by Ben Elowitz

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

The New York Times named 2012 the crossover year for Big Data:  as a term and as a concept, Big Data broke through from the tech circle and into mainstream consciousness.  (So much so that even Dilbert’s boss was talking about it.)

We’ve seen huge advances in our ability to generate, collect, and store an explosion of data points:  90% of the world’s data has been accumulated in the last two years alone.  We’re generating 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily, and every serious company is dutifully logging and contextualizing every impression, every click, and every purchase with excruciating detail.

That said, shockingly little happens to the information once it’s been stowed in the database.  A good friend gave voice to this dirty little industry secret the other day:

“Nobody wants to use the data.”

He’s remarkably spot-on.  Even though almost every CEO says their company is becoming data-driven, the fact is that most high-level decisions are still being made from bullet points, not data points.

What the data revolution brought us was systems for collecting data – but collecting is the easy part.  And even more importantly, it’s the safe part.

 

The Real Problem:  Data Phobia

The trouble with data is that it asks as many questions as it answers.  Your engagement is down, bounce rate is up, search traffic is up – why is that, and what can we do to make it higher, lower, and higher?  Data almost never hands you the answers or insights directly; it just illuminates the issue.  And it illuminates a whole bunch of them at once, so it’s up to you to figure out what the priorities are.

If this problem is an “opportunity in disguise,” most executives seem quickly scared off by the masquerade.  In truth, Big Data raises the bar for how smart you have to be as an executive.

The easy answer – leaving the analytics to the analytics department – relieves you of the responsibility of figuring it all out, as though it’s unknowable to anyone without a degree in data science.  But it also relieves you of the answers.

What is the executive’s greatest fear?  That exposing the trove of data without knowing what to do with it makes them look worse, not better.  In media, many have hidden that fear behind the veneer of idealistic purism.  I remember talking with Martin Nisenholtz several years ago when he was at The New York Times about how data is used in a newsroom; I asked what would happen if he shared performance metrics with reporters in real time (obviously this was before Chartbeat) to see what their audience cares about.  He said, “They would throw me out.”

Our strong institutions and professional commitment to standards have ensured the journalistic values of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability.  None of those values are furthered by closing our eyes and ears to our own audiences.  The result is a paradoxical culture that boldly states “content is king” and yet refuses to quantify its value for fear of tainting the purity of the product.

 

The Opportunity:  Using Big Data to Make Big Bets

Until recently, we have had startlingly few case studies of the transformative power of Big Data on which to model our own big changes in media.  Instead we’ve had IT initiatives that promised big insights, but ended up delivering big databases and bigger IT bills.  For once, it’s not the IT department’s fault – it’s those of us who are using the data (and, more often, aren’t using it) who are to blame.

That’s why I turn to those who have made the big bets to see what’s different.  Netflix has long been the poster child for using data to drive results, and now they’ve proven in no uncertain terms that when you ask your data the right questions you can find hugely valuable insights – even in the sacred domain of content creation.

Before Netflix pursued the option to buy House of Cards, they looked to their massive data stash.  They wanted to know:  Do Netflix users enjoy political thrillers?  Check.  Of political thriller enthusiasts, how many also watch David Fincher films?  A whole bunch.  Oh, and one more thing:  Is this crowd fond of Kevin Spacey?  As it turned out, there was a very healthy crossover in that Venn diagram.

Not only did this insight give Reed Hastings the confidence to bid on House of Cards – it gave him the level of certainty necessary to outbid heavyweights like HBO and AMC for the series.

What I love most about this story is that the questions were so simple, so logical.  Sometimes the sheer volume of data at our fingertips overwhelms us and makes us forget that the fundamental strategic questions haven’t changed.  What has changed is that now we have far better access to the answers.  And when you can give your users what they want based on the signals they themselves have been sending you, that’s when Big Data starts to earn its keep.

 

Five Questions You Should Be Asking Your Data

Forget about Omniture and Google Analytics and all of the data minutiae you’re already tracking.  Forget about little personalization features.  The most valuable data doesn’t fit on the dashboard.  Think bigger and move upstream:  what’s the most amazing new product or service you can create?  Here are five places to start digging:

1. What does my audience LOVE?  Cut the data every way you can to deeply understand this, with nuance – then reorient around that product.  It might be parenting advice, or current memes, or breaking news.  If you can find a common thematic thread in your most-consumed content, you have a great starting point for further segmentation.  Lauren Zalaznick turned the Bravo network around by pinpointing the five key interests of the audience, cutting out the clutter, and giving them more and more and more of what they loved (hence the hugely popular Top Chef and Real Housewives).

2. How do they want it?  Netflix noticed that a significant number of users were watching marathon-style, and so they bucked TV tradition and released House of Cards all at once.  How could you change your content packaging to better match the real habits of your users?  Many have tried and failed with full-length video programming on the web; that’s because (so far at least) most Internet audiences can’t sit still long enough to watch a 30- or 60-minute program.  Adapt your delivery to what your audience wants.

3. How can I best relate to them?  Personality is critical – so which of your brands’ public talents and personalities relate to whom?  It might be a popular columnist, Don Draper, or Boo the Pomeranian.  Figure out which personalities your audience connects with the most, and leverage them into the other themes and packages.

4. What secret signals is my audience sending?  Target famously figured out how to identify pregnant shoppers and even estimate their due dates months before the woman ever purchased a stroller or a pack of diapers.  Find out which clues in your data indicate that a customer may be on the path to a new phase of life, and start messaging them with your relevant content even before they get there.

5. Where is my sweet spot?  Once you discover the key themes, packages, and personalities that resonate with your audience the most (and at which relevant life stages), you can cross the data sets and identify your best untapped opportunities.  Don’t just tweak your existing products and advertising – create whole new products that are designed specifically to thrive at the intersection.  Just as the strong affinity overlap for Spacey / Fincher / Cards gave Netflix the confidence to make a bold bet, your own Venn diagram will spotlight your best chances to create knockout content that is destined to succeed.

 

Rethinking Management:  Ask, Understand, Execute

When it comes to dealing with Big Data, our skills haven’t evolved as fast as our capacity.  We all have a functional specialty, whether it be content creation or distribution or sales or management – so whose job is it to ask the right questions of the data?  Big insights and actions aren’t led by a data scientist; they are led by an executive who has an integrated view of customers, products, distribution, and sales.

But asking Big Data the right questions isn’t just a new practice to add to the management to-do list.  Pulling it off requires a rethinking of the manager’s role entirely.  We’ve traditionally thought of management as the discipline of managing people and managing the business.  Now it’s time to add “managing our understanding” to the job description.

The time of the executives who merely “execute” is past.  The successful executives in this post-Big-Data world first ask, understand, and then execute with the full support of the data behind them.

by Ben Elowitz

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

Web, mobile, and social platforms have created a huge conundrum for media companies: we are experiencing an explosion of content, and yet it is harder than ever to find an audience.

It’s a stark contrast from the glory days, where distribution was fixed and scarce, and all we had to do was put a great product out there! At the time, all content had its own native distribution outlet — a channel on the dial, a spot on the newsstand, a movie theater, video store — that delivered it to the bulk of its audience. That distribution was beautifully limited — there’s only room for 12 channels on a VHS dial, 16 movies at a multiplex, and maybe several thousand titles at video rental stores.

But today, where distribution and consumption are in constant flux. Look at TV. To be truly “Everywhere” these days, a TV show has to be on network, cable, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Facebook, and Amazon, have its own native app in Apple and Android stores — at a minimum — and a presence in Google’s mighty search index.

To succeed today, digital media companies need to get control of their distribution. The opportunity for savvy media companies is to abandon the outdated if-we-build-it-they-will-come mentality, and master the craft and science of programming.

Programming is the skill of matching content to audience. Programming is what built the global TV and film industry from $200 billion to $300 billion in the last decade. If you want to succeed in digital media going forward, programming is everything.

I spent time recently with a friend from CBS and told him about what my company Wetpaint does to program social as a channel:  In short, we deterministically deliver the right content to each audience at the right time. That might mean, for example, a recap of yesterday’s news timed for the morning bus ride, a short-form video clip posted to coincide with a mid-morning coffee break, a gossipy tidbit just as lunch begins. “That may work in entertainment,” he said.  ”But it would never work in breaking news.  In news, everything needs to go out immediately.”

So I did some research, and it turns out he’s wrong. When you look at what our editors consider breaking news within the entertainment category, the vast majority of stories — more than 75 percent — perform better when they’re packaged and presented at another time of day, and not when they first break.

While immediacy became the mandate in the ages of CNN and Google, smart programming is far superior in an age of multiple distribution outlets.

The expertise of digital programming is in its infancy, but some of the secrets for success have emerged. Here are a few:

1. You don’t have one big audience. 

Digital media companies need to know who their audience is and what they like, and then customize their product and pitch accordingly. But convention on the web has been to serve everyone the same thing — and the folly of that is a massive missed opportunity. Instead, understand your value to all your major audience segments. After all, each person you reach thinks of herself as an audience of one.  Meet her where she’s at, and you’ll find your resonance — and performance — will be much greater.

For decades, the National Football League operated on the basic assumption that football is for guys. That conventional wisdom was upended in 2010 when research by the NFL and Nielsen found that more than 40% of the league’s fans were women. (It’s upwards of 44 percent now.) Of course, football fans (both male and female), segment along many lines — and NFL marketers will have to find ways to speak to, sell to and grow all those demographics. But acknowledging women was a huge and lucrative step to grow the league’s opportunity massively.

2. Learn what will resonate. (Hint: In the battle for consumer hearts and minds, heart wins every time.)
Once you know who your customers really are, and can group them by their common interests, the world opens up.  You have the freedom to design new content and experiences to delight them. It doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all any longer; your brand doesn’t have to be watered down to its most basic and neutral. Many brands and publishers struggle for relevance — but once you articulate who your audiences are and understand what they’re interested in, the door is open to all kinds of new conversations. Research, feedback and analytics can help you become expert in each of your audience segments. Then use those insights to grow your brand.

Sticking with the NFL as an example, when the league learned about its popularity with women, it took that finding and ran with it, introducing a new website, ad campaign and product lines — all aimed at the now 80 million women who tune into NFL games each weekend. Female fans rewarded the new attention by dropping millions on NFL apparel, jewelry, nail polish, yoga mats, etc. The league went further and partnered with the American Cancer Society to raise awareness about breast cancer, which explains all the pink flourishes (gloves, socks, wristbands, etc.) on the field and the sidelines these days. This overdue — and heartfelt — outreach strengthened the bond between the NFL and its huge female fan base. The league’s bottom line smiled. In 2012, NFL fans spent $3.2 billion on consumer products.

3. Timing is everything.  
Of course, the most basic element of the art of content programming, one that’s been mastered by the TV networks, is knowing what performs when. Prime time shows don’t work in the mornings; re-runs would squander the huge opportunity of evening viewing. There’s a time for opinion and a slot for hard news, and reversing them tanks performance and tunes out audiences.

But on the web, well, somehow the only rule of thumb our industry seems to know is “the best time to post is now.” And it’s preposterous.

In terms of social, the state of the art sounds better, at least at first:  There are lots of generalizations out there about when to post content: Mornings are better than evenings, Facebook sharing spikes on weekends, tweeting peaks on Fridays. Well that’s all great in theory, since it documents average behavior of average audiences. But the point isn’t to get it right for someone else’s average consumer.  Whether we’re talking about work or play, we all develop our own individual routines and habits. Discovering the personal quirks of your particular audience is a goldmine for programmers.

How powerful is it? Several years ago, a UK content agency called Collective Content was helping a small management firm develop its programming strategy. Traffic to the client’s website waned on weekends. Nothing surprising there. But Collective Content began to notice an uptick in Sunday visits. “Sunday evenings had become the new Monday morning,” wrote Collective Content founder Tony Hallett. “Execs and other managers were getting a jump on the working week. This was a great time to feed their need for information.”

At Wetpaint, we try to time content delivery to the distinct habits of our audiences, which vary from show to show. The very young (13-24) Pretty Little Liars audience likes a fast-paced, high volume content diet, so we serve them fresh stuff all day long. Older (55 percent are over 24) Greys Anatomy fans catch up on new content in the evening, just before they get into TV-viewing mode. So we freshen our Grey’s Anatomy pages late in the day.  If you program according to someone else’s guidelines, all your best shots will miss your target.  Instead, know your audience and you will hit the mark.

4. Like it or not, people judge books by their cover. Design your packaging to resonate.

In pre-digital days, content packaging discussions went like this: How long is the story? Do we need photos or illustrations? Today, fuhgeddaboutit. Digital editors have lots more arrows in the quiver. They can trot out old packaging chestnuts like long-form profiles or Q&As, or they can present content in slideshows, video, audio, polls, quizzes, clickable infographics, Spotify playlists, etc. The packaging options just keep growing — and so does the menu of social media megaphones you can use to trumpet the final product.

Working all those levers in a way that engages your audience and exploits the strengths of each packaging and delivery option is an art and a science. BuzzFeed is one of its master practitioners. In its self-proclaimed rules for “How to Go Viral” (an infographic, of course), Buzzfeed recommends making lists (“9 out of ten Internet lists go viral.”), using quizzes to appeal to user vanity (“People online love talking about themselves.”) and staying relevant. We won’t quibble with the BuzzFeed rulebook. But in our own experience, packaging — like timing and just about everything else — is audience-specific. Fans of Vampire Diaries like to vote, for example; so we give them polls. And it works — to the tune of more than 2,500 ballots cast for Vampire star Nina Dobrev in our sexiest legs poll.

5. Test, test, test – for insights you can use.
If you follow my Digital Quarters blog and Media Success newsletter you know I’m a nut for data. I firmly believe that the only way you can truly know your audience in all its wondrous eccentricity is to embrace testing with a gusto that borders on obsession. (Yes, I am seeing somebody about this.) Every shred of content you produce, from the glossy video to the tiniest tweet, is an opportunity to learn something about the consumers who visit your site. Don’t waste it.

As you generate (via surveys, focus groups or, our favorite, A/B testing) and then sift through the mounds of data, trends will unfailingly emerge. These insights into user preferences help drive programming decisions here at Wetpaint.

Testing tells us that our Bachelor and Bachelorette fans revel in relationship gossip. Stories about dating, cheating, break-ups, pregnancy rumors, etc. perform four times better than episode-related news like recaps or sneak peeks. But within that relationship news subcategory, the two audiences diverge: Bachelorette watchers are scandalmongers. Bachelor fans are sentimentalists. We tailor our content accordingly. Testing has also made us smarter about social media. Facebook posts with photos work best when we’re promoting content for scripted (Grey’s Anatomy) or reality (Bachelor) shows. For breaking news, text-only posts do just fine. If the news is big, words are enough to catch the eye.

6.  The Newsfeed Is the  new EPG – and you must be present to win. 

The greatest opportunity of all in digital media is the chance to be relevant to your audience — not once a day, not on an appointment basis once a week, but minute by minute. To do that means being where your users are at all hours of the day — with exactly the right content at the ready. For consumers, it would be like the “Electronic Program Guide” that we’ve had on TV for the last 20 years – only it would be completely personalized and constantly refreshed. Quel fantasme, n’est-ce pas? 

Lo, there’s an app for that — and it’s the #1 app on every smartphone. Yes, Facebook is the new Electronic Program Guide. Consumers check Facebook many times a day — usually just briefly, sometimes longer — to see “what’s on” in their lives. In fact, 23% of all time spent on smartphones is spent on Facebook mobile apps.

For media companies, the great opportunity here is to cement your relationship with your audience by getting in their network — and then turning up the content they’ll enjoy to whatever frequency interests them. Do it right — with great audience targeting, insight, timing, packaging and testing — and you earn a position at the top of the newsfeed hour after hour, day after day.

Who understands this well in media? Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer talks about building a “daily habit” with consumers. Why not twice a day, or more? That is the power of presence in the feed. And it comes from meeting each member of your audience where she is.

Smart programming is like a good relationship. It requires paying attention, being responsive, trying new things. It’s hard work, but the rewards are enduring — a loyal, ongoing relationship with a growing audience.  And that surely makes it worth the effort.

by Ben Elowitz

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

Today’s consumers are far more connected, with social profiles following them around wherever they go. And Facebook’s recent moves show the company is taking full advantage this in a series of small steps that, if successful, could literally overhaul media and marketing.

In the past, the bulk of any marketing plan was fulfilled by buying ad impressions. But Facebook’s goal of omnipresent connectedness with its users presents a rare opportunity to change this model, to sell relationships, not impressions. And that’s not all.

For several months now, Facebook has allowed advertisers to match their email lists with its user database. That was a smart move, because it enables a brand client to develop its relationship with consumers in their natural “social habitat”—all with advantages of segmentation, testing, measurement and optimization.

At the time, it looked like Facebook may have launched the only online direct marketing system capable of competing with email. (And one that might just also render direct snail mail obsolete, #thankyoufinally.) But with its latest add-on, “lookalike audience” targeting, Facebook now offers a whole new kind of advertising. The lookalike product, which is still in beta, lets an advertiser reach beyond its actual customers and message potential customers who look a lot like them.

With these two powerful offerings, Facebook is bundling the best of both brand and direct advertising, combining reach with relevance.

Why is that important? Because, as I’ve written before, Facebook’s greatest opportunity is in the $540 billion brand advertising market. That’s where marketers have been fishing for new customers, blasting their messages over TV, radio, and display ads in the hopes that they attain the magic combination of reach and frequency that will move consumers through a mythical funnel. The theory is that by exposing people to a brand’s message over time, they develop a fondness for the brand and a propensity to buy at a later date.

And yet, brand advertising hasn’t moved online en masse. Only about 18 percent of the brand advertising market has made the digital jump, largely because true long-term relationships with online consumers have been so difficult to measure and quantify.

But what HAS come online is direct marketing. In fact, Facebook’s archrival Google has grown the entire market of direct marketing by roughly $40 billion in annual revenues since it first started serving search ads. That’s because its performance can be quantified exactly in terms of very short-term transactions: from a click to a buy, more often than not separated by just minutes.

Facebook’s dreams of siphoning brand advertising dollars from other media are based on the premise that it can truly develop measurable long-term relationships with target consumers. And now, with the ability to target “lookalikes”—that is, to get in front of new potential customers who are, at least statistically, similar to real customers—they may be able to do exactly that.

For marketers, that means metrics and messaging that are far more individualized than the offline alchemy of “spray-and-pray.”

For Facebook, it means tapping the best parts of two worlds at once. One is the readiness of marketers to pay for what performs—as Google has demonstrated, there are tens of billions of dollars waiting out there for the one who succeeds. The other is the need for brands to begin relationships with consumers long before that last click—when it’s often otherwise too late to make a first impression.

We all recognize the value of a tool that can systematize and maximize relationships. But in the marketing discipline, the science of “customer relationship management” (CRM) doesn’t start until the first purchase. Facebook’s new tool offers the potential for brands to begin a relationship much earlier and nurture it so that a person moves from prospect to customer.

Most importantly, future tools and analytics could let brands measure each touch point along the way, to discover which interactions strengthen relationships, and which weaken them.

(illustrations via XKCD)

The resulting potential goes far beyond CRM and direct marketing. We’re talking about precisely targeted and nearly personalized brand advertising. That combination has been both a theoretical nirvana and an oxymoron. Until now.

Facebook is making a legitimate play to unite the opposite ends of the spectrum: CRM and brand advertising are both incredibly valuable tools in the marketer’s toolbox, yet they couldn’t be more different in terms of their use and impact. Brand advertising, at its best, combines the ability to reach a large target audience with a powerful experience that can create interest. CRM is a vehicle for micro-casting specific messages to already-identified individual targets at specific trigger points—all with the goal of moving each person one step closer to a sale.

If you could combine the best of both, you could blend the incredible reach of brand advertising with the extraordinary relevance of CRM.

Facebook’s recent efforts are allowing brands to extend CRM all the way up the funnel to form one-on-one relationships at the branding stage. Whether it will work or not, it’s a visionary way for Facebook to transform its customers’ businesses, and its own.

But most importantly, it promises to transform the currently context-free ads on the right side of the screen into relevant, personalized, contextual recommendations for users. And that’s a happier, healthier relationship for everyone.

Which Facebook surely hopes will help it conquer the most valuable relationship of all: the one with the brands who spend $540 billion a year on advertising.

Will the strategy succeed? That’s still a big unknown. But if it does, it’s going to be worth a ton to Facebook.

by Ben Elowitz

Sources have told me for months that Google has been considering it, and tonight I finally saw that they pulled the trigger. 

Google just made a simple yet tricky change designed to compel brands to post on the Google+ social network.  The change is as simple as two words — free marketing — and it’s an offer that brands can’t refuse.  Google is now giving brands a free space on one of the most valuable pages in the world:  the search engine results page for users who search for their brand.  For almost every brand, their own name is the most valuable search keyword they have.

Try it right now:  search for Ferrari, and next to the familiar 10 blue links on the left, you’ll see something new and incredibly valuable:  a free advertisement for Ferrari, featuring the brand’s latest post on Google+, complete with a timestamp that demonstrates freshness and relevance – or, in the case of brands that don’t publish frequently or good enough, could shame them on a key page.

And next to it?  A big button more prominent than any link on the page enticing users to “follow” the brand on Google’s search engine.  A click on that link begins a relationship that is worth may times over the value of the first search itself.

Implicitly, Google has made a new offer to every brand on the planet:  post to Google+, and you can own a huge and prominent space on the most important page outside your own website – and build a following.

The alternative?  Don’t post – and not only forego what’s basically a free advertisement, but worse you end up leaving the results on the left side of the page to Google’s algorithm.

It plays right into the first rule of branding:  “Always control the message.”  And that’s an offer that no brand can refuse.

But it’s not just brands who would be crazy not to play.  Anyone who wants to own their own name is now being enticed with the same offer.  Celebrities and other personalities will be lured, as will anyone who cares about their reputation.  Which Google surely hopes is, well, all of us.

With this change, Google has gone nuclear against Facebook, playing their trump card in what clearly appears to be an attempt to force adoption of their own competitive social network.

In the past, Google+ leaders Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz have pooh-poohed ambitions to compete with Facebook to become a social network linking consumers to each other and brands – but this new development clearly flies in the face of their prior comments.  Despite their assertion that “Google+ is just an upgrade to Google,” the reality is that Google is using its dominance in search to all but force brands to be social on its network. 

It’s beyond ballsy.

And I can’t help but be suspicious of the timing – it comes just one month after Google reached a settlement with the FTC that concluded it hasn’t violated anti-trust laws in search.  Relieved of major legal concerns in the U.S. related to its market dominance, it’s exploiting its dominance in search in an attempt to force a win in social.

Touche, Google.

by Ben Elowitz

After a long spell of stagnant growth, Social Leaderboad numbers showed a welcome, albeit modest bounce in the final month of 2012. Compared to the anemic (0.1 percent) overall increase from October to November, 2012, the Leaderboard finished the year up (a less anemic) 0.6 percent. That’s a far cry from 2011’s November-December 17% leap in traffic from social, but we’ll take what we can get. And a few web publishers finished the year in a sprint.

December 2012 Leaderboard_Social Composition Chart

Buzzfeed blasts off
Buzzfeed rode a holiday spike, more than doubling its December social traffic, from November’s 15.6 percent to 34.1 percent. Wetpaint’s more modest 4.1 percent increase nevertheless led to a record 49.5 percent mark in traffic from social for December. Other end-of-year Leaderboard results were less dramatic, but trending generally upward. MTV and People continued to swap Leaderboard spots, with MTV taking the #3 position in December on the back of a 2.8 percent rise in social traffic. (People finished fourth with a 0.8 percent December bump.) NFL and NBC also posted positive gains (of 1.3 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively). In contrast, its 0.1 percent December dip knocked TMZ.com out of the Leaderboard’s top five for the first time since last September.

December 2012 Leaderboard_Total Social Chart

A supercharged CBS?
If you factor out the portals and a major CBS boom (more on that in a sec), the total social traffic was up by an average of 200,000 visits in December to each of the top 50 content sites on the web. Huffington Post and CNN.com remain the Leaderboard’s Hertz and Avis when it comes to total social. Both were up 0.7 million from November. As for CBS.com, its social traffic according to Compete.com, grew dramatically in December—up 4.6 million social visits over its November total and leaping from the #8 to the #3 spot on the Leaderboard, right behind CNN.  Would love any tips on what is driving the surge, with traffic to CBS.com from all sources up nearly 200% from November.  Although Wetpaint recorded 0.1 million more social visits in December, it slipped a notch in the rankings (from #5 to #6); while still outperforming People by 0.9 million visits. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed jumped eight positions (from #15 in November to #7) on the strength of a 1.8 million increase in total social traffic for December.

December 2012 Leacerboard_FB v. Google Chart

Facebook bounces back
Facebook traffic to web publishers rebounded from its November doldrums. Referrals were up 11% over November. The 339 million December visits are well below January 2012’s 549 million high point, but much better than November’s 305 million low. Google still sends 46% more traffic to web publishers than Facebook. The gap narrowed from November’s 58% finish, thanks to the portals (AOL, MSN and Yahoo), which collected 22 million more visits in December.

 

MONTHLY RANKINGS

PUBLISHER

Dec

Nov

Oct

Name of Publisher (Owner) URL

Monthly Uniques

% from Social

Change

1

1

1

Wetpaint Entertainment WETPAINT.COM

                 4,156,003

49.5%

4.1%

2

2

2

BuzzFeed BUZZFEED.COM

               15,914,394

34.1%

15.6%

3

4

3

MTV MTV.COM

                 8,720,402

12.3%

2.8%

4

3

4

People PEOPLE.COM

               11,879,472

11.2%

0.8%

5

6

6

National Football League NFL.COM

               17,021,520

9.3%

1.3%

6

7

10

NBC Universal NBC.COM

                 7,236,882

8.2%

1.2%

7

5

5

TMZ TMZ.COM

               13,058,794

8.1%

-0.1%

8

9

9

Yahoo! YAHOO.COM

             170,997,328

6.7%

0.3%

9

10

11

Major League Baseball MLB.COM

                 6,057,192

6.6%

0.2%

10

8

8

Patch (Aol) PATCH.COM

               13,134,556

6.5%

-0.1%

11

13

7

IGN (News Corp) IGN.COM

                 9,842,499

6.4%

0.6%

12

11

12

E! Entertainment Television EONLINE.COM

                 8,726,049

6.4%

0.1%

13

15

13

Aol AOL.COM

               44,711,026

5.9%

0.2%

14

17

17

FOX News (News Corp) FOXNEWS.COM

               36,221,556

5.7%

0.6%

15

18

15

CBS CBS.COM

                 8,964,522

5.7%

0.6%

16

19

19

CNN CNN.COM

               52,971,756

5.6%

0.5%

17

14

14

US Weekly USMAGAZINE.COM

                 6,758,770

5.5%

-0.3%

18

20

16

TV Guide TVGUIDE.COM

                 6,700,764

4.8%

-0.2%

19

22

24

The Huffington Post (Aol) HUFFINGTONPOST.COM

               46,080,258

4.7%

0.4%

20

24

22

BBC News BBC.CO.UK

               14,694,629

4.5%

0.4%

21

21

21

Discovery Channel DISCOVERY.COM

               11,632,858

4.5%

0.0%

22

12

20

Entertainment Weekly EW.COM

                 7,266,569

4.4%

-1.8%

23

31

28

CBS News CBSNEWS.COM

               13,099,434

4.4%

1.0%

24

23

23

MSN MSN.COM

             100,459,155

4.3%

0.0%

25

29

27

The Washington Post WASHINGTONPOST.COM

               19,190,732

4.3%

0.9%

26

25

25

New York Times NYTIMES.COM

               28,237,857

4.2%

0.1%

27

26

31

TIME TIME.COM

               11,162,396

4.1%

0.2%

28

27

29

Bleacher Report BLEACHERREPORT.COM

               11,368,676

3.9%

0.2%

29

16

18

The Guardian GUARDIAN.CO.UK

               10,579,650

3.8%

-1.7%

30

30

34

National Geographic Society NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM

                 7,774,085

3.7%

0.4%

31

32

30

IMDB (Amazon.com) IMDB.COM

               39,714,900

3.7%

0.5%

32

37

32

Break Media BREAK.COM

                 6,902,031

3.7%

1.1%

33

35

36

New York Daily News NYDAILYNEWS.COM

               13,119,444

3.6%

0.9%

34

28

26

FORBES FORBES.COM

               14,275,249

3.5%

0.0%

35

36

35

Los Angeles Times (Tribune) LATIMES.COM

               17,397,439

3.2%

0.5%

36

34

40

Wall Street Journal (News Corp) WSJ.COM

               12,569,994

2.9%

0.1%

37

39

33

Nickelodeon (MTV Networks) NICK.COM

                 6,670,139

2.6%

0.1%

38

40

39

Cartoon Network (Turner) CARTOONNETWORK.COM

                 7,329,327

2.6%

0.2%

39

41

37

USA Today (Gannet) USATODAY.COM

               20,291,463

2.6%

0.2%

40

33

42

Reuters REUTERS.COM

                 9,003,124

2.4%

-0.7%

41

42

41

Food Network (Scripps) FOODNETWORK.COM

               20,259,649

2.1%

-0.2%

42

46

45

CNET (CBS Interactive) CNET.COM

               31,657,901

2.1%

0.6%

43

43

43

FOX Sports (News Corp) FOXSPORTS.COM

               20,783,176

2.0%

-0.1%

44

38

38

Businessweek (Bloomberg) BUSINESSWEEK.COM

                 5,781,462

2.0%

-0.6%

45

44

44

Bloomberg BLOOMBERG.COM

                 7,757,179

1.7%

0.0%

46

45

46

WebMD WEBMD.COM

               23,515,334

1.7%

0.0%

47

47

47

everyday Health EVERYDAYHEALTH.COM

                 7,565,073

1.5%

0.3%

48

50

51

LIVESTRONG (Demand Media) LIVESTRONG.COM

               15,344,999

1.5%

0.5%

49

48

48

About.com (NY Times) ABOUT.COM

               62,131,017

1.3%

0.2%

50

51

49

ThePostGame (Yahoo) THEPOSTGAME.COM

               10,549,520

1.2%

0.4%

51

49

50

Mayo Clinic MAYOCLINIC.COM

               10,712,995

1.1%

0.1%

52

52

52

eHow (Demand Media) EHOW.COM

               56,972,222

0.9%

0.2%

 

by Ben Elowitz

Maybe the most remarkable thing about 2012 was how unremarkable a year it was for digital media. No dizzying successes or embarrassing blunders. (Well, unless you count Facebook’s lackluster IPO or the Apple maps fail.) But even a mediocre year can produce a few shout-out worthy performances. Here are a handful of digital media players that deserve kudos for their 2012 showing:

Best Job Squeezing Blood from Rocks: Hulu.

The video service gets consumers to actually pay for that which all consumers expect to get for free—and makes itself successful in the process. Great content and a great user experience keep Hulu’s subscription business cranking strong. Now, if only it can survive the departure of CEO Jason Kilar and the animus of its principal owners (Disney, Comcast and NewsCorp) who are, after all, uneasy competitors.

Best Reanimation of a Zombie: Yahoo.
A cultural reboot courtesy of new CEO Marissa Mayer gives the tired portal some speed (up from zero), while a new demand for fast-paced decision-making raises the bar on time to market.  With COO Henrique DeCastro’s focus on the things that will move the needle the most for the company, they have a serious shot of getting some quick success – even if the odds of any massive turnaround like this are inherently long.

Most Dogged: Amazon.
Continually tweaking the Kindle, faithfully chipping away in the video arena. These guys are indefatigable and relentless when it comes to achieving their most important goals. They get a little bit better every quarter, and it compounds to mean the are making a lot of progress.

Most Aggressive: Hubert Burda Media.
Full disclosure: Hubert Burda is a Wetpaint partner, so I’ve gotten to know them closely. But of all the offline-rooted companies I’ve spent time with, Burda is singularly fearless about making a strong and swift transition to digital. They’re not on everyone’s radar here in the U.S., but this $2.5 billion-plus German publishing powerhouse has been aggressive about exploiting not just advertising, but subscription, commerce, licensing and other revenue streams. It’s a smart way to run the portfolio.

Spaghetti Award: Facebook.
Not the best year for the social media giant, with its disappointing stock debut and ongoing monetization crisis. But Facebook gets my Spaghetti Award for its willingness to throw all kinds of monetization ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Think Reach Generator, Promoted Posts, Facebook Exchange, Facebook Gifts, Paid Messages, Sponsored Stories (in user newsfeeds and mobile) and most recently an announcement—then a recall—of its off-property AdSense equivalent. I get tired just listing all those initiatives. Facebook hasn’t abandoned creativity or quality in its quest to monetize. But it has left other initiatives—Open Graph and Social Reader, for example—in limbo. I wonder whether its standing as a platform among publishers, partners and users can recover when Facebook decides to resurrect those priorities down the road.

Give ‘Em What They Didn’t Know They Wanted: Apple.
Duh! Apple continues to rule the industry by seducing consumers with novel experiences. That is Apple’s secret weapon, and it gives them the market power to earn more growth in media than pretty much anyone else out there. Even with the maps debacle and the struggle to manage without Steve Jobs, 2012 unleashed yet another wave of Apple products that wowed consumers and guaranteed their loyalty and—especially compared to Android—downstream spend. There were lots of iPhone5s, iPad Minis, new slimmed-down iPod touches and nanos, and other Apple gizmos sitting under Christmas trees last year.

And As For 2013…

2012 didn’t exactly dazzle, but it didn’t fizzle either. I head into 2013 with an open mind, but here’s what I’m keeping my eye on for next January’s list.

  • Facebook: With search and monetization the clear priorities, will Mark Z put content back on the front burner? A long shot, yes. But if a novel strategy can strengthen connections between users and content they love—and yield better search results in the bargain—the pendulum may start swinging back content’s way.
  • Yahoo: Marissa has Yahoo’s re-animated product groups marching to her techie tunes. Now she needs to reinvigorate Yahoo’s media properties. It won’t be all of them, and they won’t get as much love as search, but to succeed with display advertising, Yahoo needs to invest in its media properties and its users.
  • Magazine and newspaper publishers:  Mobile apps generated modest revenues in 2012. With more app publishers looking for more ways to wow consumers—and charge for it—2013 revenues could take off. Publishers will need to focus on what really hooks consumers and upgrade the experiences they offer, not to mention changing their cost structure.
  • Digital media companies: Will the pure-plays’ platforms perform?  Startups are set up to build structural advantages, not just publish content. When they succeed, the new platforms can be secret weapons of choice for digital success—and not just for the startup. Look for startups to leverage their technical chops into partnerships with major media providers who need some tech magic when it comes to content selection, creation, distribution, audience loyalty and more. For the old giants, most know they can’t build all-new platforms; they need to partner or buy.  The upside for the upstarts? A chance to break into new levels of scale.

 

by Ben Elowitz

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

In August 2011, I went out on a limb about Facebook’s strategy for search. Search is a feature every Web user needs—and by knowing its users so well, Facebook has some incredible and unique ways to change the game. But at the same time, it would be a losing proposition for Facebook to compete head-to-head with Google. Still: I predicted Facebook will enter search by the end of 2012. As the news bore out on January 15, 2013, I was off by two weeks.

As close as that timing was, when it comes to how they will enter, I was dead right: Rather than going head-to-head with Google, I said it would focus exclusively on where your graph is far more valuable than even the best redux of the entire web.

But now that it has announced its beta launch, the question is, what does it need to do to get it right? Here are five important things Facebook should keep in mind in order to succeed in search:

1. Keep expectations low. If there’s one thing Facebook hopefully learned from its IPO, it’s that it’s far better to set expectations low and exceed them than to sell high and disappoint. Any user who types a day’s worth of typical web searches into Graph Search is going to walk away with one conclusion: Facebook’s new product is terrible at most of the things that Google has taken 15 years to be great at. Users who have a bad experience rarely give you a second chance.

2. Meet users where they are. One huge red flag is Facebook’s bent to “diseducate” users from their “bad search habits.” Oh, the attitude of it! But worse than attitude, it’s a bad recipe. Consumer products and Web services have taken off by presenting people with experiences they love, and offering an interface that they like and naturally adapt to. Facebook needs to adapt to its users’ searches, not the other way around.

3. Reopen Open Graph. Back in September 2011, Facebook came out guns blazing, ready to work with the rest of the Web to fill in the graph with more user information, connections, and actions. At the time, the promise was that websites and publishers who connected to the graph would give Facebook great information, and get Facebook viral traffic love in exchange. But unfortunately, with its decisions to pull back from social readers and so-called “frictionless sharing,” Facebook dropped its end of the bargain, and most publishers and other sites have given up on it. The catch now is that Facebook needs that information desperately—or else far too many searches will come up empty. Facebook needs to reconnect with the rest of the web—and if it doesn’t, then Graph Search will quickly hit a ceiling.

4. Give users a great reason to participate. One of the reasons that Open Graph didn’t go so well for Facebook is that users wanted out of their own unbalanced equation: Facebook got greedy and started posting users’ actions on the feed—whether the users wanted it to or not. What it forgot to do was work on the “WIIFM”—what’s in it for me? In the new world of Graph Search, it’s clear that my “likes” benefit my friends and friends of friends. But Facebook needs to come up with better experience enhancements that will help me. The good news is that search can open up a whole world of possibilities. The restaurant I just found on Facebook desktop search should be primed for navigation directions on my mobile—and then as a check-in destination when I arrive. Whether it’s a like or another action, give me reasons to tell you what’s important.

5. Expand the wedge. Developing Graph Search couldn’t have been easy — even in its initial builds that have supported relatively specific and small sets of queries. But the key to whether it succeeds will not be in which searches it works well for at launch, but rather the rate at which that set expands. Facebook just inserted the “thin edge of the wedge” into the search pie. Now it needs to steadily—daily, weekly and monthly—expand that wedge by becoming more and more useful. That kind of frequent improvement is exactly what cemented Google’s position, and it’s what will allow Facebook the opportunity, over time, to take it over.

Facebook has a huge opportunity in search: Whereas Google competes in search by understanding your intent, Facebook can do so by knowing you personally. For Facebook, search represents a monumental opportunity to increase usage, reassert its relevance to users who have burnt out on the service, and grow its business. But it will require thoughtfulness in how it develops and introduces the service in order to achieve it.

 

 

by Ben Elowitz

Is social going to drive more traffic than search? At the beginning of 2012, it seemed like the answer would be yes. But over the last few months, we’ve hit a flat spot. Traffic from Facebook and Twitter to top web properties has leveled out. In fact, I decided to spare you the October Leaderboard results and skip right to November, which shows an average change of (wait for it . . .) 0.1% over October. What’s going on?

First, as many of you know, Facebook was all guns a’ blazing about Open Graph at this time last year. But in the reckoning that followed its shaky IPO last May, the company’s attention seems to have been all but pulled from that strategic initiative and focused instead on monetization.

With that shift in emphasis, Wetpaint’s analysis of overall clicks sent by Facebook to the top 50 publishers on the web shows a significant decrease (more on that below), corroborating the impact—noted by others—of Facebook’s algorithm changes.

The Biggest Losers

But the second nuance is more interesting: The algorithm change hasn’t effected everyone equally. It turns out the change has reduced tons of impressions in the newsfeed that users weren’t clicking on. And that translated into less traffic for portals. In fact, referrals from Facebook to the portals have been declining steadily since April. In the meantime, the latest month’s results show that despite those changes, the average amount of traffic from social for the 50 largest web publishers remains almost exactly the same.

Monthly Facebook Visits_2012

Slight Bump for BuzzFeed, All Others . . . Eh

At 18.5 percent, Buzzfeed is the only one of September’s Top Five Leaderboard finishers to post a substantial gain in social composition for November (1.8 percent). Wetpaint finished October at 47.4 percent—a 2.7 percent increase over September’s performance—but slipped back to 45.4 percent in November. MTV fell 1.6 percent from October and lost almost five percentage points since September, dropping it from third to fourth place in Leaderboard standings. The decline put the network back behind People, whose social composition traffic also fell in November, but by a much smaller margin (-0.7 percent). Rounding out the Top Five is TMZ.com, whose 8.2 percent November finish represents a -0.1 percent change from September.

Social Composition, November

Huffpo, CNN Stay Atop the Pack as MLB Fades

When it comes to total traffic from social, Huffington Post and CNN.com continue to lead the pack. Both saw gains in November. So did FoxNews.com, which moved from its #4 September finish to #3 thanks to a 0.5 million bump in social traffic. With 3.5 million social visits in November, Wetpaint improved its standing too, moving from its #7 September slot to #5, which put it ahead of People for November. NFL.com lost some ground in November, dropping from its #3 September spot to #4. Meanwhile MLB.com, with its 2012 season over, fell deep in the rankings, dropping from its #5 slot in September (with 2.8 million social visits) to #16 for November (with an even million). FoxNews.com picked up 0.5 million in November to leapfrog ahead of NFL.com into the #3 position.

Facebook Traffic Slides Again

At 305 million for November, traffic from Facebook fell to its lowest level in 2012, down from a high of 549 million last January. Google registered a dip in November too (from 522 million in October to November’s 482 million mark), but Google has remained more consistent than Facebook when it comes to forwarding traffic to media sites. The top 50 web publishers now get 58% more traffic from Google than Facebook.

 

Details for Social Leaderboard Publishers:

MONTHLY RANKINGS

PUBLISHER

Nov

Oct

Sep

Name of Publisher (Owner) URL

Monthly Uniques

% from Social

Change

1

1

1

Wetpaint Entertainment WETPAINT.COM

                 5,634,051

45.4%

-2.0%

2

2

2

BuzzFeed BUZZFEED.COM

               11,800,401

18.5%

2.0%

3

4

4

People PEOPLE.COM

               12,720,953

10.4%

-0.1%

4

3

3

MTV MTV.COM

                 8,294,215

9.5%

-1.6%

5

5

5

TMZ TMZ.COM

               11,902,471

8.2%

0.2%

6

6

7

National Football League NFL.COM

               17,343,946

8.0%

0.2%

7

10

6

NBC Universal NBC.COM

                 9,176,266

7.0%

0.8%

8

8

10

Patch (Aol) PATCH.COM

               13,913,661

6.6%

0.2%

9

9

9

Yahoo! YAHOO.COM

             158,221,594

6.4%

0.1%

10

11

12

Major League Baseball MLB.COM

                 5,442,291

6.4%

0.1%

11

12

11

E! Entertainment Television EONLINE.COM

                 8,151,864

6.2%

0.2%

12

20

15

Entertainment Weekly EW.COM

                 7,565,352

6.2%

1.7%

13

7

13

IGN (News Corp) IGN.COM

                 9,972,176

5.9%

-0.7%

14

14

21

US Weekly USMAGAZINE.COM

                 3,526,872

5.8%

0.5%

15

13

14

Aol AOL.COM

               47,331,519

5.8%

0.5%

16

18

24

The Guardian GUARDIAN.CO.UK

               10,563,481

5.6%

0.8%

17

17

18

FOX News (News Corp) FOXNEWS.COM

               35,975,532

5.1%

0.3%

18

15

8

CBS CBS.COM

                 8,888,902

5.1%

0.1%

19

19

19

CNN CNN.COM

               56,329,367

5.0%

0.4%

20

16

16

TV Guide TVGUIDE.COM

                 6,907,102

4.9%

0.0%

21

21

17

Discovery Channel DISCOVERY.COM

               13,466,679

4.5%

0.0%

22

24

23

The Huffington Post (Aol) HUFFINGTONPOST.COM

               49,554,438

4.3%

0.2%

23

23

22

MSN MSN.COM

               98,287,912

4.3%

0.1%

24

22

20

BBC News BBC.CO.UK

               15,401,495

4.1%

-0.2%

25

25

25

New York Times NYTIMES.COM

               33,301,557

4.1%

0.2%

26

31

35

TIME TIME.COM

               10,779,957

3.9%

0.7%

27

29

34

Bleacher Report BLEACHERREPORT.COM

               11,367,184

3.7%

0.4%

28

26

28

FORBES FORBES.COM

               13,892,789

3.4%

-0.1%

29

27

30

The Washington Post WASHINGTONPOST.COM

               21,587,457

3.4%

0.0%

30

34

26

National Geographic Society NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM

                 8,647,481

3.4%

0.6%

31

28

27

CBS News CBSNEWS.COM

               17,329,994

3.3%

-0.1%

32

30

32

IMDB (Amazon.com) IMDB.COM

               39,038,713

3.2%

0.0%

33

42

40

Reuters REUTERS.COM

               10,211,110

3.1%

0.9%

34

40

37

Wall Street Journal (News Corp) WSJ.COM

               15,969,459

2.8%

0.5%

35

36

29

New York Daily News NYDAILYNEWS.COM

               13,062,323

2.7%

0.0%

36

35

33

Los Angeles Times (Tribune) LATIMES.COM

               16,974,096

2.7%

-0.1%

37

32

31

Break Media BREAK.COM

                 6,640,103

2.6%

-0.4%

38

38

42

Businessweek (Bloomberg) BUSINESSWEEK.COM

                 7,672,617

2.6%

0.1%

39

33

36

Nickelodeon (MTV Networks) NICK.COM

                 7,228,781

2.5%

-0.3%

40

39

41

Cartoon Network (Turner) CARTOONNETWORK.COM

                 7,029,866

2.4%

0.0%

41

37

38

USA Today (Gannet) USATODAY.COM

               21,141,216

2.4%

-0.2%

42

41

39

Food Network (Scripps) FOODNETWORK.COM

               20,594,479

2.3%

0.1%

43

43

43

FOX Sports (News Corp) FOXSPORTS.COM

               19,510,425

2.1%

0.0%

44

44

44

Bloomberg BLOOMBERG.COM

                 7,951,322

1.7%

0.0%

45

46

45

WebMD WEBMD.COM

               25,947,288

1.6%

0.2%

46

45

46

CNET (CBS Interactive) CNET.COM

               29,340,756

1.5%

-0.2%

47

47

47

everyday Health EVERYDAYHEALTH.COM

                 7,737,207

1.3%

0.0%

48

48

49

About.com (NY Times) ABOUT.COM

               64,349,962

1.1%

0.1%

49

50

51

Mayo Clinic MAYOCLINIC.COM

               11,198,542

1.0%

0.1%

50

51

50

LIVESTRONG (Demand Media) LIVESTRONG.COM

               18,147,563

1.0%

0.1%

51

49

48

ThePostGame (Yahoo) THEPOSTGAME.COM

                 7,719,449

0.7%

-0.2%

52

52

52

eHow (Demand Media) EHOW.COM

               60,168,521

0.7%

0.1%

by Ben Elowitz

The advertiser’s dilemma is well known, and well summarized (by John Wanamaker): “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Most media companies are in the same boat. Think of all those network executives who, each fall, commission scripts for some 70 new TV shows. Fewer than eight of those scripts actually become series, and only two of those ever survive their debut season. It’s not much different in the movie industry—five films (of the hundreds released) generated more than a third of last year’s box office totals—or on the Web. At Wetpaint Entertainment, 10 percent of our articles drive 70 percent of our traffic.

The point is we produce a lot more content than we can find an audience for. When it comes to creation and distribution, most media companies operate in “ready, fire, aim!” mode. We make new works that we hope will sing, and measure their impact on audiences long after it’s too late to use that audience feedback to shape or direct the product.

But if you knew exactly what your audience would respond to before picking up your creative pencil, you could make more popular content, and multiply your audience, your relevance—and your success. To help figure out just what excites your audience you could turn to traditional forms of research—surveys, focus groups and the like. But we’ve found that nothing is as reliable, actionable, or immediate as live testing. Particularly, A/B testing.

Other Internet practitioners (specifically, e-commerce sites) have been using A/B testing to massively increase conversion rates for years. But the empirical science of A/B testing is now, finally, relevant for media. It turns out that A/B testing can help you make great content decisions that compound. Meaning that by continuously testing and adjusting your content type, packaging and timing you can literally improve results (i.e. traffic, Likes, etc.) by five times, 10 times or more. This kind of evidence-based programming is a potentially powerful tool. But you have to do it right. Here’s what I’ve seen working:

1. Don’t do an A/B Test. Do 100.
Audience insights are valuable one by one—but only to a certain extent. A/B tests are designed to fail most of the time—only about 25% of your hypotheses will be proven out. Don’t fight these limitations. Work with them. The power is in the compounding. One test may generate an insight that gives you a five percent lift. Which is great, but not earth shattering. The real game change comes when you get maniacal about testing. Compound that five percent lift just 15 times and you’ve doubled your total audience. Fifteen insights may sound like a lot. But make every article, video and tweet part of an A/B test, and pretty soon you’ll be generating hundreds of data points per week.

2. Insight isn’t valuable. Action is. Create an action machine.
The most sophisticated intel in the world isn’t worth a dime unless it spurs action—informed, continuous action. Test the things that lend themselves to action, the things you control. For most media companies that means timing and frequency. For each of your distribution channels, find out what times of the day and what days of the week juice your content the most—and most importantly, how many times a day is too many as far as posting new content goes. It’s different for every audience—and you had better act accordingly. Jersey Shore fans have an appetite for 10 (yes, 10!) raucous tidbits a day about their favorite guidos and guidettes. Once you know that, what matters is getting 10 new tidbits into your line-up.

3. Institutionalize results.
Some companies do all the right things—to a point. They run the tests, do the analysis, even make some changes based on the analysis. But then they stop short of institutionalizing the changes and the process that could make their site more successful. Capture your insights in a programming playbook, then make your team memorize it. Or better yet, put it on stone tablets (or in a Google doc) where everyone can reference the rules and action plans that will get you the best results.

4. Take A/B testing offline too.
Digital media is fundamentally testable in a way that offline media isn’t. But digital test results can cross platforms. Many of the audience insights unearthed by digital A/B testing can be fed back into print or broadcast properties to enhance their performance too. It may be too late to re-shoot episodes of Revenge based on audience feedback about Daniel’s dark turn this fall. But you sure can use that feedback to edit next month’s promotional spots and maximize tune-in.

5. Beware small ball.
A/B testing is a tactic. And a good one. It can help you tune your product to your audience. It can inform business decisions, even drive them. But however relentless and precise, A/B testing is no substitute for strategic vision. Don’t let the allure of real-time testing lock you into a kind of small ball incrementalism, where the emphasis on empirical data becomes the enemy of big ideas and giant leaps. That’s the tyranny of testing, and it can lead to a culture of tweak, rather than transformation. Every company needs both. Strike a balance between information and inspiration. 

6. Test ‘til you drop. (Or until your audience stops changing.)
The digital world is mutable. Facebook changes its algorithms. Users are fickle. You can either ride the next wave or get swamped by it. Keep on testing—and be assured that the results will keep changing along with your audience.

A/B testing and other forms of digital data collection and analysis won’t create the brilliant content that ultimately builds your brands. But these tools can help you direct and promote that content to multiply its success with your audience.

by Ben Elowitz

Well, after flat lining for months, social distribution gains took an ever so slight dip in September. Traffic from social slipped an industrywide average of -0.1 percent from August levels. Even Wetpaint Entertainment, which has been socially strong for several months, saw a hiccup, off by 0.1 percent.

BuzzFeed, MTV and People See Gains

Notably, BuzzFeed, MTV and People defied the no-growth trend. You’ll recall that BuzzFeed made its Leaderboard debut last month with a 15.6 percent showing that put the social news site solidly in second place, right behind Wetpaint. This month Buzzfeed added a percentage point to its social composition, guaranteeing its second, second-place finish. People also ticked up (0.8 percent) in September. MTV bested its August finish by 2.6 percent. This despite (or maybe because of?) news about cancellation of the network’s Jersey Shore series. With that 2.6 percent jump, the biggest among the top 50 web publishers, MTV retained its #3 spot on the Leaderboard for the second month in a row. People finished September in fourth place.

NFL Grows Social by 2M

For the most part, absolute social volumes were relatively stagnant, just as the relative social percentages were. But there were two notable exceptions. Fueled by the kickoff of its 2012 football season, NFL social traffic totals for September spiked nearly 60 percent (5.2M compared to August’s 3.1M). While less dramatic, CBS’s September figure (2.1M) beat its August showing by 0.5M, continuing the network’s four-month-long upward trend in social traffic totals. And Wetpaint inched past MTV, moving up a slot (from #8 to #7) in Leaderboard volume rankings.

Facebook Forwards Less Traffic

Google and Facebook are the two most powerful traffic distributors on the web, as measured by how many clicks they send away from their own websites to those of third-party publishers.  While the traffic Google sends the top 50 publishers has been bouncing up and down, Facebook has had a much more decisive trend:  Facebook is getting stingy.  Corroborating complaints from a number of publishers and app developers that Facebook is putting the squeeze on the ways they use the platform to promote themselves, the analytics show that Facebook has been getting progressively stingy at sending traffic out – forwarding 25% less traffic to publishers now than at the beginning of the year.  And I suspect that this trend will continue as long as the post-IPO Facebook keeps its focus on generating ad revenue for itself rather than supporting those who use its platform.

Details for Social Leaderboard Publishers:

MONTHLY RANKINGS

PUBLISHER

Sep

Aug

Jul

Name of Publisher (Owner) URL

Monthly Uniques

% from Social

Change

1

1

1

Wetpaint Entertainment WETPAINT.COM

                 3,977,235

45.0%

-0.1%

2

N/A

N/A

BuzzFeed BUZZFEED.COM

               11,460,980

16.7%

1.1%

3

2

5

MTV MTV.COM

               12,705,139

14.2%

2.6%

4

3

2

People PEOPLE.COM

               12,183,138

11.1%

0.7%

5

7

6

TMZ TMZ.COM

               14,763,412

8.3%

0.2%

6

6

7

NBC Universal NBC.COM

               11,144,794

7.7%

-0.5%

7

5

3

National Football League NFL.COM

               20,946,974

7.7%

-1.2%

8

4

4

CBS CBS.COM

               10,116,440

6.7%

-3.4%

9

10

8

Yahoo! YAHOO.COM

             148,944,751

6.6%

-0.3%

10

11

11

Patch (Aol) PATCH.COM

               11,939,684

6.6%

-0.1%

11

8

9

E! Entertainment Television EONLINE.COM

                 8,777,802

6.5%

-1.1%

12

12

10

Major League Baseball MLB.COM

               12,646,166

6.2%

-0.4%

13

15

15

IGN (News Corp) IGN.COM

                 8,328,707

5.9%

0.2%

14

14

12

Aol AOL.COM

               43,916,439

5.6%

-0.3%

15

9

13

Entertainment Weekly EW.COM

                 7,099,210

5.4%

-2.1%

16

13

14

TV Guide TVGUIDE.COM

                 7,277,963

5.2%

-1.0%

17

16

17

Discovery Channel DISCOVERY.COM

               11,231,171

5.1%

-0.3%

18

18

16

FOX News (News Corp) FOXNEWS.COM

               27,306,764

5.0%

0.1%

19

19

18

CNN CNN.COM

               47,025,512

4.8%

0.0%

20

21

21

BBC News BBC.CO.UK

               15,048,694

4.7%

0.0%

21

17

23

US Weekly USMAGAZINE.COM

                 6,726,737

4.6%

-0.7%

22

22

19

MSN MSN.COM

               83,386,031

4.3%

-0.2%

23

24

24

The Huffington Post (Aol) HUFFINGTONPOST.COM

               38,558,615

4.3%

0.1%

24

27

31

The Guardian GUARDIAN.CO.UK

                 9,793,140

4.1%

0.6%

25

25

25

New York Times NYTIMES.COM

               25,907,343

4.0%

0.0%

26

20

22

National Geographic Society NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM

                 7,327,298

3.8%

-1.0%

27

33

30

CBS News CBSNEWS.COM

               12,889,430

3.6%

0.6%

28

26

20

FORBES FORBES.COM

               12,963,697

3.6%

-0.3%

29

35

35

New York Daily News NYDAILYNEWS.COM

               12,917,125

3.5%

0.6%

30

30

29

The Washington Post WASHINGTONPOST.COM

               18,680,633

3.5%

0.2%

31

29

27

Break Media BREAK.COM

                 7,355,757

3.4%

-0.1%

32

28

32

IMDB (Amazon.com) IMDB.COM

               36,798,803

3.3%

-0.2%

33

34

34

Los Angeles Times (Tribune) LATIMES.COM

               17,401,824

3.3%

0.3%

34

31

28

Bleacher Report BLEACHERREPORT.COM

               11,055,745

3.2%

0.0%

35

23

26

TIME TIME.COM

                 9,300,538

3.0%

-1.2%

36

32

33

Nickelodeon (MTV Networks) NICK.COM

                 6,163,102

2.8%

-0.3%

37

39

38

Wall Street Journal (News Corp) WSJ.COM

               14,043,325

2.8%

0.5%

38

36

40

USA Today (Gannet) USATODAY.COM

               19,566,407

2.6%

-0.1%

39

37

36

Food Network (Scripps) FOODNETWORK.COM

               14,864,473

2.6%

-0.1%

40

40

39

Reuters REUTERS.COM

                 9,460,283

2.5%

0.3%

41

38

37

Cartoon Network (Turner) CARTOONNETWORK.COM

                 7,580,108

2.5%

-0.1%

42

43

45

Businessweek (Bloomberg) BUSINESSWEEK.COM

                 6,863,317

2.1%

0.3%

43

41

41

FOX Sports (News Corp) FOXSPORTS.COM

               20,585,129

2.0%

0.0%

44

42

44

Bloomberg BLOOMBERG.COM

                 7,436,499

1.8%

0.0%

45

44

43

WebMD WEBMD.COM

               23,174,495

1.7%

-0.1%

46

45

42

CNET (CBS Interactive) CNET.COM

               27,041,796

1.6%

0.0%

47

46

46

everyday Health EVERYDAYHEALTH.COM

                 8,380,422

1.3%

0.1%

48

49

49

ThePostGame (Yahoo) THEPOSTGAME.COM

               10,023,819

1.2%

0.3%

49

47

48

About.com (NY Times) ABOUT.COM

               59,954,508

1.0%

-0.1%

50

48

47

LIVESTRONG (Demand Media) LIVESTRONG.COM

               17,022,178

0.8%

-0.2%

51

50

50

Mayo Clinic MAYOCLINIC.COM

               11,133,141

0.7%

-0.1%

52

51

51

eHow (Demand Media) EHOW.COM

               58,045,470

0.6%

0.0%

 

 

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