Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
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.
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.
This article was published as a guest post at PaidContent, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
Media companies have collectively spent billions of dollars on content management systems. As they upgraded their offline businesses to the digital world, they turned to big enterprise systems to organize their content in an orderly digital database. And whether via internal systems or a purchased system, each piece of content knows its place, and the digital migration of media is a fait accompli.
But after so much investment in such important systems, why are media companies still miles away from a profitable model? In part, it’s because these intricately designed systems have been based on one big misunderstanding: that a media company’s most valuable asset is content.
Content is just a means to an end. The end – and media’s greatest asset – is audience.
Advertisers don’t pay to reach content – they pay to reach audience. And building an audience that will earn you advertising is only partly about content. In truth, just as much hinges on distribution. If your delightful content can’t find and catch the attention of your audience, the value of your content drops to zero. If a tree falls in a forest…
Media companies over the last 10 years have invested in an enormously expensive card catalog, while spending only pennies to bring people into the library. The big opportunity with digital media is not to organize your content closet or have efficient workflow – it’s about driving demand and building an audience using digital channels and all of the rich data that comes with them. That’s the way to use systems to multiply the topline, not just streamline the expense line.
Other industries made the leap a decade ago. The ERP category boomed as manufacturing companies’ inventory tracking systems evolved to fully manage and even stoke demand, with the realization that driving sales is far more valuable than just knowing what you’ve got in the back room.
The time has come for companies to step up from tracking data to driving results. And over the last 24 months, huge advances in technology have enabled us to not just capture, but harness, data. The next generation of CMS won’t be CMS 2.0. The technology that powers media companies going forward will be ADS: audience development systems. And it will help media companies that use it multiply their topline and improve their offering to their audience.
What does it take to add the last, most important part to your systems? Here are five steps every content manager needs to take to make the shift:
1. Manage across the many channels of distribution.
Stop thinking it’s just “the web.” Today’s web is composed of myriad channels: Google’s search index, Facebook’s news feeds, Twitter’s tweets, and YouTube’s video marketplace, not to mention pins and tumbles. Each of those channels is more than a dumping ground – it’s a pipeline that, if well optimized, can deliver compounding results for your audience. The TV networks have recognized this for decades: they carefully arrange lead-in and lead-out to maximize audience compounding. Now every content publisher has the opportunity to maximize channels this way – alas, their CMS isn’t built for that. Shift your systems to be oriented around the channels, not the asset.
2. Adjust the focus from audience to individual.
The idea of publishing once for “the audience” is absurd today. In the past, we didn’t have the ability to see the “I” in audience. Today, technology enables us to connect with individual users, and to actually get to know them. Showing the same featured article that you showed me last time I visited your home page is a waste of precious attention. Your users expect better, and you should too. A CMS that knows and exploits the differences between you and me will dramatically enhance the value of any media company’s content.
3. Use abundant user data to know what works.
Thanks to the social rewiring of the web, Big Data technology, and real-time analytics, data is available to provide feedback and allow programming on all major channels in real-time. Everyone recognizes the incredible audience-building potential of behavioral data, but most companies still don’t know how to leverage it. It’s time to measure not just what you publish, but who interacts with it – and how. Use that data to know what content works for what audience, and what audience works for what content. Personalization is the future of media – and it starts with data.
4. Make your systems look forward, not back.
The CMS model of the web is retrospective: it’s a trackling log of content, created, edited, and published once and forever, set on a URL and then forgotten. But today’s web prizes relevance – and relevance right now – above all else. Past performance should impact all your actions – in real time. Predicting, programming, and optimizing your distribution can multiply your ROI on content by many times.
5. Fully socialize your distribution.
According to comScore, audiences are spending 1 in every 5 minutes of their online lives on social networks. Social will soon surpass search to become the #1 traffic source to companies’ websites. It’s not what’s published to the web that matters, anymore – it’s what’s published to the newsfeed. A CMS built with Google in mind will soon become irrelevant, while one built to optimize social distribution can capture growth to the tune of many millions of users.
Digital distribution, when done right, can have a multiplicative effect: a great piece of content delivered to the right person at the right time in the right package is worth 10x that same content paired with the wrong (or non-existent) distribution strategy. A company that can fully incorporate social, real time, data, channels and personalization into their distribution strategy will dramatically enhance the value of their offering by developing a loyal audience relationship.
You heard it here first: the Audience Development System will be the killer app for web companies in the next five years.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
A year and a half ago, I called an end to the decade-long obsession with search. I claimed that SEO is dead, and I set my sights on perfecting a strategy for its successor, SMO (social media optimization).
Since then we’ve succeeded wildly in driving social traffic (we are now #1 compared to all of the 50 largest web publishers); but as my friend Jack asked me recently:
Has the success in social come at the expense of search?
The answer may surprise you, as it has me. By focusing on social, we’ve achieved even more – in fact, unprecendently more, in search. Here, I’ll show you:
Could it be that by forsaking SEO in favor of social, we earn more search traffic? Seems perverse. I went looking for an explanation, and I dug up some interesting info: behind content, social signals are the most important factor in search ranking.
In this interview with Duane Forrester, Senior Product Manager for Bing’s Webmaster program and former head of SEO for MSN, he offers a glimpse of what really matters in the black box of a search engine’s algorithm – and in his words, what matters most for publishers. He lays out the three most important factors, in order:
2. Social Media
3. Link building
This is big news for an industry that’s had years of conditioning to believe that link building and keywords are the Holy Grail of SEO. In 2010, 60% of companies spent more than $25K on SEO, while a measly 25% spent that much on social.
Looking at this gap, it’s clear that there’s about to be a whole new wave of investment in SMO. Not only is social a bigger factor than traditional SEO in search rankings today, but it’s trending up. “At some point, social could be more important than content,” predicts Bing’s Forrester. “But that assumes you have excellent content in place.”
Publishers: if you have that excellent content in place, put down your old SEO playbook and start investing in social. What does investing in social look like? It means repackaging your content for a social audience, and then delivering it to them at the right time and in the right channel. At Wetpaint, each piece of content gets a tailor-made package (we tweak the title, the timing, the images, even the content itself) depending on its destination.
The best investment in search is an investment in social. Really, that’s not perverse at all. As Bing’s Forrester explains, “When you delight someone with the best user experience possible, we pick up all those signals that person shares about their delight, and those signals influence our perception of your quality.”
Now go forth, get social, and delight in the search traffic that follows.
After I published the Media Industry Social Leaderboard numbers for January, I realized that I haven’t spent much time talking about the other social operating systems. While Facebook is the clear #1 traffic distributor, there is a race on for second-in-command. Twitter holds its solid lead (with 61% of the non-Facebook social referrals); however, Pinterest has shockingly pinned the #2 spot, beating out Tumblr.
The odds may not look incredibly promising now, but Pinterest is undeniably gaining clout in certain niches – they became the top social referrer to marthastewart.com this past summer. Tumblr, neck and neck with Pinterest at 17%, is another underdog with potential.
While these are certainly horses to keep an eye on, your bookie should remind you that Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Google+ combined account for only 0.2% of total traffic to the Top 50, which is well below Facebook’s 6.7%.
Paid vs. Earned Media is the third and final video of our Rebooting Media think-tank series. This time we asked:
What are the implications (and opportunities) of social web distribution eclipsing paid impressions?
See our thought leaders tackle this question and read conversation highlights below.
You pay for earned media, too.
There is no earned media without paid media. Social network distribution hinges on quality content at the outset, which means that investing in your content before you publish it in the social feed is crucial.
“People loved the Old Spice ads. They were great and funny and they blew up on YouTube, and there was a lot of earned media behind that. And none of it would have existed if there wasn’t a TV spot that was made and bought and placed and that was very, very good.” —Greg Clayman, The Daily
“A lot of the ‘earned’ arguments came from viral sensations wearing as a badge of honor: ‘we spent no money on traditional marketing.’ People forget the impact that print, radio, and television have on online traffic. When I was at MTV Networks, I used to joke that the channels were only there to promote the websites.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined
Social is better than search for brand building.
Search advertising lacks the brand-building potential of TV and print. Social, on the other hand, is ideal for brand-building. Advertisers have been slow to embrace this, and we need to provide them with a compelling return story before they’ll be willing to make the leap.
“On the advertising side, there’s an argument that social has the potential to be a vehicle for brand advertising in a way that search can’t be. But what should be the metric for brand? Brand impressions are so much further up the funnel before you have an action. I think people are trying to find some metric between CPM and CPA.” —Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch
It’s time to find the magic metric.
Even though social has been around for a while, most people don’t know how to measure success. At Wetpaint we’ve made huge strides in this area, and other people in the room were clearly ready to make this a priority.
“There’s a tremendous amount of money being spent by the film studios specifically on television advertising, and it’s a very inefficient spend; it’s carpet bombing. Virality and targeted advertising are a much more efficient spend, but so far digital media hasn’t been able to show the lift those properties need; they don’t see the payback. They know it’s happening, but they don’t know how to quantify it.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined
“We don’t have a choice. We’re either going to figure this out, or we’re going to live another ridiculous couple of decades without understanding why money is spent. Have I seen a magic metric? Not yet.” —Wenda Harris Millard, Media Link
THAT’S ALL, FOLKS
I hope you enjoyed our Rebooting Media think-tank series, and most importantly I hope it pushes you to join the conversation.
What does the next decade look like? One thing is for sure: it will look nothing like the last one.
Search vs. social, curated vs. created, owned vs. earned – these are not binary outcomes. How do we combine them in a way that meets the needs of the audience?
These are early days still, and there’s a huge opportunity for media players with the imagination, the brains and the courage to get there first.
Want more? Download a PDF of the full published collection of perspectives prepared by these participants and others at Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web.
And if you missed part 1 or part 2, you can find them here:
If you’re Buzzfeed and your raison d’etre is to find and distribute viral content, then it’s fair to assume that you should be getting the majority of your traffic from social (and indeed, they do). But what if you’re Parenting Magazine? Or Consumer Reports?
While we know that social traffic is increasing as a referral source for publishers, it stands to reason that social traffic would be more relevant to some publishers and less to others. When I search “how to get rid of a purple rash,” I may find an extremely useful article on WebMD (and I may even forward it to a friend with a similar problem). But am I going to post it to my Facebook wall? Doubtful.
If you’re a publisher, you know how much social traffic you are drawing right now. But how much should you be drawing, relative to your competitors? To know this, we need to understand what types of content are highly shareable (and which are less so).
Pew Research studied the distribution of topics on Twitter and compared them with the distribution in traditional news sources. To add one more dimension, I broke down the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 by topic and threw those into the mix.
The conclusions are striking:
None of this is to say that traditional news isn’t getting social traffic; in fact, 53% of Facebook’s Top 40 came from four very traditional news sources: CNN, New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. But while much of the most shareable content comes from newspapers, the average story ends up pretty lonely.
As for the most-shared topics, if you’re a publisher on the subject of parenting, you should be rolling in Facebook traffic. SEVEN of the top 40 shared articles on Facebook are about parenting (e.g. “How to Talk to Little Girls” and “Dads, Wake the Hell Up!”) If you’re a tech news publisher, well, Twitter wants to take you out for a lobster dinner and introduce you to his parents.
The wheels are greased, but are these publishers living up to their social potential?
Let’s just say there’s room for improvement.
GigaOM gets a shockingly small amount of social traffic for a specialty publisher directly aligned with the interests of social users. Parents.com fares better and beats traditional news, but lags far behind People (even though parenting as a topic is 2x more shareable on Facebook than celebrity news).
I would venture to say, of course, that ALL of these publishers should be getting more social traffic than they are right now (traditional news and celebrity gossip included). But if you’re lagging behind other publishers with less shareable content, you especially need to get smarter about using distribution channels like Facebook and Twitter. The social networks are ready for you – are you ready for them?
At Wetpaint, we’ve been rapidly ramping up our social traffic (from 14% to well over 20% in the last two months) by constantly refining our social distribution system. Having content that lines up with what people like to share is only half the battle; you need to be savvy about packaging and delivering that content into the social feed. That takes not only a great editorial savvy to understand your audience, but a tech mindset to help get it into the social groove.
Now that’s good news for GigaOM, Parents.com, and everyone else as well: Your content is highly shareable. Don’t let it go to waste.