Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
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.
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!
Last week, I explained why the traditional ways of judging “quality” in published content are useless in the digital age. Judging by readers response to that piece, those dated values (which I labeled credential, correctness, objectivity and craftsmanship) are still sacred to many people. But here’s the problem: They simply aren’t enough to win audiences, drive financial success, or, for that matter, ensure viability. The demise of institutions like Newsweek proves that—and shows that publishers that don’t move beyond these anachronistic measures of success will perish.
So this week, I’m offering part two of my take on the changing definition of quality in published content. Here are the four new rules of quality that publishers must obey to flourish. The biggest difference between the old and new definitions of quality are who’s doing the judging. In the era of Publishing 1.0, when production costs were high, alternatives low and time ample, the editor deemed something quality or not. But today, content isn’t scarce at all—in fact, it is in oversupply. And it is the audience that judges quality directly, dozens of times per day.
So, according to the audience, what is quality? It comes down to these four characteristics:
—Relevance. Read the rest of this entry »