Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
Most websites get the biggest slice of their traffic pie from Google; and Facebook is the most frequent #2. But the other social networks are starting to be significant to some sites.
Now, let’s see how they stack up in terms of driving traffic. As part of the Media Industry Social Leaderboard, we’ve been keeping tabs.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Facebook still massively outweighs its social brethren in total impact, making up 97% of social traffic to the top 50. But in today’s world of meteoric rises and rapid falls, one of the players lurking in the other 3% (Twitter, Pinterest or Google+) could turn out to be the behemoth of tomorrow.
Twitter is definitively the #2 social referrer for publishers, but its share is declining – it grew by a lackluster 1% from February to May. Meanwhile, Pinterest is emerging as a formidable competitor: their last three months were just pinsane with 210% growth. If they continue on that trajectory, they’ll be bigger than Twitter as a traffic referrer by summer’s end.
Will that happen? Is Pinterest already edging out Twitter as we speak? Stay tuned for next month’s Social Leaderboard results.
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.
A number of people have asked me to share the math behind something I said last week: that social users are much more valuable than users from search.
As some of you will recall, I was referring to the most powerful use of social: to build loyal audience relationships. It’s worth far more than a chance at a viral hit, a millionth fan, or even a social comment or like. That’s because the social networks are really “relationship platforms.” The currency of social networks is the data describing what users like. And with that data, anyone can serve an audience – and build a branded relationship with users – far better than a blue link in Google can do.
In the interest of proof, I’ll share some of my company’s data with you. We’ve been tracking the long-term value of users from various sources for some time – about 7 months and counting now. And the results couldn’t be more conclusive:
Users from social visit more often and stay longer.
How much more often? Our Facebook users come 70% more often over the course of our dataset.
And each time, they stay on average 50% longer – consuming more content, pageviews, and advertising.
Put that together, and each Facebook user brings us 2.5x the revenue of a search user. And that’s without yet even adding in the value of engagement and viral referral to drive even more audience!
You may be wondering why that is. Well it’s not just pure luck. The reasons are twofold:
First, social users are in a branded relationship. When your property shows up in a Facebook or Twitter feed, you can be identified with your logo and brand name. One better is when someone Likes or Follows you. When that happens, you’re now talking about the chance to build a relationship many times a day – with each and every post. From a brand building standpoint, this is nirvana – and it’s probably the most important reason why advertisers will spend billions of dollars to get into the social news feed this year. But even better for content publishers: if you do it right, you can get in for free.
Second, the social relationship platform actually doubles as a data platform. It gives publishers real-time feedback data about what works, when. If you watch and measure carefully, you can tune the content, packaging and timing with real-time feedback so you can give the audience exactly what they want, when and how they want it.
So while social users are outperforming search today, the good news is that next week, if you use all that data to improve what you do, they’ll do even better. The chart above is an average value over the last seven months, and what it doesn’t show you is that social users have been increasing in value over time. Take a look:
In January, the average user who came from Facebook looked at 9 pages – that’s more than double the number we were seeing just 5 months ago.
I’m actually not surprised that not every publisher is seeing this kind of loyalty and engagement from social users. After all, it didn’t come without effort – I credit the dramatic increase in social user engagement in the chart above to our advanced technology helping the Wetpaint team understand and serve our audience.
But that doesn’t mean that every publisher can’t get more loyalty from social users than they’re getting today. It just makes sense: social users should be more engaged and brand-loyal. They have a strong incentive to read and watch what their friends are talking about, to be included in the conversation. The only reason that many brands aren’t seeing the full value of social is that they’re blind to the opportunity of rich connections and data – and ultimately, they’re the ones who will be left out of the conversation.
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.
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%.
It’s time again to check our horses and see who’s pulling ahead in the social publishing race! And the race is definitely on – 85% of the top 50 publishers increased their social traffic this month.
No looking back now
Until I started charting the incredible growth of social and its impact on the rest of the web, I wondered if it might be more hype than actual paradigm shift. But the evidence is mounting beyond reasonable doubt, and this month’s results point to the continuation of rapid growth.
Facebook traffic to the Top 50 grew 9% in January (after growing 17% in December). Not only that, but Facebook is closing the gap with Google: The gap between how much traffic Google sends and Facebook sends to the 50 largest publishers is down to just 30%, from 55% in November. At this rate, I expect Facebook to surpass Google traffic to publishers some time this year.
Favorites hold their lead
At the wire it’s Wetpaint Entertainment (with 22.2% of traffic coming from social) followed by People, followed by Us Magazine. Coming on strong on the outside is CBS, pulling ahead of NBC for 4th place by drawing 14.4% of their traffic from social (up from 11.7% in December).
Wetpaint Entertainment increased its lead this month, adding 1.4% to its social traffic and widening the gap with #2 People by an additional 0.5%. People and Us Magazine increased their social traffic composition by 0.8% and 0.6%, respectively – just slightly more than the Top 50 average of 0.5%. CBS was the biggest mover by far, adding 2.7% to its social traffic.
Ladies and gentleman, place your bets. It’s still anyone’s race, but one thing is for sure: if you’re spending all of your time on SEO and SEM, you’re backing the wrong horse.
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”
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