Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
While top publishers pull 5% of traffic from social, Wetpaint breaks a record at 38%
I was pretty excited in December when Wetpaint Entertainment became the #1 social publisher on the web, but this month’s Social Leaderboard chart is like that rare but spectacular sunny day in Seattle. For the sake of modesty, I’ll explain further down the page.
Unfortunately, the sun isn’t shining on everyone. Total social traffic to the Top 50 publishers fell by 13% in April. As for social traffic as a percent of overall traffic, the average publisher lost 1.5 percentage points. In fact, 48 of the Top 50 publishers lost ground on social traffic composition this month.
Facebook’s April experiments and changes to the EdgeRank algorithm are likely to blame. Publishers who put Facebook at the center of their distribution strategy were able to rebound quickly, while others fell behind.
MTV made good on its reputation as one of the most social-savvy TV brands by breaking into the Top Five (and bumping CBS down to #7). People reclaimed the #2 spot that it ceded to NBC in March.
Three new players showed up in the Top Ten this month: welcome, The Guardian, Patch, and Yahoo!! The Guardian gets the “most improved” award for advancing from 14th place all the way up to #6.
Of course, as in The Hunger Games, we can’t all be winners on the Social Leaderboard. MLB, Break, and Us Magazine – three publishers who have consistently been in the Top Ten since January – were washed downstream in April. Us Magazine in particular is all wet: after slipping slowly from #3 to #5 to #6 over the last few months, it plummeted to #18 in April. Ouch.
Not only is Wetpaint Entertainment the #1 social publisher for the fifth month in a row, but we’re now getting 38% (a Leaderboard record) of our traffic from social. That’s more than 3x the social traffic of the second-best social performer (People), and almost 8x the average publisher (Top 50 average = 5%). All in a month where we had record reach, as well (more on that soon).
Thanks to the team for working so hard to build and execute a best-in-class social distribution strategy that’s a cut (or two or three) above the rest.
How much social traffic did the top 50 web publishers attract in March? The results are in – and it is a mixed month.
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.
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 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.
This article was published as a guest post at AllThingsD, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
A few weeks ago, Forbes Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin and I sparred at the Rebooting Media Live event in New York. With an audience of top digital and media executives, I shared the results my company is getting from social — that social users are more than 2.5 times as valuable as users from search. Lewis surprised me by saying that when it comes to behavior on the Forbes Web site, he is seeing the opposite.
With all due respect to Lewis, who is one of the greatest innovators in media, I left realizing that there are different ideas of what “social” can mean on the Web, and that not everyone knows where the gold lies. Putting the whole picture together, there are four different models for social that, despite sharing the same name, are completely different concepts.
Social = Viral Hit
For those on the marketing and advertising side especially, the word “social” often means that you or your client are jealous of someone else’s success. Viral hits are largely based on breakthrough creative, though great distribution is an often-forgotten second factor. Who wouldn’t want to be responsible for the next Old Spice guy? Of course, these kinds of hits are easy to ask for and hard to achieve. And if you do achieve it, you’ll need another viral hit to bring your audience back again.
Verdict: Good luck!
Social = 1,000,000 Fans
Here, the theory goes that social means getting lots of fans, and then something magical is supposed to happen. Like the boys’ adventure with the “South Park” underpants gnomes, it usually ends up with a lot of time and money spent, a big collection achieved, and a big question mark over “what now?” It doesn’t matter how low your cost per fan was, if the value per fan is near-zero. It’s not the size of the fan base that matters — it’s what you do with it.
Verdict: Bad strategy.
Social = Comments
Another concept of “social” is that it’s a medium for conversation. With programs like @ComcastCares, brands have used this approach to shape their brand images and reputations — and it has worked. On the publishing side, the Huffington Post and other publishers have succeeded in using social engagement to drive deep participation and connection among an inner circle of its audience. Hosting a conversation certainly builds a relationship. A “Like,” comment, or share from a user can all get you more exposure on the margin, but, as Lewis noted on our panel, the friends who come that way don’t stay very long and don’t come back much. They came for their friends, not for your Web site. That’s why, even though engagement strategies are great for your core audience, they won’t single-handedly drive the large, loyal audience we all crave.
Verdict: Smart, but it’s not enough.
Social = Lasting Relationship
A lasting relationship with an audience is the holy grail of every brand online. In fact, it has made Amazon the most valuable e-commerce company on earth, and it’s made Disney and the NFL valuable over decades. But what some haven’t realized yet is that the most valuable mode of social is in keeping these relationships connected.
Do you have any idea how valuable a “Like” is? Any seventh-grader goes all atwitter when his crush says, “I like you.” It’s permission to see someone more, get to know them better, and talk to them all the time — not just once, but every day. If you are doing it right, a “Like” or a “Follow” begins a two-way relationship: One where your audience is asking for programming from you every day, week and month; and giving you their interest data about what works and what doesn’t. With that relationship, you can choose what content you create, and when and how you share it. That relationship isn’t once-and-done — it’s ongoing.
And data from our experience shows that it translates into a million visits a week from our fan base — almost one visit for every fan, not to mention dozens more impressions right in their home page, the Facebook news feed. Done right, social can already drive more traffic than search, making a new top venue to recruit, and more importantly, retain an audience.
More and more, I talk to marketers and publishers who have hundreds of thousands or millions of fans and followers, and yet have no idea what to do with them. They haven’t realized that they have subscribers at the ready, waiting for great content and experiences — the currency of their relationship.
Nor do they understand the tremendous value of those subscribers: If you give your friends what they are after, they’ll keep coming back for more, and they’ll bring their friends. This is exactly how companies like Groupon and Zynga have reinvented their categories and created businesses worth billions of dollars in the process.
Verdict: There is nothing more powerful than a lasting relationship.
We’re back with the Media Industry Social Leaderboard, fresh off the presses with February results. For any newcomers, the Social Leaderboard is a ranking of the top 50 media publishers by their effectiveness at driving traffic from Facebook and Twitter.
From January to February, social traffic composition was flat, with the average staying at 7%. The gap between Facebook and Google traffic coming in to the Top 50, which had been rapidly closing since November, froze in February with Google holding on to its 30% lead for one more month.
Only four publishers in the top 10 improved their social traffic scores this month: NBC (+1.5%) took third place by trading places with Us Magazine (the biggest loser in the top 10 with -3%, now at #5). Break (+2%) and TMZ (+0.5%) leapfrogged the pack of MTV, NFL and MLB, pushing those three back to #8, 9 and 10.
But the biggest mover and shaker was Wetpaint Entertainment. Wetpaint took an even more decisive lead by adding 7% to social traffic composition since January, vaulting it into the elite group of publishers who, based on Compete data, receive more traffic from Facebook than from Google (in good company with People, Yahoo!, AOL, MSN, Fox Sports, and The Post Game).
With 29% of traffic coming from social, Wetpaint is outperforming its closest competitor by nearly 2x. Is this a data aberration? Some kind of leap year phenomenon?
Let me fill you in on the story behind the 29%: over the last two years, we took a gamble by building a new platform for social media distribution. It wasn’t a sure bet, and not many other publishers were doing it, but we had seen compelling evidence that social was the only way forward for the media industry.
We threw all of our time and talent at the problem, building up a fan base while developing and testing and refining new strategies for delivering content through social channels. We collected tons of data in real time about the preferences of our fans, and then we leveraged that insight to personalize and program their newsfeeds.
Today, the rest of the media industry is just starting to figure out the value of winning fans and courting likes. But because of our early investment, we’re already two steps ahead – we’re focusing on what to do with our 1.7 million fans. We’re delivering over 1,000 posts a week, each one targeted for the right fan with the right content at the right time.
And it’s starting to pay off.
This is the second chapter of our Rebooting Media think-tank series. In this video, our thought leaders address the question:
Do curators bring value to content creators, or are they just stealing content?
Hear media industry executives debate the pros and cons of web curation in the video and read the most salient comments below.
Curators are the new editors.
As we’re overwhelmed by an increasing number of voices and information channels, we look to curators to sort through the clutter and tell us what’s important.
“I’m one of those people who reads or watches or listens a little more than the average person. If a person wants to stay up to date on certain topics but they have a family or a job or a life, curation services can help break through and deliver.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined
“A curator is an editor, essentially. You become a trusted source by doing the hard work for your audience and telling them what’s important, whether you’ve written it or not. Traditionally that’s been the role of great newspapers; now that function is being spread across the web.” —Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch
Publishers have a love / hate relationship with curators.
Curators help to expand a publisher’s reach, but the publisher risks losing credit (and traffic). Curators who link back and republish only enough to pique interest will keep publishers happy.
“A lot of money goes into making a piece of content, and then it shows up on somebody else’s website where they are ‘curating.’ That’s one word for it, and ‘stealing’ would be another. That’s a difficult balance: we want them to put our content out there but, ultimately, if you don’t come back to us, then we’re not capturing the full value.” — Jeff Berman, NFL Digital
How does curation become a real business? Just add creation.
Curators provide a valuable service to consumers and publishers. But can you charge for someone else’s content? The most compelling model going forward will be a curation / creation mix from trusted voices.
“I’m interested in content curators that are getting into the creation game. Buzzfeed, for example, was a driver of viral content. Then they shocked people by hiring editors and journalists and breaking a story. They took content that they owned and used the tools and algorithms they had to publish it into the social feed.” —Greg Clayman, The Daily
Part 3: Paid vs. Earned Media
For more from these thought leaders and others, download a PDF of the full publication Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web.
This piece from Jeff Berman is the second in a series of 10 posts about the future of the media industry contained in a report titled: Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web.
Q: How does the rise of Facebook change the relationship between media and its audience?
Radically. The conversation has historically been pretty much one way – media to audience or audience to audience. And it hasn’t been at scale. In the new world, however, the conversation is scaled and omni-directional. Since Gutenberg, or at least since Marconi, media has had a massive megaphone. But the audience hasn’t had real power. Thomas Paine and his patriotic pamphlets may be the exception; Paine had a voice and a platform, but it wasn’t a scalable model and it lacked speed. Today, everyone is a publisher, and there can be millions of Thomas Paines, reaching tens of millions of people instantaneously. Everyone who wants to create compelling content, or a movement, now has the tools. This is a very different world from even seven years ago.
Q: What’s changed fundamentally about media with the rise of the social Web, and what do publishers need to do to adapt?
First, if you’re involved in a one-way discussion, you’re not taking advantage of the social Web opportunity, and you’re leaving a ton on the table. Another advantage if you’re a legacy media property – let’s say The Wire or The Godfather – is that you now have a chance to stay in the conversation and continue it, so you’re alive and you remain active in the culture. You can keep the property and the franchise in front of new and existing audiences, thanks to the new digital tools. If the show is taken off the air, for instance, it can still be all over Facebook. Audiences are empowered today, and folks want to participate in the conversation. No one may be able to control the conversation, but people do want to shape it – and they can. The social Web gives them choices, and it provides options and alternatives for publishers and media players, too.
Q: We’ve gone from SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to SMO (Social Media Optimization), so how will search change as the Web becomes more social?
Here are some powerful numbers from a recent Forrester report. In 2004, 83 percent of Internet users deployed search engines to find content. That was before the rise of Facebook. By 2010, it was 61 percent. So, we saw a drop of a quarter in a six-year time frame, the same time frame in which social media took off. This isn’t a coincidence; it is, however, a causal relationship – and it makes sense, given what we know.
On a more sweeping level, we’ve historically learned about shows to watch and diapers to buy because we’ve spoken to friends and family. Now we’re taking these word-of-mouth conversations to the digital networks. And we’re not just using Google to search for the answers; we’re going to our friends’ Facebook pages (and, increasingly, to Twitter, particularly for real-time multi-platform engagement). This is trusted referral at scale, and it’s fast and reliable. That’s why Facebook represents such a monumental shift.
But let’s not forget that Facebook is just seven years old; You Tube is six years old; Groupon is three years old; the iPad is 18 months old – so anyone who proclaims a clear vision of the digital world even five years into the future is either a prophet or a fool. Broadly speaking, you will see evolution in SMO, and a continued deep integration of social functionality. The key point here is that Facebook is a part of today’s Internet operating system, so the efficiency and reliability of social sharing and peer reviews is going to increase big-time. In other words, the 83 percent, which fell to 61 percent, will fall even further as the social Web grows.
Finally, I’m especially interested in what Apple does with TV, and what will happen when Web TV is connected at scale and social functionality is built into the experience. The ability to share in real-time straight from whatever screen you happen to be viewing will meaningfully change the way we choose what content we engage with and how we engage with it.
Q: How do you build a brand in publishing when, with greater frequency, media is distributed through social channels?
There’s an apparent conflict out there right now. The brand world has never been more crowded than it is today. And yet it’s never been easier to build a massive new brand. The reason? As the universe gets more crowded, brand-building tools are being disintermediated. Spotify is a good example. All of a sudden, it’s skyrocketing, in no small part, because its offering is social. The same is true for LivingSocial and Groupon. These businesses have exploded like we’ve never seen before largely because of social functionality. People find it easy to share their experiences about the products, and they like having others show them the way to the marketplace. This is authentic social content.
Q: What are the critical success factors in publishing as we look to 2020; and who will be the winners?
The old axiom that you have to fish where the fish are holds true so it starts with platform ubiquity. We’ve seen this already with the explosive growth of mobile, and it’s just going to intensify as a necessary success factor over the next decade. For the vast majority of publishers, you will have to empower your audience to experience your content where, when, and how they want.
For startups, this is in their DNA. But the recent history of media suggests such change is not easy for mature publishers. You simply may have to cannibalize profitable (but declining or soon-to-be-declining) businesses to build for the future. That, or risk watching a newcomer come along and eat your lunch.
Jeff Berman is the General Manager of Digital Media for the NFL. He previously held a series of positions at MySpace, ultimately serving as President of Sales & Marketing. Prior to entering the digital media space, Berman was Chief Counsel to United States Senator Charles E. Schumer and a public defender representing children charged in the District of Columbia’s adult criminal courts. He also held an adjunct professorship at the Georgetown University Law Center.
To download the complete report, please click here: “Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web”