Introducing Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web

This is the first in a series of 10 posts about the future of the media industry contained in a report titled:  Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web.


As Don Graham, Chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Company, recently remarked on-stage at a conference of leading CEO’s, the media industry as we have known it for the last 100 years is collapsing. The basic structure of our industry – content creation, packaging, distribution, and monetization – have shifted so substantially that the rug has literally been pulled out from underneath media’s business model.

A new model must be created – and the DNA of the medium itself has been irreversibly altered so that it is now innately social.

And yet, in the midst of this upheaval, I’ve found that even the brightest and most well informed strategies are able to tap only part of media’s new nature and capture just a slice of the industry’s remaking.

At a time like this, to get a complete picture of the territory ahead, there is nothing wiser than integrating perspective from the best and brightest people in the publishing world.  And, over the course of the last several years, I’ve been immensely grateful for those leaders’ intelligence and vision.

So, I thought it was only fitting to help create the ultimate social network – one that will enable our industry to share the smartest ideas as it remakes digital media.

That’s what this compendium is all about.

Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web brings together eight of the most thoughtful influencers and offers their most cogent assessment of the new online relationship-building that is helping to connect people in absolutely unprecedented ways.

Together, these eight contributors reinforce three dominant themes:

Building a media brand on the new social Web means that publishers have to meet consumers where, when and how they want. It’s all about user-driven pull, and publishers need to offer experiences and establish relationships that may not be on their own terms.

Facebook is a transformative platform driving new personalization and connectivity across the upstart social Web. We are still waiting to see all of what Facebook ultimately becomes, but we know it represents a once-in-a-generation paradigm shift.

Any way you look at it, search (as we know it) is declining. The open sharing of social networks, and the power of social endorsement, are seriously altering what consumers look for on the Web, and how we’re engaging with content. The search algorithm has lost out – big time – to the will of the audience.

But the most powerful insights are in the essays that follow from each of our eight contributors.

Jeff Berman (@bermanjeff), General Manager of Digital Media for the NFL and Buddy Media board member, talks about how Facebook is eclipsing search.

Greg Clayman (@Clayman), Publisher of The Daily, explains why Facebook is taking sharing to a whole new level.

Jason Hirschhorn (@JasonHirschhorn), Curator of Media ReDEFined, considers the element of surprise in social media.

Lewis DVorkin (@lewisdvorkin), Chief Product Officer at Forbes Media, discusses how he’s tearing down the walls that traditional media built.

Anthony Soohoo (@anthonysoohoo), Co-Founder & CEO of Rumpus and former SVP & GM of Entertainment at CBS Interactive, focuses on the way that the people-powered Web is changing innovation.

Wenda Harris Millard, President of Media Link LLC, advances the notion of a new personal recommendation engine on today’s Web.

Erik Flannigan (@butterking), EVP of Digital Media at MTV Networks Entertainment, shows how to build great relationships with social media fan bases.

Theresia Gouw Ranzetta (@tgr), a Partner at Accel Partners, zeroes in on the way that ecommerce is blazing a trail for social Web publishers.

I have already learned a lot from each of these people and their pieces, and I hope you do, too – not only to build your own ideas, but to help our industry move forward. To that end, I invite further conversation with me, and with our contributors.

The digital dialogue is so essential as we all work to re- invent publishing for 21st century audiences. 

 

To download the complete report, please click here:  Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web

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

The Coming Video War Between Apple and Google

This follows my recent post about how a new TV interface from Apple could decimate the television landscape.

Even though Steve Jobs never talked about changing the face of search with Siri, its natural language interface.

But doing so would certainly be a riveting Hollywood screenplay in which Jobs, the uber-innovative, uber-inventive CEO, ultimately gets revenge on a corporate rival he views as a “copy cat.”

In this fictional script, that rival would be Eric Schmidt, one of the top executives at search giant Google. It’s Google, after all, that’s breathing down Apple’s neck with its rapidly expanding Android phone platform – a platform that, according to Jobs and his lawyers, mimics Apple’s breakthrough iPhone technology.

Putting this Oscar dream aside, there’s intensifying competition heating up between Apple and Google, even though Jobs is –sadly – no longer on the scene.

Indeed, even though Google has had voice-enabled search for some time on iOS and Android devices, Schmidt has said it’s possible that Siri could be a real and radical game-changer.

Schmidt may be right.  And if he is, then Google will be facing a serious threat as Apple reinvents Google’s home turf of search.

With a “personality” that displays a unique understanding of humanity, Siri’s digital chromosomes enrich the user’s experience. This sets it apart from Google’s more mechanical offerings, and shows why Apple’s consumer-obsessed culture is so different from Google’s corporate DNA, which is as robotic and algorithmic as the “Android” name suggests.

There is rich irony here, as Apple disintermediates the greatest disintermediator of all time.  When Google’s superior search service started, it practically single-handedly reduced the brand-driven experience that consumers had thereto relied on with directories and a fully editorialized Web.  Google replaced those channels and home pages with 10 blue links.  And in the process, became users’ destination of first resort 13 times per day.

And Apple has always been a curator extraordinaire – developing collections and exercising famous (and occasionally notorious) judgment to determine who deserves to be in its directories of songs and apps.

But now, Siri stands ready to flatten the world of entertainment.

In all fairness, Page and his team are now trying hard to enrich the user experience by aligning their YouTube brand with media companies like Disney, and doling out big dollars for proprietary programming. The hope here is that YouTube can create dozens of lucrative user-friendly / user-favorite Web channels featuring comedians, sports stars, musicians and other entertainers.  The company is building stocks of its ‘own’ media weapons in preparation for the coming war.

But, as always, it will be hard for Google to win the hearts of consumers when it comes to content; and it will be especially daunting because Apple is already so completely connected to users.

Meanwhile, with its enviable consumer connection, Apple will undoubtedly extract a toll from media companies, who still want to bathe in the warm digital light that emanates from the inviting and engaging brand Jobs built.  And, as it has in every other media category, Apple stands to capture an outsize share of profits for delivering content into a magical consumer experience.

Jealous much, Google?

With Siri TV, Apple Will Dismantle the TV Networks

This article was published as a guest post at All Things D, and is republished here for DigitalQuarters readers.

Steve Jobs died without fully transforming television, but the day after he passed away, Apple unveiled Siri, its natural language interface. Though it’s currently only embedded in the new iPhone 4S, Siri could eventually change the face of the TV industry.

Notice I said “TV industry.”

But from my perspective, Siri’s greatest impact won’t ultimately be on users, or on device manufacturers (though they certainly risk losing market share to Apple). It will be on the TV industry’s content creators and packagers. Why? Because a voice-controlled television interface will fundamentally disrupt the six-decade-old legacy structure of networks, channels and programs. And that’s a legacy that — until now, at least — has been carried forward from analog to digital.Most observers and analysts believe that Siri’s voice commands could eliminate the need for those clunky TV remote controls. With the blurring and exponential proliferation of television and Web content, telling your TV what you’d like to watch, instead of scrolling through a nearly infinite number of program possibilities, makes a lot more sense.

There’s an important underlying precedent here.

If the Internet can be generalized to have one effect across every industry that moves online, that effect would be disaggregation. Choices go from finite to infinite. Navigation goes from sequential to random access. And audiences choose content by the item far more than by the collection. We’ve gone from the packaged and channelized to the unbound and itemized. Autonomous albums are fragmented into songs; series into clips; and magazines and newspapers into articles and individual photos.

As much as we may think that has already happened with video, it is nothing compared to the great leveling that will occur in the voice-controlled living room. Voice-controlled TV means direct navigation to individual episodes, programs and clips. And it will almost certainly lead to a discernible deconstruction of the network and channel structure — not to mention the decomposition of even the aggregated marketplaces like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube.

Here’s the simple reason: No one is going to sit on their couch and say, “Siri, show me NBC’s ‘Community.’” In a voice-activated world, monikers like “NBC” become useless. They don’t stand for anything meaningful to the consumer. They’re just remnants of a decrepit channel structure that’s unraveling. And, in the end, they’ll simply connote the fast-fading allure of mid-20th century mass appeal.

To be sure, the TV majors will lose much of their ability to realize network effects. Already, you’re hearing less about “lead in” and “lead out.” What you are hearing more about, however, is disconnected videos. A program on YouTube, for instance, will sit on a level voice-controlled playing field with an NBC show, and that field will soon become even more level, because Siri will eliminate the menus that structure the artificial hierarchies of content collections.

So how will we be able to get network effects back in video? Let’s look at four possible ways:

  • Branded Content — Players can build a strong brand that stands for something with their audiences. Break.com, Discovery and Oprah are all meaningful and build long-term customer loyalty. (“Siri, show me new TED Talks.”)
  • Curation — Brand the collection with a curation strategy so that the curator’s name and stamp of approval means something to the audience. (“Siri, show me Jason Hirschhorn’s latest movie suggestions.”)
  • Social — In the fully social world that we expect to see, focusing on the virality of content means you tap the human distribution network and social operating system. (“Siri, show me what videos my friends are watching.”)
  • Personal — We’ve already seen the extraordinary value of well-tuned personalized recommendations, with Netflix’s notable prize and other famed stories of the benefits of great recommendations. Increasingly, our own patterns of individual videos and the brands we affiliate with, along with recommendations from friends, will be combined into personalized recommendations we won’t even have to ask for. I have no doubt that Siri will be as good a “Genius” as iTunes is at recommending what else to watch. Ultimately, in the age of data, whoever knows the most about us will be able to give us the best experience.

Beyond disaggregation, personalization is ultimately the most powerful consumer value of digital media. My mother’s TV experience was to walk over to her TV set and turn a dial to select among three channels to satisfy her individuality. But in the next generation, no two people will receive the same recommendations from the millions of content choices available.

Before he died, Jobs now famously told Walter Isaacson, his biographer, that he had finally cracked the TV code. It’s unclear what Jobs meant, what this entailed or what he thought it would lead to in the years to come. So, barring further posthumous disclosure, Jobs’s own predictions of his ripple effects will be a media mystery for now.

One thing that’s clear, though, is that Jobs’s Siri will start the dismantling — or creative destruction — of the TV industry as we’ve known it for the last 60 years.

What’s Really Behind The HuffPo Revolt (Hint: It’s Not About The Money)

I sent the following thoughts to Fred Allen at Forbes.com about how bloggers made The Huffington Post what it ultimately became, and profited all along the way.  For Fred Allen, Lewis DVorkin, and all of Forbes’ leaders, they are taking on the challenge of merging world-class editorial and brand reputation with the new reality that one can’t pretend to serve one’s customers best by writing all the good stuff onself.

Just realizing that the formula needs to change though is only the beginning.  It immediately leads straight to serious questions to conceptualize and implement:  now they have to figure out how to combine two different philosophies – one of proprietary branded editorial, and one of curation.

It’s a live laboratory as we get to see them take on the challenge, even as AOL and Huffington Post have a similar challenge of bringing their own two approaches together.

My comments to Fred are reprinted below; and Fred’s thoughts are here at Forbes.com.

There has been a backlash against Huffington Post in light of its acquisition last week by AOL.

People who were willing to contribute to HuffPo for free are suddenly irritated that the AOL deal creates a payoff for shareholders but not for them.  Since AOL is a publicly held corporate entity, these contributors’ expectations have changed, and now they want to get paid.

It’s a noisy revolt, but I think HuffPo’s dissident contributors are waving spatulas in the air, rather than guns.

Underlying these revisionist claims of exploitation, one thing has been clear from the get-go: The dominant motivation of the bloggers who have posted on Huffington Post has always been far more about narcissism than altruism.

The reason Arianna Huffington was able to attract such thoughtful and provocative bloggers in the first place was because her site is a promotion machine. With each new post and blogger added, Huffington’s creation became a more powerful destination. And that meant that the site was even more attractive to the next potential blogger. The choice for a new contributor was simple: Set up your own blog, and patiently hope you can build audience over a period of years, or join the club and get instant exposure. Like the AAA automobile club or AARP, the more members in the club, the greater the value became.

The benefits of joining Arianna’s legions were numerous: Posting at HuffPo offered instant reach, credentialing, and ego gratification. Make no mistake about it, these benefits were valued by contributors all along the way. (If they weren’t, then Huffington Post wouldn’t have any contributors in the first place.) In fact, these non-financial benefits have proved far more valuable to contributors than cash.

Looking back, then, it’s definitely been a win-win: Bloggers built their own value while creating value for HuffPo at the same time.  And in the AOL transaction, absolutely nothing changes that value equation retrospectively—except jealousy.

Now, on a prospective basis, the only question is whether the value received by contributors going forward will be just as great.

In terms of traffic, there’s no doubt that it will be. But the real issue is whether the HuffPo brand under AOL’s auspices will be as valuable when it comes to providing the most important of all of Huffington Post’s assets—the halo of its brand prestige. From my perspective, this remains to be seen.

And, finally, consider this: If The New York Times had acquired HuffPo, would there be a blogger revolt at all?  Absolutely not!

This highlights the greatest opportunity and the greatest risk for AOL and Arianna Huffington. If they can truly enhance the Huffington Post Media Group so that it’s an even stronger and more prestigious media destination, then their pipeline of great content will expand further, because the benefits of contributing will continue to grow. On the other hand, if the brand is diluted down to “old AOL” standards, then all will be lost.

Tim Armstrong was wise to put Arianna Huffington personally in charge of this, because the success of last week’s deal may very well hinge on her ability to promise, persuade, and deliver at a high bar. AOL will be relying on her strength of vision, her standards, and her personal brand to bolster not only the Huffington Post’s brand, but AOL’s as well.

So the real threat to Huffington Post’s contributors is not that they will be exploited; rather, it’s the potential loss of the media machine that has been promoting them for so long.

Arianna and Tim – A Media Match Made in Heaven?

Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, has rebooted AOL with a talk-track of branded destinations, A-level journalism and sizzling original content; and early Monday morning, a full week before Valentine’s Day, his romantic media vision was considerably enhanced, when Arianna Huffington announced that she was selling Huffington Post to AOL for $300 million in cash and $15 million in stock.

For the record, that’s quite a premium price – 10 x Huffington Post’s $31 million in revenues.

Despite the cost, however, Armstrong is a very lucky man, and he received a wonderful gift from Huffington, whose hugely successful and much-talked-about Web site is a perfect match that helps “complete” AOL.

Indeed, the relationship between Armstrong and Huffington comes not a minute too soon for AOL, which is finally bringing on real creative assets and talent – including Arianna Huffington, herself, as chief editorial taste-maker.

To be honest, the media industry has been wondering whether Armstrong could actually pull off a deal like this. (True Confession: I’ve been among the doubters.)

And there’s good reason for the skepticism.

The problem, in large part, has been strategic. Since he assumed the CEO’s post, Armstrong has talked with clarity about his vision for an AOL made up of destination media brands, the way Time Inc. and Conde Nast have built their portfolios.  But to date, his build-out of this city on a hill has fallen short. Instead of buildings gilded with leading journalism that attracts fame and eyeballs, his properties have largely been constructed by plumbers and mechanics laying a foundation for search engine rankings.

That’s why AOL’s recently leaked master plan, “The AOL Way,” is heavily oriented toward users’ search queries.  The playbook emphasizes volume of content, page-views per post, and production cost per-piece.  And, while “The AOL Way” is punctuated by periodic reminders like “quality content at scale,” the reader of the plan is left with the distinct impression that quality is a guardrail, not a compass direction for the journey to ROI nirvana.

Indeed, without a voice or a purpose other than page-views, “The AOL Way” comes off as soulless. Instead of emphasizing audience interests, an editorial point of view, or premium differentiation, it’s a volume strategy: the plan calls for the number of stories to jump from 33,000 to 55,000 a month; with median performance to go from 1,512 page-views per article to 7,000 within the quarter; all while gross margins rocket from 35 percent to 50 percent.

This Google-ingratiating strategy, at least from my perspective, is wrong-headed and short-sighted.  It doesn’t do anything to help build a unique and long-lasting brand that is meaningful for audiences.  And, as a result, it does very little to encourage people to eagerly and voluntarily type “AOL.com” into their browser’s destination bar.  With this playbook, consumers don’t go to AOL; they merely end up there.

There’s a solid lesson here for all of us.

AOL – like everybody else in the media business – is clearly jealous of Facebook’s gravity-defying results.  But it takes time for a proper media brand to achieve such stratospheric numbers.  The great brands – The New York Times, ESPN, CNN, Wall Street Journal – have shown us that you build audience loyalty one positive interaction, one ambitious story, and one rich consumer experience at a time.  To be sure, Huffington Post has shown us that, building its audience to a reported 25 million uniques over a well-paced five years.

So, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen if you’re just playing for quick search engine results.

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see whether Huffington – a savvy and independent thought leader who has always leaned forward – chooses to embrace “The AOL Way.”

My sense is that she will continue to follow her well-honed consumer-focused instincts instead.  She brings a strong point of view, a decidedly human nose for news, and a variety of social strategies for distribution – not to mention her considerable star power.  And that’s a good thing for AOL.

It’s important to recognize Armstrong’s considerable achievements.  He saw that AOL’s subscription model was a non-starter; he chose areas of core content concentration for AOL; and, unlike Yahoo!, for example, he pared AOL’s portfolio quite dramatically.

But the pre-Valentine’s Day courtship and consummation with Huffington will mean very little in the consumer marketplace if Armstrong doesn’t get rid of his seemingly unshakable Google obsession – and very soon.

Here’s hoping that Arianna can help nurture Tim’s AOL, and turn it into a true media destination.

Why Huffington Post Is The Perfect Acquisition For Yahoo’s Media Strategy

Last month, I wrote a post titled “Associated Content is Yahoo’s First Big Media Move. Here’s What Should Come Next,” in which I pushed Yahoo to acquire premium content properties to overcome the commodity signal they sent by acquiring AC.  I said at the time that Huffington Post’s curation model “crowdsources content but applies a strong point of view and features premier branded names, lifting it above the commodity fold.”  For Yahoo, Huffington Post is the perfect combination of premium and economical.

Now, over this last weekend, Erick Schonfeld wrote at TechCrunch that deal discussions between these two publishers are underway for a content partnership or outright acquisition. Though Arianna Huffington denies it, other sources indicate that HuffPo has been on Yahoo’s short list, and I wouldn’t be surprised if conversations have been ongoing.

While  Yahoo had previously announced intentions to compete in news by hiring brand-name reporters, that direction is fraught for the big portal:  the news category is difficult to lead with a heavy demand on consistently breaking  news — and it would take years for Yahoo to build the credibility in original reporting to become a true audience magnet.   And the prize for winning even if they do?  It could be losses, not profits, as has been born out by the experience of myriad old media outlets who are now making over their businesses.

What Huffington Post represents is a far better road for Yahoo to go from portal to destination in a realistic way.  HuffPo can draw audiences not by competing with the news outlets on reporting but with great access and point of view – both of which are within Yahoo’s brand and execution reach.  It would serve as an anchor property with true destination draw.

Indeed, Huffington Post may be unique among the news-oriented sites of the portals, curators, and aggregators in having earned true premium positioning.  They did so by emphasizing a strong and reliable point of view along with affiliation with notable brands (such as regulars Arianna Huffington herself, Bill Maher, Harry Shearer, and Rosie O’Donnell, along with guest posts from a robust range of influentials).  Along the way, the site has also earned an outstanding brand and destination audience of 22 million (comScore), consistently garnering visits from both search engine referrals (14% of traffic from Google according to compete.com) and social networks (16% from Facebook).

This destination draw is critical for Yahoo.  At Yahoo’s home page, 73% of monthly viewers are there to get their mail – and that usage is shrinking at (2%) per year (comscore April 2010 vs. April 2009) vs. a US internet universe which grew at 10%.  As Yahoo commits to a media-company destiny, its strategy must be to create high-end destination titles that will draw premium advertising – not just keep mail users on-network longer.

For those in charge of Yahoo’s media properties, David Ko and Jimmy Pitaro, they would get two other benefits to leverage:  HuffPo gives Yahoo a premium curation model prototype for it to replicate; and a DNA transplant to bring in the talent and experience to scale that model.

As far as the first, Huffington Post has shown itself to be the best of the curators, establishing a strong point of view that draws a huge audience with near-zero cost for original content.  And the model – the fame and traffic of Huffington Post beget contribution from interesting people, which drives more fame and traffic for Huffington Post’s brand – is replicable in other categories, as HuffPo has shown with its entertainment category rumored to already reach an audience of 10 million monthly, according to internal measurements.  This is the sort of model that Yahoo should be banking on, as commodity content alone will never make Yahoo a premier media company.

Perhaps more importantly, there is nothing to catalyze the adoption of a new direction like bringing on a talented and effective crew.  An acquisition of Huffington Post brings not just a branded destination, but a whole crew of operators with a scarce and effective set of skill, approach, and attitudes.  Those genetic elements are exactly what Yahoo needs to quickly set a new approach to existing properties with large audiences, such as entertainment, shine, and omg!, as well as to each new title launched.

All in all, an acquisition of Huffington Post would form the perfect foundation for Yahoo’s new ambitions as a premier media destination – and would be well worth the several hundred million dollars it would surely cost to set a bold and profitable strategy for Yahoo to be a premier media company.