Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
“Content is king” has been a long-lived mantra of media. And in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was true.
But over the last several years, the Internet has upheaved the aphorism.
It used to be that media was linear. And in that world, content and distribution were married. The HBO channel had HBO content. A New York Times subscription bought you New York Times content. And Vogue and Cosmopolitan each month delivered exclusive and proprietary content from … Vogue and Cosmopolitan.
Until the Internet came along. In every single one of the varied businesses the Internet has touched — from commerce to media to communications to payments — there has been one common impact: disaggregation.
Content and distribution have parted
In the case of the hundreds-of-years-old media business, the Internet has fundamentally separated content from distribution. Today I can watch hundreds of South Park and Jon Stewart clips, all without a cable box — on my Apple TV, my Android phone, or YouTube on my desktop.
But wait, South Park and Jon Stewart? Content is king, you say. It’s now even more free to reign, unfettered by distribution channels!
No; because content is no longer enough. Content has always been a means to an end. And the end has always been audience.
Content isn’t the goal. Audience is.
When it comes to the business of media, there’s no question: advertisers don’t pay to reach content. They pay to reach an audience.
What’s the first item in every brief from every advertiser? It’s not Target Content, it’s Target Audience.
Media has been slow to adjust to this new dynamic. Companies have sunk billions into content management systems — using CMS as the cornerstone of their modernization — under the impression that they traffic in content.
But they don’t. They traffic in audience. And how much have they spent on audience development systems? Not much, if any at all.
Now that distribution of content to audience is no longer linear, distribution decisions are suddenly more complicated. And, at the same time, they are immensely more important — and more dynamic — to create the impact media companies are looking for: drawing an audience! Social distribution can outperform search, if you use it wisely. Day-parting your postings can boost post performance by 100 percent or more. Packaging can triple the effectiveness of content in reaching an audience.
And yet, few in media have even begun to optimize these decisions.
Who’s your Chief Audience Officer?
Distribution decisions are just as important as content decisions in building and serving an audience, and yet they are being largely ignored. Everyone has an Editor-In-Chief or a Chief Creative Officer. But how many have a Distributor-In-Chief? Or a Chief Audience Officer? A Head of Digital Programming?
The myopic focus on content over distribution is widespread, and it’s a bad business decision. It ignores a critical access of leverage, and one of competitive advantage.
The smartest media companies will do three things to take control of their digital opportunity:
1. Put someone in charge of audience development.
Give them latitude to think about the interplay between distribution and content, so that they can marry the two. Like a head of programming for a cable network, they should be tasked to realize the full potential of your digital channels. They should support the delivery of your content, and they should also provide back pressure to your content creators. Don’t merge it into your editorial jobs — that’s too precarious. Make it its own discipline.
2. Adopt an audience development strategy.
There are three basic components you have to master: insights (know your audience segments, and what each one will like); channel selection (identify the highest value distribution outlets for your brand, whether it’s search, social, YouTube, Hulu, or your own channels); and optimization (use data to create a feedback loop and tune your content, packaging, and timing to what works for your audience).
3. Systematize it.
You have sunk millions into content management systems. But how much have you spent on your most monetizable asset, your audience? You should be as systematic in audience development as you are in content creation, if not more so. Whether it’s with established processes or dedicated algorithms, make audience development a competitive advantage. Get so good at it that you truly know how to maximize every piece of content you create — and multiply your ROI. Use technology for what it does best: Systematize your advantages over your competitors.
With the rise of new distribution platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Hulu, there’s no question that the next generation of digital media is as much about distribution as it is about content. Media companies that orient their organizations to prize audience development above all (with distribution as a key component) will catch the upside of these tectonic shifts. And they will be the ones that survive and thrive in the digital age. After all, audience is the ruler of media companies’ fortunes.
10 million monthly users – Wetpaint Entertainment hit this milestone in March, only 18 months out of the gate. For a little context (and bragging rights): according to Quantcast, The Huffington Post took more than 3 years to build an audience that size.
We hit the 10 million mark in such a short time by using a super-secret and complex formula that I’ll share with you today:
1. Know deeply what our audience loves.
2. Give them the very best of it every moment of every day.
Sounds simple, right? But executing on those principles took a ton of data and a great team. And a willingness to take the risk and bet that this paradigm shift toward digital and social is not only the best way to deliver on the formula above, but also the only way forward for media.
While other publishers were looking at digital as a death sentence, we recognized it as a gift: an opportunity to know our audience far better than anyone ever before. So we took our secret formula (see above), along with our social media expertise, and built the best audience insights system on the planet.
Our proprietary distribution technology did a lot of the heavy lifting, too. Once we knew what the audience wanted, we fed those insights into a distribution system that publishes straight to the newsfeed, and voila: 10 million users and social engagement that far outshines any other major media property.
We couldn’t have done it without best-in-class content, of course. Knowing exactly what our audience wants helps our editorial team create and curate content that delights beyond audience expectations. We know what TV shows, celebrities, news events and themes resonate with our users. That content, delivered in the right way and at the right time, begets strong relationships: our 1.9 million Facebook fans see us 38 times per month (38! on average!) and look forward to Wetpaint posts in their newsfeeds.
I knew we were onto something when we started building our platform around audience insights and social distribution, but the speed at which we’ve developed our audience has been surprising even to me.
Congratulations to my team at Wetpaint on achieving every media company’s dream: outstanding content, strong engagement from a big audience, and technology that lets us do it all an order of magnitude better than anyone else.
Alex Weinstein (@alexweinstein) is the Director of Product at Wetpaint and the author of the Technology + Entrepreneurship blog where he explores data-driven decision making in the face of uncertainty. Prior to Wetpaint, Weinstein led technology initiatives in Microsoft Live Labs.
Every day, we go to our favorite news outlets and get our fix. We land on the same familiar sites. We seek out the kind of news that fits our fancy. We casually share the most interesting news with our friends – over dinner or online. And, tomorrow, it starts all over again.
Why? What motivates us to watch the daily news, read an opinion in a magazine, and come back to a favorite TV show? For content creators and distributors, it’s easy to think that it’s all about the content. This view is based on the notion that people desire the intrinsic value of content, such as the knowledge hidden in a report, or the laugh they experience from a comedy sketch. But this idea is too flat, and it ignores a more powerful force that’s at work, and that drives the tremendous confluence among target populations when it comes to what they read.
Indeed, in many cases, a deeply human driver is far more valuable than the information itself. And that driver is the desire to be a valuable, appreciated member of a group.
As the graphic below shows, this desire maps directly to Maslow’s pyramid of human needs – the need for esteem.
(diagram from NYTimes – http://ideas.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/16/revising-maslows-pyramid/)
After taking this pyramid or hierarchy of needs in, it becomes clear that, as publishers, we must pay attention to the amount of influence, respect, and social value that audiences are able to earn from their friends after consuming content.
Let’s look at a few examples.
For World of Warcraft geeks, a news article on a long-tail site that covers the latest artifacts is true gold – because it will help them be the most informed in the eyes of their guild.
For fans of Bachelorette, watching the latest episode is very much about having a water cooler conversation about it next day – and the potential social connection that brings.
For Politico readers, it’s about exerting influence on their Facebook friends after they share a controversial editorial.
And, for Lolcats readers, it’s about making their friends laugh for the umpteenth time with a new, undiscovered photo.
Each of these examples is about social influence and social esteem.
Here’s the take-away for publishers in all of this: a key component of the value of the 21st century media company is about helping audiences gain the attention of their social circles.
This represents a radical shift from what we’ve seen over the past decades.
Instead of trying to capture and direct the reader’s attention (“Look at my 100-year-old brand! I curate the world and know best what you should look at!”), the publisher becomes a back-stage prompter, helping readers utter the words that will make them the center of attention among those they care about. The reader can then become an even stronger influencer, or taste-maker.
Every time a friend consumes something that you’ve read, you’ve successfully directed their attention. Your social bank account just became more valuable. And every time publishers help make this transaction seamless and smooth, they are helping you earn some social gold.
This is why Washington Post Social Reader and Yahoo Social are such smashing hits.
Readers want to consume content within these apps, because of the feedback loop from their friends. (“Hey, I saw you read this article, and I read it, too.”) This is a self-reinforcing pattern that creates social value for all the participants. These publishers, and Facebook’s timeline apps, put audiences first; and, in the process, they generate an ever-increasing amount of social value for readers.
Note that curation and brand very much play into this the social value generation; nobody wants their friends to be misinformed or displeased by media that they endorsed. Content is still king.
If, say, the Washington Post wanted to take this experience to the next level, it could make curation even more personalized. Instead of telling readers that they must care about the Russian presidential election via a big front-page photo – completely ignoring the fact that sharing this knowledge will drive zero social value to its readers – the Post could cater to the unique values of each reader. To do so, it could measure the social response from the reader’s audience – and then personalize the content based upon this response. It’s essential to point out, however, that the reader’s interest – and the response of his or her audience – are not mutually exclusive; a smart personalization algorithm will take both of these factors into account.
That said, in the end, publishers must awaken to the fact that social influence and social esteem are key matters for their audiences today.
Last week, I explained why the traditional ways of judging “quality” in published content are useless in the digital age. Judging by readers response to that piece, those dated values (which I labeled credential, correctness, objectivity and craftsmanship) are still sacred to many people. But here’s the problem: They simply aren’t enough to win audiences, drive financial success, or, for that matter, ensure viability. The demise of institutions like Newsweek proves that—and shows that publishers that don’t move beyond these anachronistic measures of success will perish.
So this week, I’m offering part two of my take on the changing definition of quality in published content. Here are the four new rules of quality that publishers must obey to flourish. The biggest difference between the old and new definitions of quality are who’s doing the judging. In the era of Publishing 1.0, when production costs were high, alternatives low and time ample, the editor deemed something quality or not. But today, content isn’t scarce at all—in fact, it is in oversupply. And it is the audience that judges quality directly, dozens of times per day.
So, according to the audience, what is quality? It comes down to these four characteristics:
—Relevance. Read the rest of this entry »