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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
This is the first 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.
As Don Graham, Chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Company, recently remarked on-stage at a conference of leading CEO’s, the media industry as we have known it for the last 100 years is collapsing. The basic structure of our industry – content creation, packaging, distribution, and monetization – have shifted so substantially that the rug has literally been pulled out from underneath media’s business model.
A new model must be created – and the DNA of the medium itself has been irreversibly altered so that it is now innately social.
And yet, in the midst of this upheaval, I’ve found that even the brightest and most well informed strategies are able to tap only part of media’s new nature and capture just a slice of the industry’s remaking.
At a time like this, to get a complete picture of the territory ahead, there is nothing wiser than integrating perspective from the best and brightest people in the publishing world. And, over the course of the last several years, I’ve been immensely grateful for those leaders’ intelligence and vision.
So, I thought it was only fitting to help create the ultimate social network – one that will enable our industry to share the smartest ideas as it remakes digital media.
That’s what this compendium is all about.
Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web brings together eight of the most thoughtful influencers and offers their most cogent assessment of the new online relationship-building that is helping to connect people in absolutely unprecedented ways.
Together, these eight contributors reinforce three dominant themes:
Building a media brand on the new social Web means that publishers have to meet consumers where, when and how they want. It’s all about user-driven pull, and publishers need to offer experiences and establish relationships that may not be on their own terms.
Facebook is a transformative platform driving new personalization and connectivity across the upstart social Web. We are still waiting to see all of what Facebook ultimately becomes, but we know it represents a once-in-a-generation paradigm shift.
Any way you look at it, search (as we know it) is declining. The open sharing of social networks, and the power of social endorsement, are seriously altering what consumers look for on the Web, and how we’re engaging with content. The search algorithm has lost out – big time – to the will of the audience.
But the most powerful insights are in the essays that follow from each of our eight contributors.
Wenda Harris Millard, President of Media Link LLC, advances the notion of a new personal recommendation engine on today’s Web.
I have already learned a lot from each of these people and their pieces, and I hope you do, too – not only to build your own ideas, but to help our industry move forward. To that end, I invite further conversation with me, and with our contributors.
The digital dialogue is so essential as we all work to re- invent publishing for 21st century audiences.
To download the complete report, please click here: Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web
This article was published as a guest post at XConomy, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
I’ve been taking in Google’s recent release of “Search, plus your world” (or SPYW as the cool kids say) over the last several days, reflecting on what it means for Wetpaint and other media companies; but perhaps even more importantly, deeply understanding what it indicates about Facebook and Google themselves. As we all know by now, these most recent changes are meant to make its search more personal by up-weighting social activity in its algorithm, and using each person’s own position within their circles to determine relevance.
You might think that I would be one of the first to jump in the game with Google. After all, my company Wetpaint has been making a massive investment in distributing our content via other social channels, particularly Facebook. We’ve been seeing massive returns. And, I’ve even gone on a limb to predict that Facebook should be implementing its own Web-wide search this year.
Still, when it comes to playing Google’s social games, so far I’ve advocated staying on the sidelines of all their social venues—even their recent business pages. That’s been because even though the stadium lights are on, no one is on the field. More specifically, even though Google has 90 million registered users of the service, we see very little activity of significance among our target audience. But with its new SPYW changes, the question is: Has Google indeed forced companies’ hands?
Unfortunately, they have. And, in doing so, it marks a milestone in the changing mentality of Google. The search company’s great innovation—using the signals of the Web to best determine what the audience really wanted—has now been subverted. The company’s originally unshakable-seeming ethos of mechanistic neutrality has slowly, slowly, slowly, and now all of a sudden given way, and the new precedent is to favor its own business interests over those of the audience.
The result, like it or not, is that companies that rely on search for traffic must hear and obey loud and clear Google’s message that Google will favor those that favor it. It’s a dirty truth, and one far more chilling than the other more technical biases of its algorithm before.
Google has already started infusing search with the content that’s been blessed via Google+. Do a search for “New York Times” and you’ll probably find the New York Times plus.google.com page as the second search result. Search for “Mark Zuc” and you’ll likely see Zuckerberg’s Google+ page (despite the irony) populate as an option in the Google Instant choices.
I haven’t seen this bleed over to news stories yet, but I believe that it’s coming. Soon you’ll do a search for the latest headlines and your search results will be chock full with musings from your friends and non-friends inside Google+.
Google+ may not take off as a real social network, but Google has indicated that it’s throwing its full weight behind it anyway to make the best of what it’s got. Even if consumers don’t adopt it en masse, whatever activity is present will pepper the famous algorithm’s search results.
The irony here is that Google’s pivot toward a social search belies how important that social data is. The company is putting its lock on search at risk to gain a chance at a foothold on social. But what really comes through to me is that a great social search can be a winning product—if it’s populated with the right social data. So far, Google’s is not.
The question is—if that’s what I’m after—won’t I still just go to Facebook, where all my friends actually are (and which Google has adamantly cut out of SPYW)?
While SPYW does force publishers to support Google’s social network, fortunately it will be a temporary sacrifice from publishers during this period of transition from these days of search to a socially wired world. And that forthcoming world looks increasingly like it will be wired not by Google, but by its arch-enemy Facebook. Indeed, by corrupting the quality of their search product, Google may have just opened up a clear product entry into search for their rival as well.
Jonah Peretti’s Buzzfeed has been especially buzz-worthy of late, first with a $15.5M capital raise, and more recently via some fascinating brow-raising editorial hires. First, Ben Smith from Politico and then last week, Doree Shafrir from Rolling Stone… and surely more are on the way. It’s a surprise direction to build original content for a site that had been more of a virality aggregator. Why the sudden change, especially considering BuzzFeed has been so successful at acquiring audience?
Here’s my two cents: Virality is a multiplier. But like any other “x-factor”, it can only make things valuable relative to how much they’re worth to begin with. A 10X booster can add 9 cents to a penny; or it can be worth $90 by turning a Hamilton into a Franklin.
BuzzFeed is among the best on the planet when it comes to this kind of multiplication. And when you’re that good, it only makes sense to start working on the base rate. That means beyond building buzz, the company needs to build a premium brand to attract premium advertisers to its core product and audience. In media, the best way to make a strong brand that attracts high dollars to begin with is with outstanding content.
I’ve been fascinated to see that at Wetpaint. We now see more than 12 million uniques monthly: nearly 6 million on our user-generated wiki platform; and 6+ million more on our premium Wetpaint Entertainment property. They both have great virality that helps them draw audience. But the original editorial in Wetpaint Entertainment makes the advertising worth even more – and it’s an even more valuable business model.
Premium content plus social distribution means a high base, and a high multiplier on the business model. And it’s the perfect combination for a successful business model. Congratulations to Jonah and team for all the success they’re having!