible irony.  Lots of other people have already noted the paradox in its most basic form:  after Facebook sells you a cost-per-fan acquisition program, they then sell you a cost-per-fan reach program to reach the very same fans you’ve already paid for.


via Business Insider

But what’s a publisher to do?  The average brand reaches only 16% of its fans, and Facebook controls the aperture of the fire hose.

So should you pay up?

Not unless you’ve tried everything to relate to your audience organically.  The most social publishers have demonstrated reach above and beyond Reach Generator’s promised 75%, simply by understanding how social distribution works and then systematizing it.  That’s right – it’s better than the paid offering, and better than that, it’s free!

That’s the great irony here:  for brands, Facebook Reach Generator doesn’t give you anything you couldn’t get yourself – if you think of yourself as a publisher, know your audience well, have meaningful content, and a strong audience development system.  These will take investment from brands and publishers, but that investment is absolutely critical anyway.  (After all, content is turning out to be the currency of connection on the social operating system).  Indeed, every brand that wants to connect to its audience on the social web MUST master the new skills of content programming and audience development.  It isn’t as simple as just hiring a great agency – it’s about knowing your audience and delivering great content that fits your relationship with them.

The alternative?  Pay Facebook to force less relevant content on your audience.  Think of Facebook Reach Generator as a tax paid by lazy brand managers – get the results without the effort.  But it sure will be expensive.

Look Out, Twitter: Pinterest on Your Tail

Most websites get the biggest slice of their traffic pie from Google; and Facebook is the most frequent #2.  But the other social networks are starting to be significant to some sites.

Now, let’s see how they stack up in terms of driving traffic.   As part of the Media Industry Social Leaderboard, we’ve been keeping tabs.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Facebook still massively outweighs its social brethren in total impact, making up 97% of social traffic to the top 50.  But in today’s world of meteoric rises and rapid falls, one of the players lurking in the other 3% (Twitter, Pinterest or Google+) could turn out to be the behemoth of tomorrow.

Twitter is definitively the #2 social referrer for publishers, but its share is declining – it grew by a lackluster 1% from February to May.  Meanwhile, Pinterest is emerging as a formidable competitor:  their last three months were just pinsane with 210% growth.  If they continue on that trajectory, they’ll be bigger than Twitter as a traffic referrer by summer’s end.

Will that happen?  Is Pinterest already edging out Twitter as we speak?  Stay tuned for next month’s Social Leaderboard results.

Facebook Giveth, and Facebook Taketh Away

Social Leaderboard Results for May:  Traffic Is Down Across the Board

Facebook threw publishers a curve ball in April:  an algorithm change combined with a pullback in social reader promotion.  And it had a big impact, causing the top 50 web publishers to lose more than 10% of their social traffic in just one month.  The May Social Leaderboard shows that they still haven’t recovered:  the average publisher’s social traffic was flat in May, matching April’s dip.

The dramatic drop in traffic set off alarms with some social publishing pioneers – the Social Reader had been the one bright spot on an otherwise dark and winding path into digital media.  Is the honeymoon over?

 

Facebook’s Relationship With Publishers:  It’s Complicated

Publishers who embraced Social Readers have every right to feel like Facebook’s scorned lovers right now.  Facebook seemed to have pulled the plug, right when the relationship was blossoming.  But through the tears, might this actually be good for the relationship?  In the long term, what’s in the best interest of publishers is also in the best interest of Facebook:  if users are being served the right content at the right time in the right way and clicking through at a high rate, everybody is happy.

Facebook, it seems, has decided it needs some space.  Before they fully commit, they’re sowing their wild oats by experimenting with user experience, testing and tuning.  This experimentation happened to take the publisher-friendly form of heavy Social Reader promotion over several previous months – but now they have turned the dial back.

Presumably, Facebook is dialing back social reader promotion to figure out how much friction is right for sharing.  Frictionless sharing may be part of our future, but accidental over-sharing could undermine the present.  Imagine the scenario:  I unwittingly broadcast “Ben is reading Home Hair Removal for Men,” and the phone rings:   It’s my mother with her assuredly well-intentioned advice.  And yet, how mortifying.  Who could blame me for deleting my account forever?

More tuning will bring about the right controls to manage private activity.  Ultimately, those controls will support more sharing.  At that point, the lead-out dial on Facebook’s dashboard will likely be turned back up, and we can all start planning our second honeymoon.

 

Strugglers and Survivors

As for the top publishers this month, nobody on the Leaderboard made great strides in social traffic, but a few publishers kept their heads above water better than others.  MTV gained 2 percentage points in social traffic composition, bringing them up to 10.9% social and making them the third most social web publisher.  People held onto the #2 spot on the board by holding steady at 11.5%.  NFL and TMZ were the only other publishers to improve their social composition this month, each gaining 1 percentage point.

Wetpaint Entertainment had a cushioned lead – we lost 7 percentage points of social composition from April to May, making us the most hard-hit publisher by the Facebook changes, even while holding on to the lead.  While my company is still the leader on percentage terms, total volume tells a different story, as the benchmark data shows we slid seven spots (to #14) in that ranking.

 

 

Details for Top 50 Publishers:

MONTHLY RANKINGS

May

Apr

Mar

Publisher URL

Monthly Uniques

% from Social

Change

1

1

1

Wetpaint Entertainment WETPAINT.COM

                 4,012,641

30.8%

-7.3%

2

2

3

People PEOPLE.COM

               12,174,195

11.5%

0.1%

3

4

8

MTV MTV.COM

                 9,674,892

10.9%

1.9%

4

3

2

NBC Universal NBC.COM

                 7,964,950

10.5%

0.4%

5

5

5

National Football League NFL.COM

                 4,821,558

10.4%

1.4%

6

7

4

CBS CBS.COM

                 7,190,888

8.9%

0.1%

7

9

9

TMZ TMZ.COM

               12,288,156

8.6%

0.9%

8

10

15

Yahoo! YAHOO.COM

             154,820,184

7.2%

-0.2%

9

8

12

Patch (Aol) PATCH.COM

               11,746,588

7.1%

-0.6%

10

11

10

Major League Baseball MLB.COM

               14,100,489

6.7%

-0.2%

11

12

17

Aol AOL.COM

               46,798,608

6.2%

-0.1%

12

14

7

Break Media BREAK.COM

                 7,987,804

5.9%

-0.1%

13

15

13

Discovery Channel DISCOVERY.COM

               11,213,913

5.5%

-0.2%

14

19

18

TV Guide TVGUIDE.COM

                 6,077,003

5.4%

0.2%

15

16

11

Entertainment Weekly EW.COM

                 7,348,060

5.2%

-0.4%

16

17

16

IGN (News Corp) IGN.COM

                 8,612,512

5.2%

0.0%

17

18

6

US Weekly USMAGAZINE.COM

                 6,873,880

5.0%

-0.2%

18

22

26

MSN MSN.COM

               95,931,716

4.9%

0.0%

19

21

21

CNN CNN.COM

               42,308,122

4.9%

-0.1%

20

20

22

FOX News (News Corp) FOXNEWS.COM

               24,392,403

4.8%

-0.2%

21

13

19

TIME TIME.COM

                 8,870,094

4.4%

-1.8%

22

27

31

The Huffington Post (Aol) HUFFINGTONPOST.COM

               39,361,623

4.3%

0.4%

23

23

23

BBC News BBC.CO.UK

               14,030,015

4.2%

-0.4%

24

26

20

National Geographic Society NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM

                 8,096,974

4.0%

0.0%

25

24

24

The Washington Post WASHINGTONPOST.COM

               16,415,782

4.0%

-0.4%

26

25

27

New York Times NYTIMES.COM

               28,401,893

3.9%

-0.3%

27

28

25

CBS News CBSNEWS.COM

               11,668,152

3.9%

0.0%

28

31

35

E! Entertainment Television EONLINE.COM

                 6,905,095

3.7%

0.3%

29

29

30

New York Daily News NYDAILYNEWS.COM

               10,059,573

3.7%

0.0%

30

32

28

FORBES FORBES.COM

               12,413,284

3.4%

0.1%

31

30

33

IMDB (Amazon.com) IMDB.COM

               34,981,883

3.3%

-0.2%

32

36

32

Bleacher Report BLEACHERREPORT.COM

                 9,248,603

3.2%

0.2%

33

33

29

Nickelodeon (MTV Networks) NICK.COM

                 8,960,646

3.2%

0.0%

34

34

38

Food Network (Scripps) FOODNETWORK.COM

               13,652,316

3.0%

-0.1%

35

6

14

The Guardian GUARDIAN.CO.UK

                 8,481,112

3.0%

-5.9%

36

38

40

Cartoon Network (Turner) CARTOONNETWORK.COM

                 8,035,517

2.8%

0.0%

37

37

39

Wall Street Journal (News Corp) WSJ.COM

               12,792,880

2.7%

-0.2%

38

35

34

Los Angeles Times (Tribune) LATIMES.COM

               15,064,947

2.7%

-0.3%

39

41

42

USA Today (Gannet) USATODAY.COM

               17,570,870

2.0%

0.0%

40

39

41

Reuters REUTERS.COM

                 8,928,289

2.0%

-0.4%

41

40

36

FOX Sports (News Corp) FOXSPORTS.COM

               19,207,713

2.0%

-0.1%

42

43

46

WebMD WEBMD.COM

               14,441,556

1.8%

0.0%

43

42

37

CNET (CBS Interactive) CNET.COM

               22,672,657

1.8%

-0.2%

44

44

45

Bloomberg BLOOMBERG.COM

                 7,351,621

1.7%

0.0%

45

46

43

Businessweek (Bloomberg) BUSINESSWEEK.COM

                 6,256,325

1.7%

0.3%

46

45

44

everyday Health EVERYDAYHEALTH.COM

                 9,883,208

1.6%

0.1%

47

47

47

ThePostGame (Yahoo) THEPOSTGAME.COM

              10,242,755

1.1%

-0.1%

48

49

48

LIVESTRONG (Demand Media) LIVESTRONG.COM

               14,378,579

1.1%

0.0%

49

48

49

About.com (NY Times) ABOUT.COM

               57,358,285

1.1%

-0.1%

50

50

51

Mayo Clinic MAYOCLINIC.COM

               10,746,954

0.8%

0.0%

51

51

50

eHow (Demand Media) EHOW.COM

               54,128,475

0.7%

0.0%

The publishers included in the Media Industry Social Leaderboard are the top 50, as ranked by comScore-reported uniques, whose primary business is web publishing.  Once they are selected, data from Compete.com is used to estimate the amount of traffic referred to each by Facebook and Twitter. 

How Facebook Becomes the Biggest Player In Advertising’s $540 Billion World

This article was published as a guest post at AdAge, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

Facebook will replace online display advertising as we know it. It will save digital media by reversing the commodity pricing trend. And it will become the highest grossing media property in history.

Believe me? If you’re one of the investors who was burned by Facebook’s disappointing IPO, you might not be so bullish. At a multiple of 28X last year’s earnings, Facebook’s offering price presumed fast-growing and scalable revenue streams. But the reality of Facebook’s advertising trajectory has been lagging, and continued percentage growth isn’t going to make it up.

Facebook needs a huge discontinuity in its advertising revenues to make that math go round.

Fortunately, I think we’re about to see a huge discontinuity. Facebook’s great opportunity is to create an advertising product that the world has never seen. And it can be done.

The key is in a single idea, and Facebook is singularly able to deliver on it: SELL RELATIONSHIPS, NOT IMPRESSIONS.

The first 100 years of brand advertising was built on the paradigm of a captive audience with interruption advertising in TV, radio, print, and online. That created a $540 billion market to reach a mostly-right audience at the mostly-right time, with a sometimes-right message delivered via occasionally-great creative. The basic idea being that if you reach those people with enough frequency and decent creative, they’ll eventually hear your message.

But never, ever, ever has any brand had an advertising platform that could create a relationship with a consumer before she makes a purchase.

Until now.

A relationship is worth a hundred or a thousand times an impression – or more – depending on how you monetize it.

The ability to sell relationships puts Facebook in a completely different business than every other media company – and their product is orders of magnitude more valuable. To undermine that premium would be absolute folly. That’s why Facebook should never, ever sell impressions.

But with no proven model for selling relationships, how will Facebook make relationships a reality? Here are five unwritten rules that should guide them, memorialized here so we will all know what to expect:

1. Create an offering that can’t be price-shopped or commoditized
Facebook has the commodities of digital media in abundance: 900 million users, 1 in 7 minutes of our online attention, and 500 billion pageviews per month.

But they won’t – and shouldn’t – open the banner ad floodgates, because they saw this movie back in 2007: MySpace flooded the market with banner ad inventory and watched their value plummet to pennies per thousand views. There’s no scarcity of ways to reach a target demographic with a banner ad, and anything remotely similar to a banner ad will be price-compared to a banner ad.

By creating truly original ad products that have no comparables in the market, Facebook will be able to create and sustain its own price point. And because Facebook is the only game in town when it comes to selling consumer relationships at full scale, they have a lock on that market. Scarcity of sources with huge reach and a product that cements relationship for life could be a killer combination. (Sidenote to Adam Bain: shouldn’t you sell Promoted Follows for 100X the value of Promoted Tweets?)

2. Create an offering that can’t be measured in one-time conversions
Back when she was at Google, Sheryl Sandberg designed AdWords and AdSense to do something nobody had ever done before at scale: form a direct link between the cost and value of an ad. She had pretty good results – today Google owns more than 60% of the market for direct response advertising.

Now that she’s with Facebook, Sheryl knows better than to fight Google for the same pie – especially when Facebook’s opportunity is so much larger. As a medium of connection rather than transaction, social is perfectly suited to brand advertising. And the market for brand advertising happens to be 9 times the size of the direct response advertising universe that Google has increasingly dominated.

What’s more, advertisers have been pent up, waiting to invest in brand advertising on the web. To date, they’ve allocated only 40% of their online ad spend to branding, even though more broadly brand advertising garners 90%. As a relationship broker, Facebook is the one who can convince them to spend. Just as Google proved the value of direct marketing online, Facebook can prove that brand relationships can be built more effectively on social media than through any magazine spread.

3. Create an offering that enhances rather than compromises the user experience
The holy grail of media is advertising that actually adds to the value of the content. You can see it today in the print editions of magazines like GQ and Vogue – the advertising spreads are so gorgeous and smart that readers think of them as content.

Not so online. Users often think of ads as a tradeoff, a price to pay for access to free content and services. (For some high-end brands, online advertising is even seen as an image liability. That’s why Hugo Boss and Louis Vuitton have yet to embrace digital ads – they know it is interruptive rather than additive.)

Facebook is poised for this challenge. Zuckerberg has always put the user experience forever ahead of revenue today. He knows better than to devalue the audience’s experience with advertising products that serve advertisers while frustrating users. No doubt advertisers – not to mention Wall Street investors – will continue to be annoyed by their second-class status in the short term, but Facebook’s unyielding focus on user experience will serve all their constituencies well in the end.

4. Create an offering that closely guards the data
Facebook’s greatest competitive advantage is the incomparably rich dataset it owns about each and every one of its 900 million users. That data is scarce and tremendously valuable for targeting – which means that Facebook will be able to charge a premium for every advertising offering it puts forth using it.

Much to the chagrin of advertisers and publishers alike, there is overwhelming strategic value in keeping that data limited rather than selling it wholesale. Facebook will never give advertisers the data. They could sell access to the list of people predisposed to buy your product, or they could make all user data available and let anyone analyze it. The former preserves scarcity and the other destroys it.

And that’s also why Facebook will lend its data sparingly. Even in the most recent FBX announcement (an enhancement to its least valuable form of advertising), Facebook kept their own dataset out of it completely, allowing use of third-party data only. When it comes time to sell, or more realistically, lease, that data, Facebook will do it with tight controls and at a huge premium.

Remember: the media industry was once robust and profitable. What was different then? The targets were the same, but the ways to reach them were fewer.

5. Create a supernetwork that has no borders
If Facebook plays by the four rules above, they will create the killer ad offering that will finally bring the big brand advertising dollars online. But Facebook ads on Facebook will be only the beginning. Just a few days ago, Facebook took its first step in the direction of the bigger opportunity: extending those services to other publishers on the web.

I’m not talking about AdSense – I’m talking about creating a far more intelligent programmatic relationship between users, their interests, and branded content. Every publisher would be better off if they were using Facebook’s comprehensive and lifelong relationship with users to inform their advertising – and if they themselves had a way to sell relationships, not impressions. Ultimately, exporting the offering to the rest of the web (86% of user attention is spent elsewhere, after all) will send more value right back to Facebook in the form of a larger dataset. Not to mention a nice cut of the revenues that Facebook would be entitled to.

This is a huge opportunity for the entire digital media industry. Online advertising has become a commodity (thanks, Google!). Facebook is digital media’s one best hope to reverse that trend and make online advertising more valuable than offline advertising by tenfold. Google took direct marketing and made it extremely efficient, allowing advertisers to spend less. Facebook has something to sell that might actually make advertisers open their wallets more: a magic brand relationship machine that far exceeds the value of transactional clicks.

Wall Street would much rather that Facebook ignored the five rules above, because Wall Street wants profits now. Facebook wants profits forever. May the latter prevail.

UNBALANCED: Facebook Captures 14% of Our Online Attention but Only 4% of Ad Spend Online

This article was published as a guest post at Business Insider, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

(image via Steven Leary)

We spend more time on Facebook than anywhere else on the web.  Out of every seven minutes online, one of those minutes is spent on Facebook.  Second place Google captures only one in ten – and that’s including YouTube!

But you wouldn’t know it from looking at the way advertisers allocate their money.  Globally, advertisers spent $36 billion with Google in 2011.  They threw $4 billion at Yahoo (which captures 8% of our web time).  But for Facebook?  $3 billion and change.

Facebook garners only 4% of internet advertising spend when they’re capturing 14% of our online attention.  And the discrepancy deepens when we look at online and offline combined:  because advertisers haven’t shifted money to digital as quickly as we’ve shifted our attention, Facebook gets shortchanged even more (by 7x, to be exact) in the big picture.

What would Facebook revenues look like if brands matched ad spending to consumer attention?

(For context:  the entire US magazine industry brings in advertising revenues of $18 billion.)

The revenues in the chart above hypothecate only that Facebook gets “back to even” with other forms of advertising.  But Facebook has an asset no other brand advertising vehicle has:  a treasure trove of targeting data.  Facebook’s greatest business opportunity is to use that targeting data to sell relationships, not impressions.  And if it can do that, then it may be able to achieve even more than “average” pricing.  And it could deserve it – if it can offer relationships with consumers that are worth exponentially more than a magazine spread or a keyword ad on Google.

Larry Page, are you sweating yet?

Search and Social: How The Two Will Soon Become One

This article was published as a guest post at TechCrunch, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

Bing and Google each recently unveiled its own new search interface, designed to better intuit your intent and help you get to the one best answer more efficiently.  And they’ve made it ever more clear that search is heading straight for a merger with social.

The changes are smart.  Google’s knowledge graph is useful – when I search for certain things, I just want a cheat sheet.  What is Faraday’s Law, again?  What exactly is a geoduck?

But Bing’s new feature – “people who might know” – is even smarter.  This is the first major attempt at a merger of search and social – unless you count Search Plus Your World, which I don’t – and this is undeniably the way we’re headed.  There’s a lot of information on the internet, but getting the right info from the right person is still a huge, and mostly unsolved, undertaking.  Nobody knows the answers better than, well, somebody who knows the answers.  And so much the better if it’s someone I trust. (Thank you, Jeff, for the Singapore recommendations!)  The fundamental insight is that when I ask a question, there are lots of ways to help me find the best answer.  If you don’t have it, point me in the direction of someone who does.  Don’t make me ask the same question in a million permutations and sift through a list of 20 possible right answers every time.

What’s more interesting is that this is the biggest step forward we’ve seen since search results started looking 12 years ago the way they still do today (just with more images and toolbars now – exactly what Google got rid of back then!).

Stagnation followed by the springtime of innovation is probably the surest sign that a major disruption is imminent.  (And if that weren’t enough, just think of how much Facebook’s stock price would rise if they captured even a small share in search.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s the endgame?  In 10 years, I’ll still need recipes for dinner.  And recommendations for hotels in a new vacation spot.  And to find something to do on the weekend.  I know how I would make these decisions today, but how will I make them in 2022?

The true merger of social and search will look nothing like the search we know today.  I don’t even think we’ll call it “search.”

The social search of tomorrow will be more like a combination of a whip-smart personal assistant and an intuitive, considerate significant other.  But one who’s exponentially more efficient and who doesn’t mind being woken up at 3am.  (I’m lucky, but not THAT lucky!)

Let’s put on our future-goggles and imagine how a fully social, personal-data-powered search would change our day-to-day:

Proactive:  It’s Tuesday night and I’m hungry.  Luckily, my mobile knows that I just got a CSA box containing sweet potatoes (Full Circle Farm’s Facebook integration), and that I tend to eat at home on Tuesdays (according to my historical pattern of check-ins).  It also knows that it’s cold and raining outside.  Before I’ve gotten around to opening a cookbook or the Epicurious app, my mobile pushes me a sweet potato soup recipe that my certified-foodie friend raved about on Facebook last week.

Personal:  Arrive at the Sao Paulo airport and search on my mobile for the city’s public transit map.  My device knows that I’ve never been there (even though I bought a phrase book on Amazon last week), and it also knows (from scanning TripAdvisor comments about Sao Paulo buses) that the public transit is impossible to navigate for newcomers.  While the map is loading, a message appears gently encouraging me to consider a rental car instead – there happens to be a great deal on an Audi (my favorite(!) as noted on Facebook) at the rental counter 10 feet away.  Talk about targeting!

Social:  Florence and the Machine is touring in New York, and I’m dying to go see them.  I called the usual suspects, and they’re out of town during the concert.  The only thing worse than not going is going alone.  But who else do I know who loves them like I do?  That’s a lay-up for a socially powered search if ever there was one.  Two words:  “Jason Hirschhorn”.  Is that so hard?

There are a hundred other decisions that would be made immeasurably easier with the help of a really good personal assistant – one who knows your schedule and your preferences (and the schedule and preferences of your friends and family); one who has excellent research skills and can track down the appropriate expert on any issue.  (But no, I’m sure it still won’t replace Larisa.)

Most of us don’t have personal assistants.  But we have left a heck of a trail of our interests, associates, habits, and dislikes.  It will take some algorithm to turn that trail of behavioral and social data – combined with the wisdom of topical experts and the vast repository of information that is the internet – into a set of smart, personalized answers for you and me.  But that’s why Google and Facebook and Apple hire engineers with such big brains.

And, surprise!, the better they understand our brains (read: intent, context, and relationships) the better the match they can serve up to an advertiser.  And that means an outrageously good search not only retains audience better, but would improve ad rates.

We’re on the verge of shifting from a search model in which the user is still doing all of the heavy lifting to one where powerful algorithms enable our devices to anticipate our needs and do most of the sifting and evaluating for us.  In the meantime, though, we’re stuck in a “hairball of complexity” (to borrow Adam Richardson’s TV industry analogy) while the industry struggles to find the way from A to B.

The key is in having software that recognizes us as whole people. (And isn’t that exactly the promise of social?)  Now search is undergoing a massive transformation from receiving input in the form of queries – each independent and atomic – to understanding its input in the form of people, who have personal history, context, and relationships.  That means delivering the right result depends on who is asking.  Which is sooooo true.  I don’t like the same music as my teenage niece, and she doesn’t like the same restaurants I do.  Why should we both get the same search results?

Apple’s Siri is certainly the closest, at least in spirit, to the eventual reincarnation of search as personal assistant, even as its true capability has far to go.  The voice-activated question-and-answer experience is light years ahead of the long list of links on a page that still defines search on Google and Bing.  But the trick that remains is to gather, combine and analyze data from myriad sources – social interactions, behavioral data, expert opinions – and deliver it back to the user in a way that makes decision-making more efficient than most of us can imagine.

With all of that time I used to spend inefficiently making decisions suddenly freed up, what will I do?  I’ve been meaning to plan a trip to Sao Paulo….