Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
We’ve seen it at Wetpaint, but it’s not just happening for us. Social success and search success now go hand in hand for all web publishers.
If you look at the top 50 publishers on the web, there’s a strong correlation between Facebook traffic growth and Google traffic growth:
For every 1% growth or decline in Facebook visits, the top 50 web publishers in our Media Industry Social Leaderboard saw a corresponding 0.5% change in Google traffic.
Correlation but not causation, you say? I have it on good authority (aka Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan) that social signals will soon be the leading factor (if they’re not already) in search engine rankings.
It’s time to drop the notion that an investment in social has to come at the expense of an investment in search. It’s now abundantly clear: social traffic and search traffic go together.
Update: The original version of this post included an incorrect chart. The correct chart is now shown.
This article was published as a guest post at TechCrunch, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
Bing and Google each recently unveiled its own new search interface, designed to better intuit your intent and help you get to the one best answer more efficiently. And they’ve made it ever more clear that search is heading straight for a merger with social.
The changes are smart. Google’s knowledge graph is useful – when I search for certain things, I just want a cheat sheet. What is Faraday’s Law, again? What exactly is a geoduck?
But Bing’s new feature – “people who might know” – is even smarter. This is the first major attempt at a merger of search and social – unless you count Search Plus Your World, which I don’t – and this is undeniably the way we’re headed. There’s a lot of information on the internet, but getting the right info from the right person is still a huge, and mostly unsolved, undertaking. Nobody knows the answers better than, well, somebody who knows the answers. And so much the better if it’s someone I trust. (Thank you, Jeff, for the Singapore recommendations!) The fundamental insight is that when I ask a question, there are lots of ways to help me find the best answer. If you don’t have it, point me in the direction of someone who does. Don’t make me ask the same question in a million permutations and sift through a list of 20 possible right answers every time.
What’s more interesting is that this is the biggest step forward we’ve seen since search results started looking 12 years ago the way they still do today (just with more images and toolbars now – exactly what Google got rid of back then!).
Stagnation followed by the springtime of innovation is probably the surest sign that a major disruption is imminent. (And if that weren’t enough, just think of how much Facebook’s stock price would rise if they captured even a small share in search.)
What’s the endgame? In 10 years, I’ll still need recipes for dinner. And recommendations for hotels in a new vacation spot. And to find something to do on the weekend. I know how I would make these decisions today, but how will I make them in 2022?
The true merger of social and search will look nothing like the search we know today. I don’t even think we’ll call it “search.”
The social search of tomorrow will be more like a combination of a whip-smart personal assistant and an intuitive, considerate significant other. But one who’s exponentially more efficient and who doesn’t mind being woken up at 3am. (I’m lucky, but not THAT lucky!)
Let’s put on our future-goggles and imagine how a fully social, personal-data-powered search would change our day-to-day:
Proactive: It’s Tuesday night and I’m hungry. Luckily, my mobile knows that I just got a CSA box containing sweet potatoes (Full Circle Farm’s Facebook integration), and that I tend to eat at home on Tuesdays (according to my historical pattern of check-ins). It also knows that it’s cold and raining outside. Before I’ve gotten around to opening a cookbook or the Epicurious app, my mobile pushes me a sweet potato soup recipe that my certified-foodie friend raved about on Facebook last week.
Personal: Arrive at the Sao Paulo airport and search on my mobile for the city’s public transit map. My device knows that I’ve never been there (even though I bought a phrase book on Amazon last week), and it also knows (from scanning TripAdvisor comments about Sao Paulo buses) that the public transit is impossible to navigate for newcomers. While the map is loading, a message appears gently encouraging me to consider a rental car instead – there happens to be a great deal on an Audi (my favorite(!) as noted on Facebook) at the rental counter 10 feet away. Talk about targeting!
Social: Florence and the Machine is touring in New York, and I’m dying to go see them. I called the usual suspects, and they’re out of town during the concert. The only thing worse than not going is going alone. But who else do I know who loves them like I do? That’s a lay-up for a socially powered search if ever there was one. Two words: “Jason Hirschhorn”. Is that so hard?
There are a hundred other decisions that would be made immeasurably easier with the help of a really good personal assistant – one who knows your schedule and your preferences (and the schedule and preferences of your friends and family); one who has excellent research skills and can track down the appropriate expert on any issue. (But no, I’m sure it still won’t replace Larisa.)
Most of us don’t have personal assistants. But we have left a heck of a trail of our interests, associates, habits, and dislikes. It will take some algorithm to turn that trail of behavioral and social data – combined with the wisdom of topical experts and the vast repository of information that is the internet – into a set of smart, personalized answers for you and me. But that’s why Google and Facebook and Apple hire engineers with such big brains.
And, surprise!, the better they understand our brains (read: intent, context, and relationships) the better the match they can serve up to an advertiser. And that means an outrageously good search not only retains audience better, but would improve ad rates.
We’re on the verge of shifting from a search model in which the user is still doing all of the heavy lifting to one where powerful algorithms enable our devices to anticipate our needs and do most of the sifting and evaluating for us. In the meantime, though, we’re stuck in a “hairball of complexity” (to borrow Adam Richardson’s TV industry analogy) while the industry struggles to find the way from A to B.
The key is in having software that recognizes us as whole people. (And isn’t that exactly the promise of social?) Now search is undergoing a massive transformation from receiving input in the form of queries – each independent and atomic – to understanding its input in the form of people, who have personal history, context, and relationships. That means delivering the right result depends on who is asking. Which is sooooo true. I don’t like the same music as my teenage niece, and she doesn’t like the same restaurants I do. Why should we both get the same search results?
Apple’s Siri is certainly the closest, at least in spirit, to the eventual reincarnation of search as personal assistant, even as its true capability has far to go. The voice-activated question-and-answer experience is light years ahead of the long list of links on a page that still defines search on Google and Bing. But the trick that remains is to gather, combine and analyze data from myriad sources – social interactions, behavioral data, expert opinions – and deliver it back to the user in a way that makes decision-making more efficient than most of us can imagine.
With all of that time I used to spend inefficiently making decisions suddenly freed up, what will I do? I’ve been meaning to plan a trip to Sao Paulo….
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.
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.
I feel like a lot of my posts lately have been beating the social drum, so I need to clarify my perspective. Social isn’t just a fad. It isn’t just a channel, or an alternate distribution medium.
It’s actually turning into the new ether. As in “need it to breathe.” And while it’s not actually all about friends, it absolutely is about connecting to your audience.
Case in point: according to Compete, in February Wetpaint Entertainment received more traffic from Facebook than from Google. Hey, I told you it was gonna happen. It’s because social has provided a medium for data and connection that lets us deeply relate to our audience. Increasingly, other publishers are finding the same – The Guardian most recently joined the club.
The best part is that these gains in social aren’t coming at the expense of other channels – our overall traffic (including our search traffic) continues to climb. Social signals have a huge impact on search rankings, and so it makes sense that our social success would drive audience growth outside of social, too.
For the last several years, many a publisher’s greatest fear has been that they’ll lose favor with Google. Afraid that any shift in strategy from SEO to social will lead to a precipitous fall from Google grace and a drop in traffic, they monitor the search rankings daily to see if the gods are pleased.
But ironically, it turns out that an investment in social is the best SEO there is.
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.
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.
Last week I shared how most publishers are realizing just a fraction of their potential audience because they lack a social distribution strategy, and showed which topics are most likely to be shared by connected audiences.
But is topic the only aspect of content that influences sharing? Could articles with topics as disparate as gardening and bull fighting share some other characteristic that would make them both go viral?
The Journal of Marketing Research published the study What Makes Online Content Viral? in 2011 to appease inquiring minds. Researchers analyzed 7,000 New York Times articles over 2 months to determine what factors made an article more likely to earn a place on the Times’ “most-emailed” list.
But wait a minute…are the factors that predict email sharing the same as those that predict Facebook or Twitter sharing? Here’s where we run into the difference between broadcasting and “narrowcasting.” Remember that purple rash I mentioned last week? I’ll email that WebMD article to my significant other (anxiety! practical value!) but I most certainly won’t tweet about it.
I looked again at the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 to see which of the study’s findings held up on the social networking stage.
Sound familiar? It mirrors the formula for success that Nieman Lab found Buzzfeed using to achieve record results. And, notably, practical value, the #2 driver of email virality, falls all the way down to the bottom of the list on Facebook.
In social network sharing, emotion is king. As Jonah Lehrer of Wired puts it:
“We don’t want to share facts – we want to share feelings. Because people have a deep need to share their emotions, there will always be an insatiable demand for funny baby videos, angry political rants and Justin Bieber songs.”
Before you go and replace all of your content with funny baby videos and Justin Bieber songs, remember that this isn’t about sacrificing the integrity of content for traffic. It doesn’t work that way. This is about engaging readers on the most important axis of all: the axis of significance. Emotional content helps us connect with friends online in a deeper way than a how-to video might.
But what if you’re a publisher of practical content? No need to despair:
“The future is going to be about combining informational content with social and emotional content,” says Jonah Peretti (founder of Buzzfeed).
We all have a powerful emotional drive to live a great life, and getting there means knowing how to be healthy, how to fix a leaky faucet and how to maintain successful relationships. Oprah’s tagline “Live Your Best Life” is a beautiful example – no one is better at linking home décor and health advice to something far greater and more aspirational. Publishers in the midst of developing a social distribution strategy (especially those of us not lucky enough to traffic in Bieber songs) will be wise to follow her lead.
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:
This is the second chapter of our Rebooting Media think-tank series. In this video, our thought leaders address the question:
Do curators bring value to content creators, or are they just stealing content?
Hear media industry executives debate the pros and cons of web curation in the video and read the most salient comments below.
Curators are the new editors.
As we’re overwhelmed by an increasing number of voices and information channels, we look to curators to sort through the clutter and tell us what’s important.
“I’m one of those people who reads or watches or listens a little more than the average person. If a person wants to stay up to date on certain topics but they have a family or a job or a life, curation services can help break through and deliver.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined
“A curator is an editor, essentially. You become a trusted source by doing the hard work for your audience and telling them what’s important, whether you’ve written it or not. Traditionally that’s been the role of great newspapers; now that function is being spread across the web.” —Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch
Publishers have a love / hate relationship with curators.
Curators help to expand a publisher’s reach, but the publisher risks losing credit (and traffic). Curators who link back and republish only enough to pique interest will keep publishers happy.
“A lot of money goes into making a piece of content, and then it shows up on somebody else’s website where they are ‘curating.’ That’s one word for it, and ‘stealing’ would be another. That’s a difficult balance: we want them to put our content out there but, ultimately, if you don’t come back to us, then we’re not capturing the full value.” — Jeff Berman, NFL Digital
How does curation become a real business? Just add creation.
Curators provide a valuable service to consumers and publishers. But can you charge for someone else’s content? The most compelling model going forward will be a curation / creation mix from trusted voices.
“I’m interested in content curators that are getting into the creation game. Buzzfeed, for example, was a driver of viral content. Then they shocked people by hiring editors and journalists and breaking a story. They took content that they owned and used the tools and algorithms they had to publish it into the social feed.” —Greg Clayman, The Daily
Part 3: Paid vs. Earned Media
For more from these thought leaders and others, download a PDF of the full publication Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web.