You Can’t Spell Media Without “Me”

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

Without question, one of the greatest gifts of the human species is our ability to communicate.  We can create, transmit, and absorb ideas with immense freedom in pictures, speech, writing, music, and more.  And yet, from the earliest days of man until very recently, the state of the art of media has been about as sophisticated as cave paintings.

Taking this a step further:

Truly great communicators don’t start out by focusing on their message.  They start with their audience.  They research, observe, and monitor every knowable detail – from background facts beforehand to micro-reactions during the conversation – and adjust their content and delivery precisely, so it will make an impact.  But it’s not like this is a secret formula.  Even toddlers do it, carefully measuring parents’ reactions and perpetually tuning in to the behavior patterns that get them the attention they want.  That tuning is carefully optimized to achieve maximum effect from each individualized recipient.

Meanwhile, media has virtually ignored its audiences.

But it’s finally beginning to open its eyes and ears to them through personalization. I believe that personalization has the greatest potential to transform the media business.

But before we get to that, let’s start with what’s gone wrong in media that has made us blind to our audiences’ cues.

In the world of print and broadcast, there was fundamentally no data about audience interests or reactions.  It was impossible to “read the room,” because the room was pitch black.  If media leaders’ eyes were closed, I’d be hard pressed to blame them; there was nothing to see.

As a result, there were two operating principles that made sense at the time, but which have since become outdated anachronisms.

First, that an editor should serve as oracle for what the audience desires (I call this the “Editor Fallacy”); and second, that content created in that vacuum of data should then be distributed as broadly as possible (let’s call this the “Broadcast Assumption”).

These two assumptions – even though they came from the print and broadcast legacy businesses – have errantly managed to drive the entire Web media mentality.

And the resulting misguided formula – across the board – has been Prophesize, Publish and Proliferate.

The big hope with this media Ouija Board has been that the guesses will be right, and that those who broadcast widely will then draw a big audience.  When the guesses miss the mark with audiences (no surprise there), publishers turn up the volume or amp up the sensationalism. To some degree, this is why the Huffington Post succeeds with its brash and blaring headlines, and it explains why, thanks to Henry, we’ve collectively Blodgetized Web 1.0 media.

But to make room for the new media model of the next 100 years, we need to let these old assumptions fall by the wayside.  The new vision is for media to start doing the work that each member of the audience already does; and that means deliberately selecting and contextualizing the media we each consume.

Putting it simply: media’s great opportunity is to bring the right content to the right person at the right place and time.

And this is where things get very interesting.

Bring Me My Very Own World

The social transformation of the Web has already taken us half way down the road toward a personalized future.

We finally recognize that the Web is made up of people, and Facebook and others have made people and relationships the key “nodes and edges in the graph” of the Web, replacing pages and links.  The social Web is now people-centric; and, increasingly, social is becoming the operating system for the Web at large.  Most impressively, “what my friends like” is already proving to be a good starting point to predict “what I like,” and so much of the Web is beginning to get at least a clue of how to serve us.

Despite this tremendous progress, however, when you go behind the scenes, the Web is still organized by data, not by people. Server data is affiliated with accounts; cookies are associated with Web browsers; and activity logs are tethered by IP addresses.

And yet, as the social revolution has proven, the real value of the transformation has been to stop looking at me as an IP address, a browser, or an account; and to start holistically realizing that I’m a person – I am me.

So, the great opportunity is to move from a Web of sites to “my” Web of me.

Media is at a critical transition point today, because we are about to completely redefine our sense of the audience. Starting now, the audience is no longer one massive opaque agglomeration. It’s not a “them” or an “us”; it’s a lot of individual “me’s.”  (This must-watch from Monty Python paints the picture.)

In this context, the Broadcast Assumption of content creators is completely out of touch with the 21st century zeitgeist.  It revolves around the played-out maxim of “create once, distribute everywhere,” which made sense when audiences were opaque and distribution channels were just big dumb pipes.  But it totally ignores the “me’s” in the audience – when it comes to both creation and distribution.

The bottom line, then, is that media experiences, which used to be one-size-fits-all, must now be customized so they’re just for me.

In other words, the media experience of the future must take a cue from Facebook, and bring my world to me – regardless of where it originated. 

The Six Elements of Ultimate Digital Personalization

Social represents progress toward this vision of fully personalized media, but it’s only one part of the game.

In my view, there are six key elements that contribute to ultimate digital personalization – and these elements are the basis for the ultimate success model in digital media:

  • It’s social – What happens to people close to me is important, because these people are important to me.
  • It’s curated – People aren’t just content sources themselves; they’re also curators. To know me is to know my tastemakers.
  • It’s an experience, not just a stream –Newsfeeds and timelines are a meager start.  Twitter’s 140-character format is great for insiders, but it’s inscrutable for Grandpa. Personalized media should come in all formats – not just a feed.  And it will be more powerful (and more profitable) when it creates an immersive experience.
  • It’s incredibly, incredibly smart about what it recommends, and what it doesn’t – But better than today’s Facebook and Twitter, it brings me the right content, not all content. I trust it to filter the world for me, and to highlight what’s important to me out of billions of pieces of information.
  • It’s self-refining – Speaking for myself, it would know to bring me news about digital media; about my company; about my friends’ reviews of great restaurants in Seattle, LA, and New York; and, in the winter, a helpful article or two on snowboarding tips would be greatly appreciated. It would also turn down articles about Glenn Beck, and turn up the latest find from Brian Stelter. And, before you cry (or scream) “filter bubble,” let’s get it straight that this is what I do already.
  • It’s not just the content that’s personalized – It’s the advertising, too. Today’s version is very primitive: I go to a Web site once and its ads follow me around for weeks. But, instead, my demographics, interests and intent should all combine to inform what ads to show – and not show – me.

After considering these six elements as a whole, I’m most inspired (and encouraged) by Facebook, Twitter, AOL Editions, the recent Flipboard clones, NetFlix, and the potential of a new Siri-powered Apple TV.

Each of these demonstrates the central aspect of this new vision for media: bringing my world to me.

Data Is the Currency of Personalization

To be successful, we all need to be data companies – as data is the clear way to know what our audience wants.  Data is the currency of personalization, and so it is our best path to delighting our audience.

News sites should know by now what topics and stories to program for whom; and no sports site should serve a balanced home page when no sports fan likes all teams equally.

It’s an approach that, of all companies, Yahoo! ‘gets’– and for them it’s been paying huge dividends for a long time.   And so it should for the rest of us.

What this means for media is that it’s not all about the content – instead, it’s all about the audience.  And that means the nature of media has changed.

It’s all about you. It’s all about me.

That’s the digital media future. And we need to start going there today – because audiences are asking (and even demanding) that we pay attention to them, that we really know them, as true individuals.

So, if you’re a publisher, here’s the challenge as you try to create meaningful content experiences today: Each member of your audience – no matter how vast it is – has to become the most important person in the world to you. Or, looking at it in a slightly different way, you have to become deeply involved and digitally intimate on a global scale each and every day.

October 2011 Media Industry Social Leaderboard: Facebook Traffic To Publishers Down 13%

Back by popular demand is an updated ranking of the Media Industry Social Leaderboard.  As a reminder, my company and I are obsessively focused on data about the social web – so much so, that we decided to track and publish not only our own results, but those of the top 50 media companies.  This is all captured in the chart below which profiles the top 50 web publishers’ effectiveness at driving traffic from social media.

For the inquisitive among us, you’ll note that we determine the top 50 relevant web publishers; then, using data from Compete.com, we determine and chart how much of their traffic is from Facebook and Twitter.

One important note is that Facebook’s changes in its algorithms launched at F8 impacted nearly all publishers in this ranking – more on that in a moment.

But first, let’s get to the results:


Facebook Traffic Down by 13%.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the bars are lower this month. In fact, over 90% of the top 50 web publishers saw a decreased percentage of their visits coming from Facebook and Twitter in October, with the bars shortening on average by 50 basis points.

In terms of aggregate performance, if you sum the total Facebook visits for all properties, they’re down 7.1% October vs. September, and 12.8% comparing October vs. the pre-F8 August highs.  We believe this trend is the direct result of the F8 algorithm changes made in mid-September.  Savvy social publishers (ourselves included) have been battling to reclaim previous highs since the F8 changes; but by October few had recovered.  The chart below highlights the reduction in referrals from Facebook to publishers over the course of their algorithmic change.


Winners and Losers:  CBS down; People, MTV, Wetpaint up

CBS has continued to fall in social traffic composition (-3.7% September-over-August, -5.5% Octocber-over-September), moving from the top rank on the Media Industry Social Leaderboard to number 4.  Unclear what has caused this decline although one hypothesis could be an increase in either SEO or paid audience acquisition.  If you have any insight here, shoot me a note.

Closer to home, People, MTV, and Wetpaint maintained their relative rankings and have moved to the top 3 spots.  At Wetpaint, we credit our climb up the ladder to our relentless A/B testing that has allowed us to understand what our audience desires in a deep way, and inform our editors with this insight.  The result is that we are creating, packaging, and distributing the right content, at the right time and our audience has voted with clicks, likes, and shares.

Big Change For a Big Media Change Agent and a Big Publisher

Laura Lang has a proven and powerful track record as a media change agent.

As CEO of Digitas, she helped uber-marketers like Procter & Gamble and American Express move smartly into digital advertising. And she is conversant and fluid with new publishing platforms – and knows how to make them profitable.

Now, she’s been asked to lead Time Inc., and its 21 venerable titles, which include Time, People and Sports Illustrated.

Time Inc. has absolutely amazing brands with outstanding reputation, heritage, editorial staff, and customer bases; but, at the same time, the business model of magazines is structurally breaking.

What an interesting – and tantalizing – choice.

And you can’t be a media leader today, unless you’re willing to innovate on the business model itself.

Which is why Laura seems so promising.

I love the idea that at Time Inc. she’ll be able to innovate in core product, just like she did at Digitas. I also love the notion that she’ll aggressively develop new products for advertisers.

What will be new to her is the actual business of publishing – a business where Time Inc. stands stronger than almost any other player.

The central question for me is whether Time Inc. is ready for the change that a leader like Laura will want to (and need to) bring.

Indeed, Time Inc. has fundamental open questions to address when it comes to its own relevance in the digital world.

While the powerful brand of Time magazine has set the American agenda for decades, Time.com has wandered.  In the past, Fortune magazine always spoke to the most important business issues and people; but today, its online brand is less clear, with basic confusion even in its home-page address (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/). This simply muddles Fortune, Money, and CNN.

To be as successful in the next century as it’s been in the past, Time Inc. will have to adapt more fully to the digital world. That means developing new business models, as well as new attitudes toward consumers, advertisers, and the product itself. It will also require a healthy reinvigoration of key brands, an area where I think Laura may especially shine.

All of this will take nuance, to bend things without breaking them.

I’ll end the year on an optimistic note, and say that I hope Laura can finesse major innovation for this major publisher. If she can, watch out world – because very interesting and far-reaching things will happen.

What We Learned This Year About Creating Successful Media Properties Online

This week, we made some announcements about our achievements at Wetpaint, and it has prompted me to take a look back at 2011.  It’s easy to be proud of the 6.4 million unique visitor audience we have built at Wetpaint Entertainment monthly.  It is a significant accomplishment in just 15 months since we launched, and the Wetpaint team has worked passionately to get us here. But even a number like that is, well, just a number. The real value of what we did in 2011 lies in the all the learning we had about how to build, run and monetize a successful media property online.

And that learning makes me feel grateful – because as successful as we have been this year, it’s been against a context of upheaval in the industry.  Media is not easy.  Old formulas from print and broadcast are no longer working.  And even the just-minted generation of seemingly successful digital companies, from Demand Media to Zynga to Facebook itself, are having to constantly innovate to stay on top of the wave that they’re on as they hope to catch the next.

Clearly, the most important keys to financial success in media are building audience and monetizing that audience – and we’ve made significant progress on both here at Wetpaint.  Our greatest strength has been the data engine we’ve built to acquire, assimilate, and apply every possible insight about our audience.  We learned that smart and targeted analysis can improve everything we do; that lots of rapid experimentation is critical; and that social traffic is far more valuable than search.

We also learned more about the Kardashians and the people on the The Bachelor/Bachelorette than anyone in this world should.  Our editors did a bang-up job capturing the liveliness of the entertainment industry and they definitely deserve plenty of credit.

But while all our great content and social mojo would succeed in delighting audiences, it wouldn’t be enough to make a strong business without excellent monetization.  And so I’m equally excited to note that as we get ready for 2012, we’ve found that our formula of great content and social mojo is just as valuable to advertisers as it is to our audiences.  I’m pleased that we will be working with the team at Cambio Group via their joint venture between AOL, Jonas Group and MGX Lab.  Together, we will be  serving outstanding advertisers with some of the most innovative offerings around.

With this partnership in place, we are able to turn amazing traffic into amazing financial results. It will mean strength for our model and our company into 2012 and beyond.

But the implications are even broader for the industry, and that’s because we are setting a model that others can follow as well.  And that is what I’m most excited about:  What media needs most is a model that can be scaled and repeated – and our latest results make it clear we are on the right track to build it.

Can Social Drive As Much Traffic As Search?

I’ve projected before that within the next couple of years, social can drive as much traffic as search to major media properties – especially those that are driven by real-time news.  But I hadn’t expected it to happen so soon!

Yesterday was a milestone here at Wetpaint:  social for the day drove over 45% of our audience visits; while search brought in about 30%.

Now consider this:  Layer on the ~150% higher lifetime value of our social audience (our social users stay longer, come back more frequently, and bring additional viral referrals), and social was responsible for over 60% of the value of our audience yesterday.

It may start as an outlier, but it’s going to get more common.  We are on track to be the #1 social publisher within a short time.  Want to know where you stand too?  Stay tuned for the updated media industry social leaderboard, which I’ll be posting in the next few days.

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.