Social Success = Search Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


via Business Insider

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

So should you pay up?

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

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

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

Look Out, Twitter: Pinterest on Your Tail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search and Social: How The Two Will Soon Become One

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Expect When Facebook Is Expecting: Five Predictions for Facebook’s First Public Year

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

Mark Zuckerberg’s baby will be coming of age in a few days, just eight years after it was born in a Harvard dorm room. We’ve been there for the first steps, and the first missteps. But do any of us know what Facebook-all-grown-up-as-a-public-company will look like?

I have five predictions of how Facebook will be maturing in the first year after its IPO:

1. Search

Facebook has become home base for users in many ways. But when it comes to search, Facebook makes you take a bus transfer at Google every time you want to leave the house.

And that’s a shame, because Google starts each search from a place of knowing almost nothing about me. When I’m taking a vacation to Bali, I’m far less interested in Google’s generic recommendations of things to do than I am in recommendations from my friends who have been there.

Facebook already knows which of my friends have been to Bali, and which restaurants and attractions they liked the best. It can even differentiate between the friend I trust for restaurant recs and the friend who always finds the best surfing spots.

There is a clear battle between Google and Facebook. But it’s not over “search vs. discovery,” as it is often framed. Rather, it’s “transaction vs. relationship” — which is why Facebook has the potential to disrupt search as we know it.

Prediction: Facebook will launch a purely social search by the end of 2012 (before tackling the whole hog in 2013).

2. Advertising

Despite the company’s fierce ethos of consumer experience first, business concerns second, an IPO will inevitably put upward pressure on the latter. With the numbers published quarterly and the prices reset every day, Facebook will be forced to support that share price (if not for the sake of its shareholders, then at least for its employees!) by expanding its advertising revenues.

Facebook today brings in quarterly ad revenue of $872M — just a tiny fraction of Google’s $9B. But transactions are by nature pecuniary — and relationships are priceless. As a gatekeeper to nearly a billion consumer relationships, Facebook can roll out new advertising products that are far more valuable than AdWords.

The market for online brand advertising is already huge at $85B today. As soon as Facebook unlocks the potential of relationship-based advertising, the market will open up by tens of billions more.

Prediction: By Q2 2013, Facebook will have more than tripled ad revenues to $3B per quarter.

3. Open Graph

Occupy Facebook! Oh wait, we already do. Or does Facebook occupy us? Facebook currently occupies 1 in 7 minutes of all time spent online.

As the locus of consumer identity, attention and relationships, Facebook has the potential to be the one true platform that links together every destination on the web.

But it’s not there yet. Open Graph was a start, but it lacks a complete and actionable vision for how publishers can connect, access data and establish relationships. Publishers don’t want bits and pieces of data that they need to analyze themselves — they want a unified schema that bridges their audiences’ online worlds and real lives.

When I buy a chicken at Whole Foods using a Facebook app’s mobile grocery coupon, Facebook can match that incoming data point with the fact that I read Cooks Illustrated and that I’ve been on an Indian food kick lately (based on my restaurant check-ins). By the time that chicken is in my reusable bag and I’m hauling it out the door, there should be chicken curry recipe suggestions on my Facebook page.

Facebook has an opportunity to turn data from the long tail of Facebook apps into real inferences about you and me that publishers and other brands on the web can actually use.

Prediction: Facebook will completely redesign their analytics offering by Q2 2013 to provide not just data but real, integrated audience insights that will guide brands’ personalization efforts.

4. Commerce and Currency

Advertising won’t be the only revenue play Facebook makes in its first year as a public company.

Digital commerce (i.e. digital goods) already represents more than $16B in market size, and is projected to grow to $36B globally by 2014. E-commerce is another $680B on top of that. Both are currently conducted by arcane means: Visa card numbers and PayPal accounts.

Why have digital payments been so slow to evolve? Because even the most trusting of us only allow a few close associates access to our most private details. Who knows me the best? My bank, my lawyer, my mother and Facebook. In fact, no one owns my identity as well as Facebook these days (sorry, Mom!). Just because Facebook doesn’t have access to my wallet yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.

A host of companies today (Google, Apple, Square) are trying to become your digital wallet, but Facebook holds a valuable advantage: it is already the locus of your relationships with third-party Web sites through Open Graph. While the logistics will certainly be no piece of cake, commerce is right up Facebook’s alley.

Prediction: By Q2 2013, Facebook will be presiding over $2B in transactions.

5. Timeline

There’s nothing more core to Facebook than its user experience, and Facebook has since its birth shown a consistent healthy dissatisfaction with it no matter what the status quo.

The current timeline experience is a nice try, but it’s not quite right. Timeline solved one problem — the indigestible frequency and quantity of updates at all levels of priority — while creating several more. New Problem #1: Timeline’s intuition about what’s important is too frequently just plain wrong. And while it gives us a great retrospective on people, it does a surprisingly poor job of helping us stay up to date with them. New Problem #2: Timeline depends heavily on Open Graph widgets to summarize our lives.

The latter is both ambitious and troubling. We admire great biographers for their ability to identify and communicate the essence of a person. It’s an insult say that a Nike Fuel score algorithm can capture the “real me” in the same way.

Timeline is a v1 product. It will take significant and deep tuning over many versions to reach its full potential.

This may seem like it’s just a UI update, but it’s not. Timeline is the clearinghouse for everything that happens on Facebook. Getting Timeline right is probably the single most valuable thing Facebook can do to grow its effectiveness with users — and its revenues.

Prediction: Facebook will release the first major redesign of Timeline by the first half of 2013.

Will the precocious kid that Facebook is today grow into a smart, savvy adult? A boatload of investors and J.P. Morgan certainly seem to think so. Over the long term, it will depend on Facebook’s ability to leave its youthful single-minded focus on users behind and execute consistently against two metrics: great user experience and revenues to match.

Content Is No Longer King

This article was selected from Ben Elowitz’s Media Success newsletter as a special feature for AllThingsD’s Voices column.

“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.

Social Leaderboard: March Results

How much social traffic did the top 50 web publishers attract in March?  The results are in – and it is a mixed month.

More Social Traffic

Measuring by total visits, March was the second highest month on record for social traffic to the top publishers.  The number of social (Facebook + Twitter) visits to the top 50 grew by 2.9% in March to 403 million.

But a Smaller Piece of the Pie

Volume growth aside, social’s share of traffic to the top 50 dropped slightly, dipping by 0.3% in March.  That’s because even while traffic from social grew, it didn’t grow as fast as traffic from other sources.

What gives?  It’s possible that each and every one of the top publishers’ social media teams was distracted last month by March Madness and solar flares.  It’s also possible that Facebook’s aggressive mobile push is putting downward pressure on this measurement (the comScore data we use for benchmarking overall site traffic doesn’t include mobile traffic, alas).

The Contenders:  NBC climbs, Us Magazine falls, and Wetpaint stays on top

The solar flares must have been particularly distracting to one publisher’s social team: Us Magazine continued its downward slide, falling out of the top 5 entirely this time after dropping last month from 3rd to 5th.

NBC is on a roll, climbing up another rung (after jumping two spots ahead in February) to #2 on the leaderboard.  NFL also ran the ball for an impressive number of yards, moving from #9 to #5.

Wetpaint Entertainment continued to hold a definitive lead, outperforming the closest rival by 9.3 percentage points.  We’re able to maintain this lead by constantly improving our proprietary social analytics and distribution system through rapid experimentation and a deep understanding of our audience.  The amazing thing is that our social growth has not come at the expense of search traffic.  Indeed, our search traffic has been rising as a result of our social success, and total traffic has recently hit record highs of 10 million uniques and more.

And we’re not done yet – social users are the most valuable users, and we want more.

The 20X Difference Between Facebook and Twitter

All social networks are not created equal.

We tend to think of Twitter as some kind of Facebook Lite, but this puts us at risk of missing the fundamental differences that make each platform valuable in its own way for brands and publishers on the web.

Facebook is a hub-and-spoke social network.  I share, you share, we all share with the common goal of promoting our identities within our social circles.  The assumption is that we share our lives – at least as we’d like them to be seen – with our friends.

Twitter, on the other hand, is an interest amplification network.  One person shares, one thousand people listen, and some retweet to thousands more.  On Twitter, the basic assumption is that tweeters share their interests with their followers.  And, with reverb built into the network, that followers do the same.   In this asymmetrical network, ideas can spread farther and faster.  And because Twitter’s connections are interest-based rather than relation-based, they transmit with far more “gain” on the signal.

But how far, and by how much?

Both Facebook and Twitter hold huge potential for publishers, and yet they are measured quite differently.  When a publisher posts to Facebook, they have a pretty good idea of the impact: ~16% of a brand’s followers see a typical post.  As with a radio tower, the signal is broadcast once and (while it may reflect here and there) largely travels by line of sight to its listeners.

The actual reach and impact of a tweet, though, remains nebulous  and hard to quantify.  It’s impossible to track how many of your Twitter followers actually read a tweet, and Twitter hasn’t offered any guidance on the norm.  But above all, Twitter is hard to quantify because the real value of a tweet comes from the ripple effects it creates outside of the Twitter stream.

If Facebook acts like a broadcast tower, Twitter acts like a newswire: think about its “tune in” format and its penchant for news-breaking.  More and more, journalists and bloggers are getting their news tips from Twitter and repackaging those stories for their own online readership.  Which means that one little tweet (unlike a typical Facebook post) can travel a very long way.

Twitter Traffic x 20

In fact, the total impact of a tweet can be anywhere from 1-20x the direct traffic you see from that tweet.  At Wetpaint, an average article gets 3% of its traffic directly referred from Twitter.com.  If a particularly influential person happens to tweet about one of our stories, however, that number goes through the roof.  When Grant Gustin (otherwise know as Sebastian on Glee) tweeted a link to the story “Grant Gustin has Superbowl Spirit,” Twitter’s traffic contribution shot up to 55%.  The same thing happens outside of the Twitter stream when our followers pick up on a story and blog about it – we see up to 20x the typical Twitter traffic in ripple effects.

It’s all well and good when that happens, but as publishers how do we consistently effect that kind of outcome?  Do we relentlessly pester celebrities and bloggers to follow us on Twitter, or amass a giant following in the hopes that some small percent will turn out to be influential?

How do you tweet for maximum ripple effect?

Creating tweets that achieve 20x their expected reach has little to do with follower counts and forced connections, and everything to do with the nuanced science of human influence.  Tapping into the power of influencers in Twitter requires a granular, case-by-case, relationship-focused approach.  Sound time-consuming and difficult?  It is.  But don’t despair – at Wetpaint we’ve been working on this for a while, and I’ll share a few of our hard-earned best practices:

1. Identify the influencers

Sounds easy enough: we all know that an Oprah is worth 1,000 Snookis, and a Snooki is worth 1,000 Elowitzes (sorry, mom!).  But celebrity isn’t everything: even better than a Snooki just may be a Stelter.  Brian Stelter doesn’t have the consumer name recognition of Snooki, but he’s far more influential in setting the agenda of the media and entertainment press.  Influence is all about relevance – and when Brian tweets, the ripples can travel far.

2. Take a look around

Once you’ve identified the influencers most relevant to your audience, it may suddenly become apparent that they’re, well, a bit inaccessible.  If Lady Gaga happens to be your target, then it’s time to get creative.  Who are the influencers of your influencer?

Every person’s interests are shaped and guided by the people around them.  You might read an article about silent retreats after your yoga teacher mentions her recent stint at St. Benedict’s, and you might start reading PandoDaily when your best friend launches a tech startup.  Highly influential people are no different – they pick up interests and news from their sister, their friends, and if they’re really doing well, their driver.  If Gaga retweets her barista, pursue a relationship with him.  And if the barista often retweets his mom, see if she might be interested in what you have to say.

3. Court sincerely

Once you’ve made a list of all the friends you want to make, start earning their friendship.  Relationships – whether digital or IRL – can’t be faked.  But they can be stoked.  Comment on their posts, offer them resources, and genuinely engage with them.  Just like in life, once you have a friendship, you can make asks from time to time.  And – again just like in the offline world – I’ve found that it’s always best to lead with giving for a while before even thinking about what I’ll get in return.

It’s not an overnight process.  Earning influence is just as hard in Twitter as it is in real life.  That’s because Twitter is a network of people, not a technology.

Social Science

These are just a few basics for starters.  At Wetpaint we’ve gotten this down to a science: we have analytical frameworks for identifying influence surround rings and continuous A/B testing to optimize every interaction.  But it all always comes back to real people building real relationships based on real interests.  In the end, even with all that technology to help us, I think it’s the real personal nature of relationships that have helped us be so successful with our audience.  And that’s what inspires our audience to honor us with ripple effects by passing on our content to their own friends.

10 Million(!)

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.