Why We’re Not Using Google+ To Reach Consumers – So Far

This article was recently published as a guest post at GeekWire, and is republished here for DigitalQuarters readers.

Since Google+ launched in June of this year, two questions have been on everyone’s mind in the digital community:  1) Can it become a huge success for Google? And 2) Can I use it to make huge success for me?

Much has been written about the first question; but very little about the second.

And so, because we’re obsessive about knowing the social Web, my colleagues and I at Wetpaint have looked long and hard at the second (and unanswered) question.

After a good deal of analysis, I can report that the answer for us as a media company (so far, at least) is “no.”

Here’s what we’ve found:

The lights are on, but no one is home – Google has been quick to point out that 40 million users have “signed up” for Google+. That’s because the product is deeply bolted onto every product inside the Google empire, including Gmail, and they did a nice job of making it easy to invite everyone you know. People checked it out, but they haven’t been back, and I’d bet their active user rates are in the single digits. Every time I log in, there’s almost zero activity among my “circles.” Even with 40 million, that pales in comparison to the reach of Facebook’s worldwide audience of 800 million (200 million in the U.S.), who are far more active (500M per day!).

Users can manage one social network, and no more – Mainstream users have demonstrated that they reach saturation after managing one social network when it comes to their personal life. First, it was Friendster; then MySpace; now Facebook. People don’t have the time and attention span to manage overlapping networks of friends and conversations.

It doesn’t solve a consumer problem – There hasn’t been a migration to Google+ because it doesn’t solve a real consumer problem. Facebook has an entrenched audience with deeply embedded habits. In order for a migration to take place, Google+ needs to do something massively new that addresses a consumer pain point (which it doesn’t – at least not yet), or Facebook needs to make a massive blunder that drives people away (for example, around privacy, which I don’t think most users really care about).  Overcoming this is even harder for Google, largely because it’s viewed by most as a utility, not a place to facilitate stronger online connections / community.

That said, there are a few things I’ll be watching as Google+ moves ahead in the short term:

Influencers – The people who are using Google+ now (the single digits mentioned above) are industry influencers / luminaries / connectors.  They’re using it as a less restricted version of Twitter, because Google+ can share longer, deeper messages than 140 characters will allow. I’ll be curious to see if there’s a migration of these folks from Twitter to Google+. I tend to doubt it, however.

Business pages – Google has encouraged businesses and brands to sit on the sidelines until they release business pages as part of Google+ later this year. These are akin to “fan pages” on Facebook. If these solve a new consumer problem, then they could trigger some migration. But, again, I attach low odds to this possibility.

Search impact – The most convincing argument for embracing Google+ is its potential impact on search. It’s too early to say, but there is speculation that Google will tune its search algorithms to overweight those who “perform” well with Google+. For example, if a brand gets lots of +1’s (Google’s version of the “like” button), then that brand’s share of search volume could be dramatically increased to encourage broader adoption of content providers. This is something I’ll be evaluating after business pages launch, which should take place before the end of the year.

There is no question that the crew at Google is brilliant.  And they will clearly be looking to improve their service for consumers and make it relevant as a premier social operating system for the Web.  But what I will be watching is whether they can solve these core issues to make it a must-have for consumers.  And, if they do, then it will become a must-have for publishers as well.

The Value of a Story

A few months ago, Ken Doctor wrote about the cost of a story, highlighting that financial pressures in media require new formulas to lower content costs.  But my takeaway was different: that the greater leverage point for media success is not in reducing cost, but in increasing value.

And the hard truth is that each and every story has to pull its own weight on the new social Web these days.  Demand for media now comes for the item, not for a bundle.

That said, social networks – led primarily by Facebook and Twitter – provide publishers with increased transparency about what readers consume, interact with, and share; all in real-time.

This makes publishing easier and less expensive, hence more profitable, because editors know exactly what their readers want to consume, and they don’t have to waste time, effort and resources creating content that simply won’t resonate.

To put it a different way: imagine that you have a magazine, and it’s blank. The first page, the home page, might serve as a table of contents. Then, as you click and read along, each page gets filled in – based on what you read on the previous page; the depth to which you read the previous page; and the amount of real-time sharing that you participated in on the previous page. The next page becomes an instant predictive reflection of the prior set of interest signals. This “Magic Magazine” is assembled just for you, and its content is based on your implicit explicit preferences.

I believe that we’re headed in this direction, and we’ll get there, sooner than you might think.

In fact, it’s already beginning. AOL’s Editions product invites each user to thumbs-up and thumbs-down the various topics and sources it shows, resulting in a Pandora-like experience that self-tunes, so that today’s magazine is even more personally relevant to each user than yesterday’s.

And that has the potential to make a more efficient content economy, to the extent publishers can invest in the right content and get it to all the right people.

To do that, publishers must collect all those valuable signals from the audience – which naturally means connecting on the social Web.  The social Web provides robust real-time signals about exactly who the audience is, and what they want.  That’s why, at Wetpaint, we’re maniacally focused on writing our playbook to master this best. Right now, we derive more than 12% of our visits from Facebook and Twitter, which ranks us #4 when compared to the 50 largest Web publishers.  And we expect that figure to double or more over the next 12 months.  (In fact, we’ve been increasing our Facebook traffic by 11% per month.)  We’re benefiting from more than traffic:  the value of each visitor is going up as well, with social visitors coming more frequently and staying longer.

It’s because our social focus lets us serve customers better.  Looking ahead, we’re moving in the direction of hyper-personalization, with customized experiences that seamlessly make themselves felt.

You can see this, to some degree, on the Huffington Post today. They pioneered social channels based on what’s hot, and what’s being shared, and then they reorganized their own pages and published in real-time in order to flow into this.

Old-line media players must adapt here, and in a hurry. From my perspective, Forbes, under Lewis D’Vorkin, is way out front and doing an excellent job showing the way.

With all that programming, what about serendipity? It will still be there. But if a publisher can provide 90% of what a consumer needs and wants, that’s a big value add – especially if the remaining 10% is all the stuff the customer doesn’t know they want yet.

Over the next two years, as social media is continuously refined in new and previously unimaginable ways, I believe that the value of individual stories will keep rising.

And, if we focus on the economics of it, the value of a story online can be thought of as an equation: Page Views x RPM.

But the mathematical symbols in this case are directly representative of two really basic things – how much audience the story attracts, and how desirable the publisher’s full offering is to advertisers.

The roots of both of those are in the content; great content increases both dramatically – albeit over time (The truth is: it takes years of repeat!). And, when we peer out across the long-term horizon, it’s clear that great content that increases audience increases overall reach; and this, in turn, has the compound effect of increasing the desirability to advertisers even more.

My strong sense is that publishers of both old and new media can definitely take advantage of this all-important dynamic by closely watching and assessing the way their consumers interact with content on a real-time basis. In the end, the process should be interesting – and profitable.

Introducing the Social Leaderboard

As I have shared previously, our goal at Wetpaint is to be the leader in building media properties on the social Web.  That’s because I am seeing the web’s nature fundamentally change to become fully social. The Web Is Shrinking - Elowitz/Wetpaint

It’s not just theory – it’s data.

As I shared recently at AllThingsD.com, the social Web is capturing a dramatically increasing share of users’ attention – with internet users collectively increasing the amount of time they spend per month on Facebook by 69% over a one-year period – while usage for the entire rest of the Web, excluding Facebook, shrank by 9% over the same period.

Social is the most strategic medium for our industry.  And yet we haven’t established how to track our collective progress.

So, I’d like to introduce to you the first industry effort to do so.  I’ve released it this week, so that we can all compare ourselves with other top publishers and see our individual and collective progress.

Below you’ll find the “Media Industry Social Leaderboard”, a scoreboard and chart that was developed by tabulating the top 50 media publishers, based on monthly unique visitors, and then determining which were best at generating traffic from Facebook and Twitter.  Of course, I’ve included Wetpaint Entertainment on the list because we are so committed to social that we are going to make our progress public.  (And it doesn’t hurt that we are already significantly better at reaching audiences on these two key social platforms than many major media brands such as The New York Times, The Huffington Post, CNN, Fox News, TMZ and others.  My mother should finally be proud!)

This Month’s Findings

This month, we found that MTV’s website leads the pack with 14.3% of its traffic from Facebook and Twitter, indicating the shareability of their content (especially video, which is inherently more viral), and the heavily socialized audience they serve – not to mention their great execution.  In fact, MTV beat average performance by a factor of two, and were one of only four out of the top 50 that were in the double digits.  Sadly, over half of the Web’s top 50 had less than 4% of their traffic from social, making them menial performers on the medium.


Social Success Could Triple Your Audience’s Value

Lest you think that MTV’s 14.3% is anything to sneeze at, we dug a bit deeper to look at the true value of social.  Beyond the boost to audience attraction, we also looked at audience retention.  Measuring the visit frequency to each of the publishers (excluding the portals), we found a striking correlation to their sociability.  The performers above median in social saw an average of more than five times as many “addicts” (visitors who come 30+ times per month) as a proportion of their audience, according to data from Quantcast, compared to those below the median; and they saw a corresponding reduction in their “passers-by” (visitors who come only once) by 16 percentage points.  These patterns map overall into more than three times the visit frequency per audience member overall for these top performers.  That’s three times the value per unique.

A Leading Indicator of Long-Term Success

One thing is clear from the growth trends of the social web:  Those publishers that figure out how to capture and maintain a leadership position in social will win over the next decade.  For Wetpaint, it’s a critical strategy for us to be a leader among the media industry.  Which would make my mother very proud.

Speaking of which, in this debut month, my company Wetpaint came in #4, bested only by MTV, People, and ESPN.  Not bad for a debut… we’ll be #1 within six months.

For those interested, detailed rankings of all Top 50 are included below.

Rank Name of Publisher (Owner) URL Monthly Uniques % from Social
1 MTV mtv.com 17,101,841 14.3%
2 ESPN espn.com 33,242,207 13.7%
3 People people.com 12,671,101 13.2%
4 Wetpaint Entertainment wetpaint.com 2,532,044 12.4%
5 TMZ tmz.com 14,575,713 8.8%
6 Yahoo yahoo.com 172,269,418 8.6%
7 Patch (Aol) patch.com 10,610,327 8.6%
8 Major League Baseball mlb.com 15,552,415 7.9%
9 Aol aol.com 51,659,415 7.7%
10 Discovery Channel discovery.com 11,170,738 6.7%
11 Break Media break.com 9,166,220 6.3%
12 IGN (News Corp) ign.com 10,112,530 6.1%
13 Us Weekly usmagazine.com 10,970,162 5.9%
14 CNN cnn.com 56,595,377 5.3%
15 FOX News (News Corp) foxnews.com 26,900,038 5.0%
16 BBC News bbc.co.uk 14,863,384 4.8%
17 MSN msn.com 115,933,138 4.6%
18 Nickelodeon (MTV Networks) nick.com 10,716,354 4.6%
19 The New York Times nytimes.com 33,034,269 4.4%
20 MailOnline dailymail.co.uk 15,747,179 4.4%
21 IMDB (Amazon.com) imdb.com 39,778,499 4.4%
22 CBS Local cbslocal.com 11,039,512 4.4%
23 TIME time.com 10,024,132 4.2%
24 Cartoon Network (Turner) cartoonnetwork.com 10,794,764 4.2%
25 The Washington Post washingtonpost.com 17,818,260 4.1%
26 New York Daily News nydailynews.com 9,931,052 3.9%
27 The Guardian guardian.co.uk 10,283,648 3.8%
28 CBS News cbsnews.com 12,144,917 3.7%
29 Food Networks (Scripps) foodnetwork.com 14,324,933 3.5%
30 Allrecipes (Readers Digest) allrecipes.com 17,986,031 3.4%
31 The Huffington Post huffingtonpost.com 36,701,275 3.3%
32 TODAY / MSN (NBC/Microsoft) today.com 23,323,684 3.3%
33 Los Angeles Times (Tribune) latimes.com 18,618,265 3.2%
34 WebMD webmd.com 12,048,444 2.6%
35 The Wall Street Journal wsj.com 16,643,499 2.5%
36 Forbes forbes.com 12,356,124 2.4%
37 FOX Sports foxsports.com 18,346,185 2.2%
38 USA Today / Gannett usatoday.com 16,979,964 2.2%
39 Reuters reuters.com 12,726,776 2.2%
40 ABC News abcnews.com 19,876,129 2.1%
41 CNET (CBS Interactive) cnet.com 27,602,379 2.1%
42 Sports Illustrated (Time Inc.) si.com 9,304,012 2.1%
43 LIVESTRONG / (Demand Media) livestrong.com 9,650,128 2.0%
44 MSNBC Digital Network msnbc.com 44,198,985 1.9%
45 About.com / NY Times about.com 36,978,618 1.4%
46 Bloomberg bloomberg.com 10,592,480 1.4%
47 Mayo Clinic mayoclinic.com 10,944,436 1.1%
48 eHow (Demand Media) ehow.com 48,624,976 1.0%
49 ThePostGame thepostgame.com 12,017,913 0.9%
50 CNN Money cnnmoney.com 16,643,785 N/A

Source: Wetpaint.com analysis, comScore, Compete.com.