Social Leaderboard: What Drives Outperformance?

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.

Overall: No Great Shakes

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.

At the Races: Us Magazine Falls Behind

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.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social Engagement Drives Search Traffic

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:

1. Content
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.

Social Leaderboard: Facebook Is Closing the Gap

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.

Note: This analysis includes portals (e.g. Yahoo), which receive more overall traffic but a smaller proportion of Google traffic than the average non-portal publisher, who might see a larger gap.

 

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.

Shining the Spotlight on the Audience, Not the Stage

Alex Weinstein (@alexweinstein) is the Director of Product at Wetpaint and the author of the Technology + Entrepreneurship blog where he explores data-driven decision making in the face of uncertainty. Prior to Wetpaint, Weinstein led technology initiatives in Microsoft Live Labs.

Every day, we go to our favorite news outlets and get our fix. We land on the same familiar sites. We seek out the kind of news that fits our fancy. We casually share the most interesting news with our friends – over dinner or online. And, tomorrow, it starts all over again.

Why? What motivates us to watch the daily news, read an opinion in a magazine, and come back to a favorite TV show? For content creators and distributors, it’s easy to think that it’s all about the content.  This view is based on the notion that people desire the intrinsic value of content, such as the knowledge hidden in a report, or the laugh they experience from a comedy sketch.  But this idea is too flat, and it ignores a more powerful force that’s at work, and that drives the tremendous confluence among target populations when it comes to what they read.

Indeed, in many cases, a deeply human driver is far more valuable than the information itself. And that driver is the desire to be a valuable, appreciated member of a group.

As the graphic below shows, this desire maps directly to Maslow’s pyramid of human needs – the need for esteem.

(diagram from NYTimes – http://ideas.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/16/revising-maslows-pyramid/)

After taking this pyramid or hierarchy of needs in, it becomes clear that, as publishers, we must pay attention to the amount of influence, respect, and social value that audiences are able to earn from their friends after consuming content.

Let’s look at a few examples.

For World of Warcraft geeks, a news article on a long-tail site that covers the latest artifacts is true gold – because it will help them be the most informed in the eyes of their guild.

For fans of Bachelorette, watching the latest episode is very much about having a water cooler conversation about it next day – and the potential social connection that brings.

For Politico readers, it’s about exerting influence on their Facebook friends after they share a controversial editorial.

And, for Lolcats readers, it’s about making their friends laugh for the umpteenth time with a new, undiscovered photo.

Each of these examples is about social influence and social esteem.

Here’s the take-away for publishers in all of this: a key component of the value of the 21st century media company is about helping audiences gain the attention of their social circles.

This represents a radical shift from what we’ve seen over the past decades.

Instead of trying to capture and direct the reader’s attention (“Look at my 100-year-old brand! I curate the world and know best what you should look at!”), the publisher becomes a back-stage prompter, helping readers utter the words that will make them the center of attention among those they care about. The reader can then become an even stronger influencer, or taste-maker.

Every time a friend consumes something that you’ve read, you’ve successfully directed their attention. Your social bank account just became more valuable. And every time publishers help make this transaction seamless and smooth, they are helping you earn some social gold.

This is why Washington Post Social Reader and Yahoo Social are such smashing hits.

Readers want to consume content within these apps, because of the feedback loop from their friends.  (“Hey, I saw you read this article, and I read it, too.”) This is a self-reinforcing pattern that creates social value for all the participants. These publishers, and Facebook’s timeline apps, put audiences first; and, in the process, they generate an ever-increasing amount of social value for readers.

Note that curation and brand very much play into this the social value generation; nobody wants their friends to be misinformed or displeased by media that they endorsed. Content is still king.

If, say, the Washington Post wanted to take this experience to the next level, it could make curation even more personalized. Instead of telling readers that they must care about the Russian presidential election via a big front-page photo – completely ignoring the fact that sharing this knowledge will drive zero social value to its readers – the Post could cater to the unique values of each reader. To do so, it could measure the social response from the reader’s audience – and then personalize the content based upon this response. It’s essential to point out, however, that the reader’s interest – and the response of his or her audience – are not mutually exclusive; a smart personalization algorithm will take both of these factors into account.

That said, in the end, publishers must awaken to the fact that social influence and social esteem are key matters for their audiences today.

How Long Until Social Is A Bigger Traffic Source Than Search?

In yesterday’s Media Industry Social Leaderboard, I noted that leading web publishers on the web saw a staggering 17% increase in their social traffic from November to December.  These top 50 websites are now averaging about 8 million referrals per month from Facebook.

At this rate, the question asked by Fred Wilson and others is:  how long until social drives more traffic than search?  Based on data from Compete.com, it won’t be long at all.  Let’s look at the specifics.

Facebook Drives Almost As Much Traffic As Google

When it comes to driving traffic, the gap between social and search is already smaller than most realize.  In fact, for every 100 visits that Google sent to the top 50 web publishers in November, Facebook sent 62.  By December, it was already up to 73 visits from Facebook for every 100 from Google.

At the same time, search traffic to these publishers is stable to declining, with Google referrals falling 0.5% over the same period.

So how long until Facebook outranks Google?  If these monthly rates of change were to continue apace, Facebook traffic would outrank Google traffic for the top 50 publishers in aggregate by March of this year!

Seven Publishers Already Get More Traffic From Social Than Search

Shockingly, Compete.com data shows that already seven of the top 50 publishers get more traffic from Facebook than from Google:  MSN, ThePostGame, Yahoo, Aol, People, Fox Sports, and US Magazine.  These seven publishers received in aggregate 12% more visits from Facebook than they did from Google last month.

And that set of publishers has already grown by five from just a month earlier, in November of 2011, when only MSN and ThePostGame showed more traffic from social than from search.

But seven is just a snapshot in time.  Based on recent trends, by the middle of this year, I’d expect it to grow to a dozen publishers or more.

 

Facebook is Over-Taking Google as a Traffic Source to Top 50 Web Publishers

Social Leaderboard: 17% Growth in Traffic from Social; and Wetpaint Is the New #1

Regular readers know that  it’s only a matter of months before social becomes the most valuable source of traffic for most publishers.

And this month’s Media Industry Social Leaderboard is sure to make you even more convinced.  So let me get straight to it:  From November to December, the amount of traffic the top 50* publishers received from social grew by a whopping 17%.

And, when it comes to who is best benefiting from social, let’s just say I’m personally very proud to announce the new leader, which, for the sake of modesty, I’ll do lower down the page.


Social Traffic Surging

As noted previously, the major changes Facebook announced at September’s f8 event caused a significant blunt in traffic to publishers last fall.  Well, the hangover has ended.  With 385 million aggregate visits to the top 50 publishers in December, volumes have recovered to pre-f8 levels.

The average top 50 publisher is now receiving almost 8 million visits per month from Facebook and Twitter.  And in December, 48 of the top 50 publishers saw increased social traffic levels over November, with these publishers averaging a 2.1 percentage point increase in their composition.

At the same time, Twitter has grown in its contribution to the traffic pie, increasing over the course of the fall months from 2.2% of total in September to 3.4% in December.

A New Leader: Wetpaint Ranks #1

As you know from my prior columns, one of the reasons I’ve published this leaderboard is because we set a goal for Wetpaint to reach #1.  What I didn’t tell you previously is the timing: our goal was to do so by the end of 2011.  And there is nothing we get more proud of here at Wetpaint than meeting our goals.

In December, Wetpaint Entertainment social traffic benchmarked at 20.8% of visits, even as our total traffic was at near-record levels.  (Our internal numbers show an even higher contribution.)  This outranks all of the top 50 web publishers, besting the number-two by nearly five points.

Allow me a moment to kvell:  I could not be more proud of the entire Wetpaint team who have achieved this goal.  Beyond the amazing results, they have built an amazing social distribution system and playbook that leads the industry.  With the virtuous cycle the team has built, we are getting significantly better every month.


Other Movers and Shakers

How did the other leaders from prior months do?  People, the previous leader, improved with 16.1% of traffic from social, increasing by 3.9 percentage points even as it fell to the #2 position.

In third place now, US Magazine vaulted all the way up from position 19, improving from an average 3.9% to achieve 14.3% of their traffic from social.  If you have any idea what drove their results, let me know.

As for places #4 and #5, CBS and NBC traded their two slots, with NBC gaining by 4.2 percentage points while CBS gained by only 3.5 points.   And all of that activity pushed MTV down to #6, gaining far slower than the others.  All the details are, as usual, in the table below.


Facebook Is Sending More Traffic Out

Publishers are clearly benefiting as Facebook delivers on its potential to be not just a network but a social operating system for the internet.  In December, we saw the best increases go to the most social publishers (top 10 on this leaderboard), who saw a 4.5 percentage point increase in social traffic composition month to month.

Innovation is attracting large audiences on Facebook.  In particular, the four publishers driving traffic via social readers have increased their share of Facebook traffic to the Top 50 web publishers by 70%.  Yahoo (not included in the 4 just described) has also begun experimenting with social reader tools across select sites and is seeing strong early results as well.  In just two months, Yahoo! News US has reportedly seen a 300% increase in Facebook traffic, driven by 1 million “reads” shared daily.


The Traffic Land Grab Is On Now

We are clearly in the land grab phase on the social web.  Those who are investing early in social as a top objective stand to gain the most – while others may be left behind.

But as my discussions with other media companies show, social is not a simple check-box initiative.   It requires complete buy-in from the CEO to transform the organization with social distribution technology and expertise.

It can be done, as our own experience at Wetpaint as shown:  In less than two years, we have launched a new property and already outranked all of the top 50 publishers on the web.  Now we want more.  And I hope you do too.

 

Details for all 50 top publishers:

MONTHLY RANKINGS

PUBLISHER

 

 

Dec

Nov

Oct

Name of Publisher (Owner)

URL

Monthly Uniques

% from Social

Change

1

2

3

Wetpaint Entertainment

WETPAINT.COM

                3,076,202

20.8%

10.1%

2

1

1

People

PEOPLE.COM

              13,203,882

16.1%

3.9%

3

21

19

US Weekly

USMAGAZINE.COM

                9,339,801

14.3%

10.4%

4

5

5

NBC Universal

NBC.COM

                6,972,501

12.3%

4.2%

5

4

4

CBS

CBS.COM

                7,367,642

11.7%

3.5%

6

3

2

MTV

MTV.COM

                9,920,294

10.7%

2.1%

7

6

7

TMZ

TMZ.COM

13,208,667

9.6%

2.2%

8

13

16

Break Media

BREAK.COM

                8,603,649

9.4%

4.2%

9

8

6

Major League Baseball

MLB.COM

                6,653,288

9.3%

2.3%

10

9

11

Patch (Aol)

PATCH.COM

9,917,563

8.7%

2.2%

11

14

12

Discovery Channel

DISCOVERY.COM

             12,769,340

8.5%

3.4%

12

7

9

Yahoo!

YAHOO.COM

            167,257,797

7.6%

0.5%

13

10

10

Aol

AOL.COM

              50,093,953

7.4%

1.1%

14

15

15

CNN

CNN.COM

              45,650,334

7.1%

2.1%

15

12

13

IGN (News Corp)

IGN.COM

              10,263,828

6.7%

1.4%

16

23

25

MailOnline

DAILYMAIL.CO.UK

              16,656,093

6.4%

2.8%

17

25

22

TIME

TIME.COM

                9,256,468

6.3%

2.7%

18

16

14

TV Guide

TVGUIDE.COM

                7,546,763

6.0%

1.3%

19

11

8

The Guardian

GUARDIAN.CO.UK

                8,495,543

6.0%

0.0%

20

19

18

FOX News (News Corp)

FOXNEWS.COM

              24,444,163

5.9%

1.3%

21

29

23

CBS News

CBSNEWS.COM

              12,064,240

5.7%

2.6%

22

24

26

CBS Local

CBSLOCAL.COM

9,574,168

5.7%

2.1%

23

20

27

The Washington Post

WASHINGTONPOST.COM

              18,671,039

5.5%

1.4%

24

18

17

MSN

MSN.COM

           111,990,691

5.3%

0.7%

25

30

32

New York Daily News

NYDAILYNEWS.COM

                9,585,617

5.1%

2.1%

26

17

20

BBC News

BBC.CO.UK

              14,480,236

5.1%

0.4%

27

41

36

FORBES

FORBES.COM

              12,232,929

5.0%

3.0%

28

26

31

The Huffington Post (Aol)

HUFFINGTONPOST.COM

              36,196,784

5.0%

1.6%

29

31

28

New York Post

NYPOST.COM

                8,085,270

4.8%

1.8%

30

37

41

Bleacher Report

BLEACHERREPORT.COM

                9,178,003

4.7%

2.4%

31

22

21

New York Times

NYTIMES.COM

              30,575,839

4.6%

0.8%

32

34

29

Cartoon Network (Turner)

CARTOONNETWORK.COM

              10,600,092

4.5%

1.7%

33

33

30

Nickelodeon (MTV Networks)

NICK.COM

                9,752,977

4.5%

1.5%

34

27

24

IMDB (Amazon.com)

IMDB.COM

              38,220,405

4.3%

0.9%

35

32

35

Los Angeles Times (Tribune)

LATIMES.COM

              17,080,642

4.2%

1.2%

36

40

39

FOX Sports (News Corp)

FOXSPORTS.COM

              22,401,409

4.2%

2.0%

37

36

34

Food Network (Scripps)

FOODNETWORK.COM

              19,614,352

3.8%

1.2%

38

39

37

Wall Street Journal (News Corp)

WSJ.COM

              12,521,560

3.6%

1.4%

39

35

33

Allrecipes (Readers Digest)

ALLRECIPES.COM

              25,288,480

3.5%

0.8%

40

45

42

CNET (CBS Interactive)

CNET.COM

            28,948,963

3.1%

1.5%

41

38

38

Reuters

REUTERS.COM

              11,692,493

3.0%

0.7%

42

44

45

CNBC

CNBC.COM

                5,674,719

3.0%

1.3%

43

43

44

Bloomberg

BLOOMBERG.COM

                7,515,601

2.8%

1.1%

44

46

47

Businessweek (Bloomberg)

BUSINESSWEEK.COM

           7,964,543

2.6%

1.0%

45

28

43

USA Today (Gannet)

USATODAY.COM

              17,222,775

2.6%

-0.6%

46

42

40

WebMD

WEBMD.COM

              11,901,016

2.5%

0.5%

47

47

46

LIVESTRONG (Demand Media)

LIVESTRONG.COM

                9,464,669

1.8%

0.5%

48

48

48

About.com (NY Times)

ABOUT.COM

              58,684,194

1.6%

0.6%

49

50

50

eHow (Demand Media)

EHOW.COM

              45,015,977

1.5%

0.8%

50

51

51

ThePostGame (Yahoo)

THEPOSTGAME.COM

              18,321,581

1.4%

0.8%

51

49

49

Mayo Clinic

MAYOCLINIC.COM

                9,198,317

1.4%

0.5%

* 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. 

Is BuzzFeed Multiplying Its Value?

Jonah Peretti’s Buzzfeed has been especially buzz-worthy of late, first with a $15.5M capital raise, and more recently via some fascinating brow-raising editorial hires.  First, Ben Smith from Politico and then last week, Doree Shafrir from Rolling Stone… and surely more are on the way. It’s a surprise direction to build original content for a site that had been more of a virality aggregator.   Why the sudden change, especially considering BuzzFeed has been so successful at acquiring audience?

Here’s my two cents:  Virality is a multiplier.  But like any other “x-factor”, it can only make things valuable relative to how much they’re worth to begin with.  A 10X booster can add 9 cents to a penny; or it can be worth $90 by turning a Hamilton into a Franklin.

BuzzFeed is among the best on the planet when it comes to this kind of multiplication.  And when you’re that good, it only makes sense to start working on the base rate.  That means beyond building buzz, the company needs to build a premium brand to attract premium advertisers to its core product and audience.  In media, the best way to make a strong brand that attracts high dollars to begin with is with outstanding content.

I’ve been fascinated to see that at Wetpaint. We now see more than 12 million uniques monthly:  nearly 6 million on our user-generated wiki platform; and 6+ million more on our premium Wetpaint Entertainment property.  They both have great virality that helps them draw audience.  But the original editorial in Wetpaint Entertainment makes the advertising worth even more – and it’s an even more valuable business model.

Premium content plus social distribution means a high base, and a high multiplier on the business model.  And it’s the perfect combination for a successful business model.  Congratulations to Jonah and team for all the success they’re having!

You Can’t Spell Media Without “Me”

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

Without question, one of the greatest gifts of the human species is our ability to communicate.  We can create, transmit, and absorb ideas with immense freedom in pictures, speech, writing, music, and more.  And yet, from the earliest days of man until very recently, the state of the art of media has been about as sophisticated as cave paintings.

Taking this a step further:

Truly great communicators don’t start out by focusing on their message.  They start with their audience.  They research, observe, and monitor every knowable detail – from background facts beforehand to micro-reactions during the conversation – and adjust their content and delivery precisely, so it will make an impact.  But it’s not like this is a secret formula.  Even toddlers do it, carefully measuring parents’ reactions and perpetually tuning in to the behavior patterns that get them the attention they want.  That tuning is carefully optimized to achieve maximum effect from each individualized recipient.

Meanwhile, media has virtually ignored its audiences.

But it’s finally beginning to open its eyes and ears to them through personalization. I believe that personalization has the greatest potential to transform the media business.

But before we get to that, let’s start with what’s gone wrong in media that has made us blind to our audiences’ cues.

In the world of print and broadcast, there was fundamentally no data about audience interests or reactions.  It was impossible to “read the room,” because the room was pitch black.  If media leaders’ eyes were closed, I’d be hard pressed to blame them; there was nothing to see.

As a result, there were two operating principles that made sense at the time, but which have since become outdated anachronisms.

First, that an editor should serve as oracle for what the audience desires (I call this the “Editor Fallacy”); and second, that content created in that vacuum of data should then be distributed as broadly as possible (let’s call this the “Broadcast Assumption”).

These two assumptions – even though they came from the print and broadcast legacy businesses – have errantly managed to drive the entire Web media mentality.

And the resulting misguided formula – across the board – has been Prophesize, Publish and Proliferate.

The big hope with this media Ouija Board has been that the guesses will be right, and that those who broadcast widely will then draw a big audience.  When the guesses miss the mark with audiences (no surprise there), publishers turn up the volume or amp up the sensationalism. To some degree, this is why the Huffington Post succeeds with its brash and blaring headlines, and it explains why, thanks to Henry, we’ve collectively Blodgetized Web 1.0 media.

But to make room for the new media model of the next 100 years, we need to let these old assumptions fall by the wayside.  The new vision is for media to start doing the work that each member of the audience already does; and that means deliberately selecting and contextualizing the media we each consume.

Putting it simply: media’s great opportunity is to bring the right content to the right person at the right place and time.

And this is where things get very interesting.

Bring Me My Very Own World

The social transformation of the Web has already taken us half way down the road toward a personalized future.

We finally recognize that the Web is made up of people, and Facebook and others have made people and relationships the key “nodes and edges in the graph” of the Web, replacing pages and links.  The social Web is now people-centric; and, increasingly, social is becoming the operating system for the Web at large.  Most impressively, “what my friends like” is already proving to be a good starting point to predict “what I like,” and so much of the Web is beginning to get at least a clue of how to serve us.

Despite this tremendous progress, however, when you go behind the scenes, the Web is still organized by data, not by people. Server data is affiliated with accounts; cookies are associated with Web browsers; and activity logs are tethered by IP addresses.

And yet, as the social revolution has proven, the real value of the transformation has been to stop looking at me as an IP address, a browser, or an account; and to start holistically realizing that I’m a person – I am me.

So, the great opportunity is to move from a Web of sites to “my” Web of me.

Media is at a critical transition point today, because we are about to completely redefine our sense of the audience. Starting now, the audience is no longer one massive opaque agglomeration. It’s not a “them” or an “us”; it’s a lot of individual “me’s.”  (This must-watch from Monty Python paints the picture.)

In this context, the Broadcast Assumption of content creators is completely out of touch with the 21st century zeitgeist.  It revolves around the played-out maxim of “create once, distribute everywhere,” which made sense when audiences were opaque and distribution channels were just big dumb pipes.  But it totally ignores the “me’s” in the audience – when it comes to both creation and distribution.

The bottom line, then, is that media experiences, which used to be one-size-fits-all, must now be customized so they’re just for me.

In other words, the media experience of the future must take a cue from Facebook, and bring my world to me – regardless of where it originated. 

The Six Elements of Ultimate Digital Personalization

Social represents progress toward this vision of fully personalized media, but it’s only one part of the game.

In my view, there are six key elements that contribute to ultimate digital personalization – and these elements are the basis for the ultimate success model in digital media:

  • It’s social – What happens to people close to me is important, because these people are important to me.
  • It’s curated – People aren’t just content sources themselves; they’re also curators. To know me is to know my tastemakers.
  • It’s an experience, not just a stream –Newsfeeds and timelines are a meager start.  Twitter’s 140-character format is great for insiders, but it’s inscrutable for Grandpa. Personalized media should come in all formats – not just a feed.  And it will be more powerful (and more profitable) when it creates an immersive experience.
  • It’s incredibly, incredibly smart about what it recommends, and what it doesn’t – But better than today’s Facebook and Twitter, it brings me the right content, not all content. I trust it to filter the world for me, and to highlight what’s important to me out of billions of pieces of information.
  • It’s self-refining – Speaking for myself, it would know to bring me news about digital media; about my company; about my friends’ reviews of great restaurants in Seattle, LA, and New York; and, in the winter, a helpful article or two on snowboarding tips would be greatly appreciated. It would also turn down articles about Glenn Beck, and turn up the latest find from Brian Stelter. And, before you cry (or scream) “filter bubble,” let’s get it straight that this is what I do already.
  • It’s not just the content that’s personalized – It’s the advertising, too. Today’s version is very primitive: I go to a Web site once and its ads follow me around for weeks. But, instead, my demographics, interests and intent should all combine to inform what ads to show – and not show – me.

After considering these six elements as a whole, I’m most inspired (and encouraged) by Facebook, Twitter, AOL Editions, the recent Flipboard clones, NetFlix, and the potential of a new Siri-powered Apple TV.

Each of these demonstrates the central aspect of this new vision for media: bringing my world to me.

Data Is the Currency of Personalization

To be successful, we all need to be data companies – as data is the clear way to know what our audience wants.  Data is the currency of personalization, and so it is our best path to delighting our audience.

News sites should know by now what topics and stories to program for whom; and no sports site should serve a balanced home page when no sports fan likes all teams equally.

It’s an approach that, of all companies, Yahoo! ‘gets’– and for them it’s been paying huge dividends for a long time.   And so it should for the rest of us.

What this means for media is that it’s not all about the content – instead, it’s all about the audience.  And that means the nature of media has changed.

It’s all about you. It’s all about me.

That’s the digital media future. And we need to start going there today – because audiences are asking (and even demanding) that we pay attention to them, that we really know them, as true individuals.

So, if you’re a publisher, here’s the challenge as you try to create meaningful content experiences today: Each member of your audience – no matter how vast it is – has to become the most important person in the world to you. Or, looking at it in a slightly different way, you have to become deeply involved and digitally intimate on a global scale each and every day.

October 2011 Media Industry Social Leaderboard: Facebook Traffic To Publishers Down 13%

Back by popular demand is an updated ranking of the Media Industry Social Leaderboard.  As a reminder, my company and I are obsessively focused on data about the social web – so much so, that we decided to track and publish not only our own results, but those of the top 50 media companies.  This is all captured in the chart below which profiles the top 50 web publishers’ effectiveness at driving traffic from social media.

For the inquisitive among us, you’ll note that we determine the top 50 relevant web publishers; then, using data from Compete.com, we determine and chart how much of their traffic is from Facebook and Twitter.

One important note is that Facebook’s changes in its algorithms launched at F8 impacted nearly all publishers in this ranking – more on that in a moment.

But first, let’s get to the results:


Facebook Traffic Down by 13%.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the bars are lower this month. In fact, over 90% of the top 50 web publishers saw a decreased percentage of their visits coming from Facebook and Twitter in October, with the bars shortening on average by 50 basis points.

In terms of aggregate performance, if you sum the total Facebook visits for all properties, they’re down 7.1% October vs. September, and 12.8% comparing October vs. the pre-F8 August highs.  We believe this trend is the direct result of the F8 algorithm changes made in mid-September.  Savvy social publishers (ourselves included) have been battling to reclaim previous highs since the F8 changes; but by October few had recovered.  The chart below highlights the reduction in referrals from Facebook to publishers over the course of their algorithmic change.


Winners and Losers:  CBS down; People, MTV, Wetpaint up

CBS has continued to fall in social traffic composition (-3.7% September-over-August, -5.5% Octocber-over-September), moving from the top rank on the Media Industry Social Leaderboard to number 4.  Unclear what has caused this decline although one hypothesis could be an increase in either SEO or paid audience acquisition.  If you have any insight here, shoot me a note.

Closer to home, People, MTV, and Wetpaint maintained their relative rankings and have moved to the top 3 spots.  At Wetpaint, we credit our climb up the ladder to our relentless A/B testing that has allowed us to understand what our audience desires in a deep way, and inform our editors with this insight.  The result is that we are creating, packaging, and distributing the right content, at the right time and our audience has voted with clicks, likes, and shares.

Big Change For a Big Media Change Agent and a Big Publisher

Laura Lang has a proven and powerful track record as a media change agent.

As CEO of Digitas, she helped uber-marketers like Procter & Gamble and American Express move smartly into digital advertising. And she is conversant and fluid with new publishing platforms – and knows how to make them profitable.

Now, she’s been asked to lead Time Inc., and its 21 venerable titles, which include Time, People and Sports Illustrated.

Time Inc. has absolutely amazing brands with outstanding reputation, heritage, editorial staff, and customer bases; but, at the same time, the business model of magazines is structurally breaking.

What an interesting – and tantalizing – choice.

And you can’t be a media leader today, unless you’re willing to innovate on the business model itself.

Which is why Laura seems so promising.

I love the idea that at Time Inc. she’ll be able to innovate in core product, just like she did at Digitas. I also love the notion that she’ll aggressively develop new products for advertisers.

What will be new to her is the actual business of publishing – a business where Time Inc. stands stronger than almost any other player.

The central question for me is whether Time Inc. is ready for the change that a leader like Laura will want to (and need to) bring.

Indeed, Time Inc. has fundamental open questions to address when it comes to its own relevance in the digital world.

While the powerful brand of Time magazine has set the American agenda for decades, Time.com has wandered.  In the past, Fortune magazine always spoke to the most important business issues and people; but today, its online brand is less clear, with basic confusion even in its home-page address (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/). This simply muddles Fortune, Money, and CNN.

To be as successful in the next century as it’s been in the past, Time Inc. will have to adapt more fully to the digital world. That means developing new business models, as well as new attitudes toward consumers, advertisers, and the product itself. It will also require a healthy reinvigoration of key brands, an area where I think Laura may especially shine.

All of this will take nuance, to bend things without breaking them.

I’ll end the year on an optimistic note, and say that I hope Laura can finesse major innovation for this major publisher. If she can, watch out world – because very interesting and far-reaching things will happen.