How Facebook Becomes the Biggest Player In Advertising’s $540 Billion World

This article was published as a guest post at AdAge, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

Facebook will replace online display advertising as we know it. It will save digital media by reversing the commodity pricing trend. And it will become the highest grossing media property in history.

Believe me? If you’re one of the investors who was burned by Facebook’s disappointing IPO, you might not be so bullish. At a multiple of 28X last year’s earnings, Facebook’s offering price presumed fast-growing and scalable revenue streams. But the reality of Facebook’s advertising trajectory has been lagging, and continued percentage growth isn’t going to make it up.

Facebook needs a huge discontinuity in its advertising revenues to make that math go round.

Fortunately, I think we’re about to see a huge discontinuity. Facebook’s great opportunity is to create an advertising product that the world has never seen. And it can be done.

The key is in a single idea, and Facebook is singularly able to deliver on it: SELL RELATIONSHIPS, NOT IMPRESSIONS.

The first 100 years of brand advertising was built on the paradigm of a captive audience with interruption advertising in TV, radio, print, and online. That created a $540 billion market to reach a mostly-right audience at the mostly-right time, with a sometimes-right message delivered via occasionally-great creative. The basic idea being that if you reach those people with enough frequency and decent creative, they’ll eventually hear your message.

But never, ever, ever has any brand had an advertising platform that could create a relationship with a consumer before she makes a purchase.

Until now.

A relationship is worth a hundred or a thousand times an impression – or more – depending on how you monetize it.

The ability to sell relationships puts Facebook in a completely different business than every other media company – and their product is orders of magnitude more valuable. To undermine that premium would be absolute folly. That’s why Facebook should never, ever sell impressions.

But with no proven model for selling relationships, how will Facebook make relationships a reality? Here are five unwritten rules that should guide them, memorialized here so we will all know what to expect:

1. Create an offering that can’t be price-shopped or commoditized
Facebook has the commodities of digital media in abundance: 900 million users, 1 in 7 minutes of our online attention, and 500 billion pageviews per month.

But they won’t – and shouldn’t – open the banner ad floodgates, because they saw this movie back in 2007: MySpace flooded the market with banner ad inventory and watched their value plummet to pennies per thousand views. There’s no scarcity of ways to reach a target demographic with a banner ad, and anything remotely similar to a banner ad will be price-compared to a banner ad.

By creating truly original ad products that have no comparables in the market, Facebook will be able to create and sustain its own price point. And because Facebook is the only game in town when it comes to selling consumer relationships at full scale, they have a lock on that market. Scarcity of sources with huge reach and a product that cements relationship for life could be a killer combination. (Sidenote to Adam Bain: shouldn’t you sell Promoted Follows for 100X the value of Promoted Tweets?)

2. Create an offering that can’t be measured in one-time conversions
Back when she was at Google, Sheryl Sandberg designed AdWords and AdSense to do something nobody had ever done before at scale: form a direct link between the cost and value of an ad. She had pretty good results – today Google owns more than 60% of the market for direct response advertising.

Now that she’s with Facebook, Sheryl knows better than to fight Google for the same pie – especially when Facebook’s opportunity is so much larger. As a medium of connection rather than transaction, social is perfectly suited to brand advertising. And the market for brand advertising happens to be 9 times the size of the direct response advertising universe that Google has increasingly dominated.

What’s more, advertisers have been pent up, waiting to invest in brand advertising on the web. To date, they’ve allocated only 40% of their online ad spend to branding, even though more broadly brand advertising garners 90%. As a relationship broker, Facebook is the one who can convince them to spend. Just as Google proved the value of direct marketing online, Facebook can prove that brand relationships can be built more effectively on social media than through any magazine spread.

3. Create an offering that enhances rather than compromises the user experience
The holy grail of media is advertising that actually adds to the value of the content. You can see it today in the print editions of magazines like GQ and Vogue – the advertising spreads are so gorgeous and smart that readers think of them as content.

Not so online. Users often think of ads as a tradeoff, a price to pay for access to free content and services. (For some high-end brands, online advertising is even seen as an image liability. That’s why Hugo Boss and Louis Vuitton have yet to embrace digital ads – they know it is interruptive rather than additive.)

Facebook is poised for this challenge. Zuckerberg has always put the user experience forever ahead of revenue today. He knows better than to devalue the audience’s experience with advertising products that serve advertisers while frustrating users. No doubt advertisers – not to mention Wall Street investors – will continue to be annoyed by their second-class status in the short term, but Facebook’s unyielding focus on user experience will serve all their constituencies well in the end.

4. Create an offering that closely guards the data
Facebook’s greatest competitive advantage is the incomparably rich dataset it owns about each and every one of its 900 million users. That data is scarce and tremendously valuable for targeting – which means that Facebook will be able to charge a premium for every advertising offering it puts forth using it.

Much to the chagrin of advertisers and publishers alike, there is overwhelming strategic value in keeping that data limited rather than selling it wholesale. Facebook will never give advertisers the data. They could sell access to the list of people predisposed to buy your product, or they could make all user data available and let anyone analyze it. The former preserves scarcity and the other destroys it.

And that’s also why Facebook will lend its data sparingly. Even in the most recent FBX announcement (an enhancement to its least valuable form of advertising), Facebook kept their own dataset out of it completely, allowing use of third-party data only. When it comes time to sell, or more realistically, lease, that data, Facebook will do it with tight controls and at a huge premium.

Remember: the media industry was once robust and profitable. What was different then? The targets were the same, but the ways to reach them were fewer.

5. Create a supernetwork that has no borders
If Facebook plays by the four rules above, they will create the killer ad offering that will finally bring the big brand advertising dollars online. But Facebook ads on Facebook will be only the beginning. Just a few days ago, Facebook took its first step in the direction of the bigger opportunity: extending those services to other publishers on the web.

I’m not talking about AdSense – I’m talking about creating a far more intelligent programmatic relationship between users, their interests, and branded content. Every publisher would be better off if they were using Facebook’s comprehensive and lifelong relationship with users to inform their advertising – and if they themselves had a way to sell relationships, not impressions. Ultimately, exporting the offering to the rest of the web (86% of user attention is spent elsewhere, after all) will send more value right back to Facebook in the form of a larger dataset. Not to mention a nice cut of the revenues that Facebook would be entitled to.

This is a huge opportunity for the entire digital media industry. Online advertising has become a commodity (thanks, Google!). Facebook is digital media’s one best hope to reverse that trend and make online advertising more valuable than offline advertising by tenfold. Google took direct marketing and made it extremely efficient, allowing advertisers to spend less. Facebook has something to sell that might actually make advertisers open their wallets more: a magic brand relationship machine that far exceeds the value of transactional clicks.

Wall Street would much rather that Facebook ignored the five rules above, because Wall Street wants profits now. Facebook wants profits forever. May the latter prevail.

UNBALANCED: Facebook Captures 14% of Our Online Attention but Only 4% of Ad Spend Online

This article was published as a guest post at Business Insider, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

(image via Steven Leary)

We spend more time on Facebook than anywhere else on the web.  Out of every seven minutes online, one of those minutes is spent on Facebook.  Second place Google captures only one in ten – and that’s including YouTube!

But you wouldn’t know it from looking at the way advertisers allocate their money.  Globally, advertisers spent $36 billion with Google in 2011.  They threw $4 billion at Yahoo (which captures 8% of our web time).  But for Facebook?  $3 billion and change.

Facebook garners only 4% of internet advertising spend when they’re capturing 14% of our online attention.  And the discrepancy deepens when we look at online and offline combined:  because advertisers haven’t shifted money to digital as quickly as we’ve shifted our attention, Facebook gets shortchanged even more (by 7x, to be exact) in the big picture.

What would Facebook revenues look like if brands matched ad spending to consumer attention?

(For context:  the entire US magazine industry brings in advertising revenues of $18 billion.)

The revenues in the chart above hypothecate only that Facebook gets “back to even” with other forms of advertising.  But Facebook has an asset no other brand advertising vehicle has:  a treasure trove of targeting data.  Facebook’s greatest business opportunity is to use that targeting data to sell relationships, not impressions.  And if it can do that, then it may be able to achieve even more than “average” pricing.  And it could deserve it – if it can offer relationships with consumers that are worth exponentially more than a magazine spread or a keyword ad on Google.

Larry Page, are you sweating yet?

Search and Social: How The Two Will Soon Become One

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….

Forget About ‘Content Management’– and Focus on ‘Audience Development’

This article was published as a guest post at PaidContent, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

Media companies have collectively spent billions of dollars on content management systems.  As they upgraded their offline businesses to the digital world, they turned to big enterprise systems to organize their content in an orderly digital database.  And whether via internal systems or a purchased system,  each piece of content knows its place, and the digital migration of media is a fait accompli.

But after so much investment in such important systems, why are media companies still miles away from a profitable model?  In part, it’s because these intricately designed systems have been based on one big misunderstanding:  that a media company’s most valuable asset is content.

Content is just a means to an end.  The end – and media’s greatest asset – is audience.

Advertisers don’t pay to reach content – they pay to reach audience.  And building an audience that will earn you advertising is only partly about content.  In truth, just as much hinges on distribution.  If your delightful content can’t find and catch the attention of your audience, the value of your content drops to zero.  If a tree falls in a forest

Media companies over the last 10 years have invested in an enormously expensive card catalog, while spending only pennies to bring people into the library.  The big opportunity with digital media is not to organize your content closet or have efficient workflow – it’s about driving demand and building an audience using digital channels and all of the rich data that comes with them.  That’s the way to use systems to multiply the topline, not just streamline the expense line.

Other industries made the leap a decade ago.  The ERP category boomed as manufacturing companies’ inventory tracking systems evolved to fully manage and even stoke demand, with the realization that driving sales is far more valuable than just knowing what you’ve got in the back room.

The time has come for companies to step up from tracking data to driving results.  And over the last 24 months, huge advances in technology have enabled us to not just capture, but harness, data.  The next generation of CMS won’t be CMS 2.0.  The technology that powers media companies going forward will be ADS: audience development systems.  And it will help media companies that use it multiply their topline and improve their offering to their audience.

What does it take to add the last, most important part to your systems?  Here are five steps every content manager needs to take to make the shift:

1. Manage across the many channels of distribution.

Stop thinking it’s just “the web.”  Today’s web is composed of myriad channels:  Google’s search index, Facebook’s news feeds, Twitter’s tweets, and YouTube’s video marketplace, not to mention pins and tumbles.  Each of those channels is more than a dumping ground – it’s a pipeline that, if well optimized, can deliver compounding results for your audience.  The TV networks have recognized this for decades:  they carefully arrange lead-in and lead-out to maximize audience compounding.  Now every content publisher has the opportunity to maximize channels this way – alas, their CMS isn’t built for that. Shift your systems to be oriented around the channels, not the asset.

2. Adjust the focus from audience to individual.

The idea of publishing once for “the audience” is absurd today.  In the past, we didn’t have the ability to see the “I” in audience.  Today, technology enables us to connect with individual users, and to actually get to know them.  Showing the same featured article that you showed me last time I visited your home page is a waste of precious attention.  Your users expect better, and you should too.  A CMS that knows and exploits the differences between you and me will dramatically enhance the value of any media company’s content.

3. Use abundant user data to know what works.   

Thanks to the social rewiring of the web, Big Data technology, and real-time analytics, data is available to provide feedback and allow programming on all major channels in real-time.  Everyone recognizes the incredible audience-building potential of behavioral data, but most companies still don’t know how to leverage it.  It’s time to measure not just what you publish, but who interacts with it – and how.  Use that data to know what content works for what audience, and what audience works for what content.  Personalization is the future of media – and it starts with data.

4. Make your systems look forward, not back.

The CMS model of the web is retrospective:  it’s a trackling log of content, created, edited, and published once and forever, set on a URL and then forgotten.  But today’s web prizes relevance – and relevance right now – above all else.  Past performance should impact all your actions – in real time.  Predicting, programming, and optimizing your distribution can multiply your ROI on content by many times.

5. Fully socialize your distribution.   

According to comScore, audiences are spending 1 in every 5 minutes of their online lives on social networks.  Social will soon surpass search to become the #1 traffic source to companies’ websites.  It’s not what’s published to the web that matters, anymore – it’s what’s published to the newsfeed.  A CMS built with Google in mind will soon become irrelevant, while one built to optimize social distribution can capture growth to the tune of many millions of users.

Digital distribution, when done right, can have a multiplicative effect:  a great piece of content delivered to the right person at the right time in the right package is worth 10x that same content paired with the wrong (or non-existent) distribution strategy.  A company that can fully incorporate social, real time, data, channels and personalization into their distribution strategy will dramatically enhance the value of their offering by developing a loyal audience relationship.

You heard it here first: the Audience Development System will be the killer app for web companies in the next five years.

Social Leaderboard in April: New Heights

While top publishers pull 5% of traffic from social, Wetpaint breaks a record at 38%

I was pretty excited in December when Wetpaint Entertainment became the #1 social publisher on the web, but this month’s Social Leaderboard chart is like that rare but spectacular sunny day in Seattle.  For the sake of modesty, I’ll explain further down the page.

Mostly Cloudy

Unfortunately, the sun isn’t shining on everyone.  Total social traffic to the Top 50 publishers fell by 13% in April.  As for social traffic as a percent of overall traffic, the average publisher lost 1.5 percentage points.  In fact, 48 of the Top 50 publishers lost ground on social traffic composition this month.

Facebook’s April experiments and changes to the EdgeRank algorithm are likely to blame.  Publishers who put Facebook at the center of their distribution strategy were able to rebound quickly, while others fell behind.

Who’s Weathering the Storm?

MTV made good on its reputation as one of the most social-savvy TV brands by breaking into the Top Five (and bumping CBS down to #7).  People reclaimed the #2 spot that it ceded to NBC in March.

Three new players showed up in the Top Ten this month:  welcome, The Guardian, Patch, and Yahoo!The Guardian gets the “most improved” award for advancing from 14th place all the way up to #6.

Of course, as in The Hunger Games, we can’t all be winners on the Social Leaderboard.  MLB, Break, and Us Magazine – three publishers who have consistently been in the Top Ten since January – were washed downstream in April.  Us Magazine in particular is all wet:  after slipping slowly from #3 to #5 to #6 over the last few months, it plummeted to #18 in April.  Ouch.

And Who’s Outperforming the Rest by 3X?

Not only is Wetpaint Entertainment the #1 social publisher for the fifth month in a row, but we’re now getting 38% (a Leaderboard record) of our traffic from social.  That’s more than 3x the social traffic of the second-best social performer (People), and almost 8x the average publisher (Top 50 average = 5%).  All in a month where we had record reach, as well (more on that soon).

Thanks to the team for working so hard to build and execute a best-in-class social distribution strategy that’s a cut (or two or three) above the rest.

What to Expect When Facebook Is Expecting: Five Predictions for Facebook’s First Public Year

This article was published as a guest post at AllThingsD, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

Mark Zuckerberg’s baby will be coming of age in a few days, just eight years after it was born in a Harvard dorm room. We’ve been there for the first steps, and the first missteps. But do any of us know what Facebook-all-grown-up-as-a-public-company will look like?

I have five predictions of how Facebook will be maturing in the first year after its IPO:

1. Search

Facebook has become home base for users in many ways. But when it comes to search, Facebook makes you take a bus transfer at Google every time you want to leave the house.

And that’s a shame, because Google starts each search from a place of knowing almost nothing about me. When I’m taking a vacation to Bali, I’m far less interested in Google’s generic recommendations of things to do than I am in recommendations from my friends who have been there.

Facebook already knows which of my friends have been to Bali, and which restaurants and attractions they liked the best. It can even differentiate between the friend I trust for restaurant recs and the friend who always finds the best surfing spots.

There is a clear battle between Google and Facebook. But it’s not over “search vs. discovery,” as it is often framed. Rather, it’s “transaction vs. relationship” — which is why Facebook has the potential to disrupt search as we know it.

Prediction: Facebook will launch a purely social search by the end of 2012 (before tackling the whole hog in 2013).

2. Advertising

Despite the company’s fierce ethos of consumer experience first, business concerns second, an IPO will inevitably put upward pressure on the latter. With the numbers published quarterly and the prices reset every day, Facebook will be forced to support that share price (if not for the sake of its shareholders, then at least for its employees!) by expanding its advertising revenues.

Facebook today brings in quarterly ad revenue of $872M — just a tiny fraction of Google’s $9B. But transactions are by nature pecuniary — and relationships are priceless. As a gatekeeper to nearly a billion consumer relationships, Facebook can roll out new advertising products that are far more valuable than AdWords.

The market for online brand advertising is already huge at $85B today. As soon as Facebook unlocks the potential of relationship-based advertising, the market will open up by tens of billions more.

Prediction: By Q2 2013, Facebook will have more than tripled ad revenues to $3B per quarter.

3. Open Graph

Occupy Facebook! Oh wait, we already do. Or does Facebook occupy us? Facebook currently occupies 1 in 7 minutes of all time spent online.

As the locus of consumer identity, attention and relationships, Facebook has the potential to be the one true platform that links together every destination on the web.

But it’s not there yet. Open Graph was a start, but it lacks a complete and actionable vision for how publishers can connect, access data and establish relationships. Publishers don’t want bits and pieces of data that they need to analyze themselves — they want a unified schema that bridges their audiences’ online worlds and real lives.

When I buy a chicken at Whole Foods using a Facebook app’s mobile grocery coupon, Facebook can match that incoming data point with the fact that I read Cooks Illustrated and that I’ve been on an Indian food kick lately (based on my restaurant check-ins). By the time that chicken is in my reusable bag and I’m hauling it out the door, there should be chicken curry recipe suggestions on my Facebook page.

Facebook has an opportunity to turn data from the long tail of Facebook apps into real inferences about you and me that publishers and other brands on the web can actually use.

Prediction: Facebook will completely redesign their analytics offering by Q2 2013 to provide not just data but real, integrated audience insights that will guide brands’ personalization efforts.

4. Commerce and Currency

Advertising won’t be the only revenue play Facebook makes in its first year as a public company.

Digital commerce (i.e. digital goods) already represents more than $16B in market size, and is projected to grow to $36B globally by 2014. E-commerce is another $680B on top of that. Both are currently conducted by arcane means: Visa card numbers and PayPal accounts.

Why have digital payments been so slow to evolve? Because even the most trusting of us only allow a few close associates access to our most private details. Who knows me the best? My bank, my lawyer, my mother and Facebook. In fact, no one owns my identity as well as Facebook these days (sorry, Mom!). Just because Facebook doesn’t have access to my wallet yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.

A host of companies today (Google, Apple, Square) are trying to become your digital wallet, but Facebook holds a valuable advantage: it is already the locus of your relationships with third-party Web sites through Open Graph. While the logistics will certainly be no piece of cake, commerce is right up Facebook’s alley.

Prediction: By Q2 2013, Facebook will be presiding over $2B in transactions.

5. Timeline

There’s nothing more core to Facebook than its user experience, and Facebook has since its birth shown a consistent healthy dissatisfaction with it no matter what the status quo.

The current timeline experience is a nice try, but it’s not quite right. Timeline solved one problem — the indigestible frequency and quantity of updates at all levels of priority — while creating several more. New Problem #1: Timeline’s intuition about what’s important is too frequently just plain wrong. And while it gives us a great retrospective on people, it does a surprisingly poor job of helping us stay up to date with them. New Problem #2: Timeline depends heavily on Open Graph widgets to summarize our lives.

The latter is both ambitious and troubling. We admire great biographers for their ability to identify and communicate the essence of a person. It’s an insult say that a Nike Fuel score algorithm can capture the “real me” in the same way.

Timeline is a v1 product. It will take significant and deep tuning over many versions to reach its full potential.

This may seem like it’s just a UI update, but it’s not. Timeline is the clearinghouse for everything that happens on Facebook. Getting Timeline right is probably the single most valuable thing Facebook can do to grow its effectiveness with users — and its revenues.

Prediction: Facebook will release the first major redesign of Timeline by the first half of 2013.

Will the precocious kid that Facebook is today grow into a smart, savvy adult? A boatload of investors and J.P. Morgan certainly seem to think so. Over the long term, it will depend on Facebook’s ability to leave its youthful single-minded focus on users behind and execute consistently against two metrics: great user experience and revenues to match.

Social Leaderboard: March Results

How much social traffic did the top 50 web publishers attract in March?  The results are in – and it is a mixed month.

More Social Traffic

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.

But a Smaller Piece of the Pie

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 Contenders:  NBC climbs, Us Magazine falls, and Wetpaint stays on top

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.