Media Sites – Facebook’s Beachhead in the War Against Google

Peter Kafka’s very interesting column in All Things Digital reveals that a number of media sites are seeing their referrals from Google decline while those from Facebook increase. Indeed, as a nice chart in Peter’s piece indicates, Google’s influence has diminished among 80 percent of the top media sites in the last year.

This isn’t surprising, and it makes perfect sense to me.

Using martial metaphors (how apt and appropriate these days!), media is the beachhead for Facebook’s entry into all Web browsing and all matching between visitors and what’s visited – and Facebook is quickly taking over that territory from Google.

Think about it.

Media is where it all starts, but certainly not where it ends.

Media sites are the most reactive to serendipity on the Web. And they’re  the most “frictionless” of any product we consume online or off:  The only cost is the click of a finger and a few seconds of load time. It doesn’t cost money to read a link; you don’t have to enter any shipping or billing information; you don’t have wait time while a freight company delivers it; and you don’t need a sharp implement to open it – or a place to put it.

The most viral media consumption is emotionally driven, too. And it  generally offers high entertainment value, and is associated with some urgency because people want to be “in the know” in order to earn social currency. And, finally, like many products, it’s taste-based.

All of this helps explain why Facebook is gaining influence among media sites. And why, whenever Facebook offers a link to a media site that is worthy of consumption, there’s a very high probability that it will, in fact, be consumed.

Commerce sites are the next frontier for Facebook. As I mentioned above, commerce is harder, because there’s more friction, and there are more impediments that get in the way of buying / consuming.

But these are just degrees of friction.

As Facebook gets better at knowing me, who I share taste with, what products I need, and what people like – both people in general and people I’m likely to share taste with – it will be able to overcome that friction.

And, one can easily imagine Facebook doing everything it can to grease the commerce skids by facilitating frictionless login (Facebook Open Graph and Instant Personalization), payment (Facebook Credits), and more to reduce the underlying friction, so that commerce sites will follow closely behind media sites and start leaving the Google orbit.

Google is still driving traffic to many Web sites. But that is clearly changing. And Facebook’s assault is starting to succeed.

Don’t Depend On Google’s Algorithm: SEO Slaves, Rise Up – And Revolt!

Move on from the Algorithm

Early reports are in confirming the results of Google’s index changes.  Yahoo’s Luke Beatty says two-thirds of Associated Content pages have lost traffic, while I’ve heard that total volume declines from Google search have reached 70% on some properties.

For sites like eHow and About.com, which get somewhere between 65%-70% of their traffic from search, the concentrated risk exposure that comes from Google engineers changing the algorithm makes for an unstable and uncontrollable business model.

Never in the history of media has there been such a precarious model for distribution, and the bad decision by SEO-focused sites to try and build a relationship with an algorithm looks worse and worse. The SEO-focused sites kowtow to the algorithm’s desires, as best as they can interpret them.  They game their moves internally, based on what they think the algorithm wants, not what the customer wants. And they rely on the white hats, as well as all of the blackest hats they can stomach, just to please the algorithm.

But, unfortunately, the algorithm is capricious and unreliable.

What these companies should do is form relationships with consumers.

That means providing consumers what they want – and where they want it, which increasingly means in their Facebook or Twitter feed, and on their mobile phone.

In the end, this is the only way to create great experiences that are branded in the consumer’s mind today.

My advice, then, is simple.

SEO slaves, rise up – and revolt!  Throw out the false God of the search algorithm and, in its place, focus on building valuable content and experiences. Win the audience, not the search.

Arianna and Tim – A Media Match Made in Heaven?

Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, has rebooted AOL with a talk-track of branded destinations, A-level journalism and sizzling original content; and early Monday morning, a full week before Valentine’s Day, his romantic media vision was considerably enhanced, when Arianna Huffington announced that she was selling Huffington Post to AOL for $300 million in cash and $15 million in stock.

For the record, that’s quite a premium price – 10 x Huffington Post’s $31 million in revenues.

Despite the cost, however, Armstrong is a very lucky man, and he received a wonderful gift from Huffington, whose hugely successful and much-talked-about Web site is a perfect match that helps “complete” AOL.

Indeed, the relationship between Armstrong and Huffington comes not a minute too soon for AOL, which is finally bringing on real creative assets and talent – including Arianna Huffington, herself, as chief editorial taste-maker.

To be honest, the media industry has been wondering whether Armstrong could actually pull off a deal like this. (True Confession: I’ve been among the doubters.)

And there’s good reason for the skepticism.

The problem, in large part, has been strategic. Since he assumed the CEO’s post, Armstrong has talked with clarity about his vision for an AOL made up of destination media brands, the way Time Inc. and Conde Nast have built their portfolios.  But to date, his build-out of this city on a hill has fallen short. Instead of buildings gilded with leading journalism that attracts fame and eyeballs, his properties have largely been constructed by plumbers and mechanics laying a foundation for search engine rankings.

That’s why AOL’s recently leaked master plan, “The AOL Way,” is heavily oriented toward users’ search queries.  The playbook emphasizes volume of content, page-views per post, and production cost per-piece.  And, while “The AOL Way” is punctuated by periodic reminders like “quality content at scale,” the reader of the plan is left with the distinct impression that quality is a guardrail, not a compass direction for the journey to ROI nirvana.

Indeed, without a voice or a purpose other than page-views, “The AOL Way” comes off as soulless. Instead of emphasizing audience interests, an editorial point of view, or premium differentiation, it’s a volume strategy: the plan calls for the number of stories to jump from 33,000 to 55,000 a month; with median performance to go from 1,512 page-views per article to 7,000 within the quarter; all while gross margins rocket from 35 percent to 50 percent.

This Google-ingratiating strategy, at least from my perspective, is wrong-headed and short-sighted.  It doesn’t do anything to help build a unique and long-lasting brand that is meaningful for audiences.  And, as a result, it does very little to encourage people to eagerly and voluntarily type “AOL.com” into their browser’s destination bar.  With this playbook, consumers don’t go to AOL; they merely end up there.

There’s a solid lesson here for all of us.

AOL – like everybody else in the media business – is clearly jealous of Facebook’s gravity-defying results.  But it takes time for a proper media brand to achieve such stratospheric numbers.  The great brands – The New York Times, ESPN, CNN, Wall Street Journal – have shown us that you build audience loyalty one positive interaction, one ambitious story, and one rich consumer experience at a time.  To be sure, Huffington Post has shown us that, building its audience to a reported 25 million uniques over a well-paced five years.

So, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen if you’re just playing for quick search engine results.

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see whether Huffington – a savvy and independent thought leader who has always leaned forward – chooses to embrace “The AOL Way.”

My sense is that she will continue to follow her well-honed consumer-focused instincts instead.  She brings a strong point of view, a decidedly human nose for news, and a variety of social strategies for distribution – not to mention her considerable star power.  And that’s a good thing for AOL.

It’s important to recognize Armstrong’s considerable achievements.  He saw that AOL’s subscription model was a non-starter; he chose areas of core content concentration for AOL; and, unlike Yahoo!, for example, he pared AOL’s portfolio quite dramatically.

But the pre-Valentine’s Day courtship and consummation with Huffington will mean very little in the consumer marketplace if Armstrong doesn’t get rid of his seemingly unshakable Google obsession – and very soon.

Here’s hoping that Arianna can help nurture Tim’s AOL, and turn it into a true media destination.

New Analysis: Old Media Magazines Losing Share Online Despite Their Great Brands

Despite their coveted value, the great brands of old media aren’t proving out to be much of an asset online.  And to the extent old media is relying on the value of their brands to ensure a digital future, they are headed in the wrong direction.

For this new analysis for Digital Quarters, we measured audience and visits (from comScore) for sites across the major media categories, comparing the metrics of sites operated under old media brands (e.g. ABC, Entertainment Weekly) in each category to those of new upstarts.  Over the past year old media brands lost share of online audience to new media in nearly all of the traditional magazine categories (TV, entertainment, business, fashion, tech, and teens), while the offline brands in the News category grew share during that same period.    Although total visits were up 5% for old media, new media visits grew far faster — 10% — from April 2009 to April 2010, leading to share loss for old media in six out of the eight categories that we tracked.

Old Media Share Online

Overall visit growth was positive in all media categories other than TV, but despite this, old media brands experienced an absolute visit decline in Entertainment News and Teens which are rapidly shifting towards new media sources.

Conventional wisdom has held that building a brand is a momentous challenge in developed spaces such as media; and that disproportionate returns accrue to the most established brands. But my new analysis shows that legacy brands are on the defensive, far more threatened by new entrants than the other way around.  The upshot appears to be that upstarts’ execution is earning new audiences (and building their new brands), drawing audience on average away from more established players.

The reason for this shift, and the dominance of new media in categories such as Tech News is simply that the old media magazine model is ill equipped to compete with more nimble online competitors.  For the most part, weekly and monthly publications are struggling to keep up with the new pace of information exchange and social interaction demanded on the web.  Understandably, the value to consumers of days, weeks, or months-old “news” on fashion trends, celebrity gossip, and technology is far lower in the presence of up-to-the-minute coverage from new sites.

comScore April YOY Visits Growth

However, the success of offline brands in the News category offers hope for other old media brands.  Companies such as The New York Times, BBC, and ABCNews have grown their online presence and are clearly investing in digital as core to their business.    They are actively experimenting with rich media, social marketing, and engaging their audience.    But while news outlets have always operated on a fast pace, magazines are at a particular disadvantage in that they are not structured to turn information around quickly.  For old media magazine brands to maintain or grow share, they’ll need to go further by transforming their organizations, incentives, and sources and embracing the new definitions of publishing quality to provide the experiences that consumers are now seeking online.  With online share falling — in some cases dramatically — now is the time for offline legacy publishers to take action and get their brands working harder before it’s too late.

Methodology

Source: comScore panel-only visit data for April 2009, July 2009, September 2009 (panel only was unavailable for October), January 2010, and April 2010, including only properties with more than 500,000 monthly unique users.   Properties were manually categorized into old media if they originated offline, and new media if they are entirely online or originated online (e.g. TMZ and MSNBC are considered new media).  comScore category names: Business News/Research (Bus News); Entertainment – News (Ent News); Beauty/Fashion/Style (Fashion); Lifestyles;  News/Information (News); and Technology – News (Tech News); Teens; Entertainment  TV (TV).

Smart Move: Glamour Publisher Puts Its Brand To Work Making Matches

What’s the point of developing a great brand if you don’t take advantage of it?  In the consumer products industry, the norm is to develop a great brand, then perform line extensions.  Crest lends its name to Crest White Strips so consumers will trust them more.  Disney’s trademarked princesses adorn adhesive bandages to spur kids to cover imaginary wounds; and Ralph Lauren finds his way into the paint aisle of Home Depot so I can be sure my new wall colors will be fashionable.

But these sorts of licensing and line extension deals have been more scarce in publishing.  And it’s great to see that change.

According to reports from Russell Adams at The Wall Street Journal, bucking its historical resistance, Glamour has decided to seek more revenue by leveraging its brand into new product lines by partnering with IAC’s Match.com for the Glamour Matchmaker dating site, with IAC’s HSN on a new jewelry line, and with Like.com for an “Ask The Stylist app.

This is great news, and it bucks the recent countertrend in publishing of focusing on reducing costs.  While others have been seduced by the allure of commodity content, Conde Nast is instead increasing its commitment to its premium brand.  That’s the right move.  For the leaders in digital media, their future success will be far better served by increasing the value of their premium brands and destinations — and by leveraging that value into new territory.  Smart partnerships not only create more revenues, but also create broader reach for their brands and the opportunity to move beyond serving as just titles of published properties into more meaningful sector or lifestyle brands.  And that means developing long-term deep relationships with consumers — which will be even more valuable in then feeding back into premium advertising rates based on increased reach and goodwill.  It’s a formula that companies like Disney have mastered, with original content, experiences, and licensed products virtuously cycling to create more and more value.

For publishers like Conde Nast, now is a great time to set their brands free to do more.  As a premium publisher, they invest in creating outstanding, differentiating content and experiences for their audiences.  And they are doing a benefit to their consumers by extending their credentials to other categories.

My bet:  Over the next 12 months, we’ll see other publishers following Conde Nast’s lead.

Online Experience for Publishers: Innovate or Die

We need an experience revolution.Revolution Fist

Each week, we hear of major publications and traditional broadcasters who are struggling to stay afloat in a digital age with new economics and new expectations.  Despite the promise of interactivity made with the internet revolution over the last 15 years, most publishers have done little more than replicate dead trees online, with zero innovation beyond the hyperlink, the slideshow, and an embedded video now and then.

And yet we can see from the rising successes of the last decade like Facebook, Google, Zynga, YouTube, and others that what catches audience attention is interactivity.

To earn loyal audiences today, publishers need to go beyond content creation:  they need to produce compelling experiences that distinguish them and get the consumer coming back for more.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project concluded that “when asked whether they have a favorite online news source, the majority of online news users (65%) say they do not.”  In an era where the consumer’s cost to switch is the flick of a click, publishers must offer compelling, differentiated experiences to earn loyalty.  Choices abound consumers:  there are scads of publishers online in every category; content suggestions offered constantly via social networks; and blue links proffered by search engines dozens of times per day per reader.  In an environment of choice, as brand experts have known for years, nothing builds loyalty like a great experience.

And now is the perfect time to create those breakthrough experiences.  The enabling technologies for the digital customer experience have improved considerably in recent years: we now have ubiquitous broadband, flash and other streaming video, plus HTML5 and maturing mobile application platforms.   Add to that personalization, targeting and social graph access, and there are some amazing opportunities to innovate.

It’s not just consumers that are thirsty for upgraded experiences.  Advertisers are showing that they will pay more for immersive interaction over basic display ads next to text.   Video ads during full TV episodes on ABC.com, Hulu, and others, or mid-day live sporting broadcasts command many times the CPM of typical display ads. Indeed, according to Michael Learmonth at AdAge, The Wall Street Journal’s online video content is bringing in envy-inspiring CPMs at $75 – $100.

But video is not the only way to create an immersive customer experience online.  Online sites of traditional publishers like Better Homes and Gardens are experience train wrecks (to be fair, they’re not alone in that regard).   Contrast that with the much more successful (certainly from an ad rate perspective) MarthaStewart.com which has many of the same elements – a top stories slideshow, cross-promotions for the print magazine, etc., and it’s a substantially better experience due to the focus on design and usability that is expected of the Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO) brand.

Even still, much more can be done with today’s technology to put the consumer’s needs and interests first.  The latest example I’ve seen of true creativity in user experience design is Microsoft’s (MSFT) Glo.    There are additional signs of greatness in the tablet demo that Time Warner (TWX) built for its Sports Illustrated brand.   And The New York Times (NYT) continues to excel in their applications and interactive graphics which enjoy significant pass around (bit.ly shows over 5,000 social media clicks to a recent budget infographic and today’s “A Moment in Time” project has already generated over 100 tweets in the first 15 hours).  But too few companies are making similar efforts to distinguish themselves.  The opportunities are there, and we need to step up.

Consumers will decide which brands deserve their loyalty and content alone won’t cut it.  We are on the brink of a total revolution of experience.  For publishers, it’s reinvent or fail.

Do you know additional examples of publishers innovating?

The New Rules For Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content

This article by Ben Elowitz originally appeared as a guest post on paidContentEngaging Readers Online

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. Continue reading