Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
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.
In yesterday’s Media Industry Social Leaderboard, I noted that leading web publishers on the web saw a staggering 17% increase in their social traffic from November to December. These top 50 websites are now averaging about 8 million referrals per month from Facebook.
At this rate, the question asked by Fred Wilson and others is: how long until social drives more traffic than search? Based on data from Compete.com, it won’t be long at all. Let’s look at the specifics.
Facebook Drives Almost As Much Traffic As Google
When it comes to driving traffic, the gap between social and search is already smaller than most realize. In fact, for every 100 visits that Google sent to the top 50 web publishers in November, Facebook sent 62. By December, it was already up to 73 visits from Facebook for every 100 from Google.
At the same time, search traffic to these publishers is stable to declining, with Google referrals falling 0.5% over the same period.
So how long until Facebook outranks Google? If these monthly rates of change were to continue apace, Facebook traffic would outrank Google traffic for the top 50 publishers in aggregate by March of this year!
Seven Publishers Already Get More Traffic From Social Than Search
Shockingly, Compete.com data shows that already seven of the top 50 publishers get more traffic from Facebook than from Google: MSN, ThePostGame, Yahoo, Aol, People, Fox Sports, and US Magazine. These seven publishers received in aggregate 12% more visits from Facebook than they did from Google last month.
And that set of publishers has already grown by five from just a month earlier, in November of 2011, when only MSN and ThePostGame showed more traffic from social than from search.
But seven is just a snapshot in time. Based on recent trends, by the middle of this year, I’d expect it to grow to a dozen publishers or more.
This article was published as a guest post at TechCrunch, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
Without question, one of the greatest gifts of the human species is our ability to communicate. We can create, transmit, and absorb ideas with immense freedom in pictures, speech, writing, music, and more. And yet, from the earliest days of man until very recently, the state of the art of media has been about as sophisticated as cave paintings.
Truly great communicators don’t start out by focusing on their message. They start with their audience. They research, observe, and monitor every knowable detail – from background facts beforehand to micro-reactions during the conversation – and adjust their content and delivery precisely, so it will make an impact. But it’s not like this is a secret formula. Even toddlers do it, carefully measuring parents’ reactions and perpetually tuning in to the behavior patterns that get them the attention they want. That tuning is carefully optimized to achieve maximum effect from each individualized recipient.
Meanwhile, media has virtually ignored its audiences.
But it’s finally beginning to open its eyes and ears to them through personalization. I believe that personalization has the greatest potential to transform the media business.
But before we get to that, let’s start with what’s gone wrong in media that has made us blind to our audiences’ cues.
In the world of print and broadcast, there was fundamentally no data about audience interests or reactions. It was impossible to “read the room,” because the room was pitch black. If media leaders’ eyes were closed, I’d be hard pressed to blame them; there was nothing to see.
As a result, there were two operating principles that made sense at the time, but which have since become outdated anachronisms.
First, that an editor should serve as oracle for what the audience desires (I call this the “Editor Fallacy”); and second, that content created in that vacuum of data should then be distributed as broadly as possible (let’s call this the “Broadcast Assumption”).
These two assumptions – even though they came from the print and broadcast legacy businesses – have errantly managed to drive the entire Web media mentality.
And the resulting misguided formula – across the board – has been Prophesize, Publish and Proliferate.
The big hope with this media Ouija Board has been that the guesses will be right, and that those who broadcast widely will then draw a big audience. When the guesses miss the mark with audiences (no surprise there), publishers turn up the volume or amp up the sensationalism. To some degree, this is why the Huffington Post succeeds with its brash and blaring headlines, and it explains why, thanks to Henry, we’ve collectively Blodgetized Web 1.0 media.
But to make room for the new media model of the next 100 years, we need to let these old assumptions fall by the wayside. The new vision is for media to start doing the work that each member of the audience already does; and that means deliberately selecting and contextualizing the media we each consume.
Putting it simply: media’s great opportunity is to bring the right content to the right person at the right place and time.
And this is where things get very interesting.
Bring Me My Very Own World
The social transformation of the Web has already taken us half way down the road toward a personalized future.
We finally recognize that the Web is made up of people, and Facebook and others have made people and relationships the key “nodes and edges in the graph” of the Web, replacing pages and links. The social Web is now people-centric; and, increasingly, social is becoming the operating system for the Web at large. Most impressively, “what my friends like” is already proving to be a good starting point to predict “what I like,” and so much of the Web is beginning to get at least a clue of how to serve us.
Despite this tremendous progress, however, when you go behind the scenes, the Web is still organized by data, not by people. Server data is affiliated with accounts; cookies are associated with Web browsers; and activity logs are tethered by IP addresses.
And yet, as the social revolution has proven, the real value of the transformation has been to stop looking at me as an IP address, a browser, or an account; and to start holistically realizing that I’m a person – I am me.
So, the great opportunity is to move from a Web of sites to “my” Web of me.
Media is at a critical transition point today, because we are about to completely redefine our sense of the audience. Starting now, the audience is no longer one massive opaque agglomeration. It’s not a “them” or an “us”; it’s a lot of individual “me’s.” (This must-watch from Monty Python paints the picture.)
In this context, the Broadcast Assumption of content creators is completely out of touch with the 21st century zeitgeist. It revolves around the played-out maxim of “create once, distribute everywhere,” which made sense when audiences were opaque and distribution channels were just big dumb pipes. But it totally ignores the “me’s” in the audience – when it comes to both creation and distribution.
The bottom line, then, is that media experiences, which used to be one-size-fits-all, must now be customized so they’re just for me.
In other words, the media experience of the future must take a cue from Facebook, and bring my world to me – regardless of where it originated.
The Six Elements of Ultimate Digital Personalization
Social represents progress toward this vision of fully personalized media, but it’s only one part of the game.
In my view, there are six key elements that contribute to ultimate digital personalization – and these elements are the basis for the ultimate success model in digital media:
After considering these six elements as a whole, I’m most inspired (and encouraged) by Facebook, Twitter, AOL Editions, the recent Flipboard clones, NetFlix, and the potential of a new Siri-powered Apple TV.
Each of these demonstrates the central aspect of this new vision for media: bringing my world to me.
Data Is the Currency of Personalization
To be successful, we all need to be data companies – as data is the clear way to know what our audience wants. Data is the currency of personalization, and so it is our best path to delighting our audience.
News sites should know by now what topics and stories to program for whom; and no sports site should serve a balanced home page when no sports fan likes all teams equally.
It’s an approach that, of all companies, Yahoo! ‘gets’– and for them it’s been paying huge dividends for a long time. And so it should for the rest of us.
What this means for media is that it’s not all about the content – instead, it’s all about the audience. And that means the nature of media has changed.
It’s all about you. It’s all about me.
That’s the digital media future. And we need to start going there today – because audiences are asking (and even demanding) that we pay attention to them, that we really know them, as true individuals.
So, if you’re a publisher, here’s the challenge as you try to create meaningful content experiences today: Each member of your audience – no matter how vast it is – has to become the most important person in the world to you. Or, looking at it in a slightly different way, you have to become deeply involved and digitally intimate on a global scale each and every day.
For most of us, particularly in the media business, the word “entertainment,” is synonymous with content: movies, television programs, music, books, and the like. The better the content, the more “entertaining” it is. However, a new study released today highlights that the majority of consumers now have a different definition of entertainment, one that extends beyond content to include interactions that they have via social networking sites. Given this, publishers need to reevaluate the business they are in. In a world of Publishing 2.0, we are in the audience business, not the content business.
Today, Edelman released summary findings of its fourth annual Trust in the Entertainment Industry study. The notable highlight is that over 70% of people 18-34 in the U.S. consider social networking to be a form of entertainment. Over the past year, Edelman found a significant rise in the number of people who consider the web a source of entertainment; in 2010 the Internet surpassed movies and is now second only to TV. Additionally, out of all of the entertainment categories, social networking scored the highest in perceived value, with 40% of U.S. respondents saying that it offers excellent or very good value.
This highlights how the entertainment sector is undergoing an experience revolution, with consumers revealing that not only is social networking displacing traditional media as a significant mode of entertainment; but that they appreciate that social networking provides better value than other options.
The implications for publishers are clear: by creating compelling, interactive experiences for consumers, we not only get them more deeply engaged but can also increase their perception of our value. Read the rest of this entry »