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.

The 20X Difference Between Facebook and Twitter

All social networks are not created equal.

We tend to think of Twitter as some kind of Facebook Lite, but this puts us at risk of missing the fundamental differences that make each platform valuable in its own way for brands and publishers on the web.

Facebook is a hub-and-spoke social network.  I share, you share, we all share with the common goal of promoting our identities within our social circles.  The assumption is that we share our lives – at least as we’d like them to be seen – with our friends.

Twitter, on the other hand, is an interest amplification network.  One person shares, one thousand people listen, and some retweet to thousands more.  On Twitter, the basic assumption is that tweeters share their interests with their followers.  And, with reverb built into the network, that followers do the same.   In this asymmetrical network, ideas can spread farther and faster.  And because Twitter’s connections are interest-based rather than relation-based, they transmit with far more “gain” on the signal.

But how far, and by how much?

Both Facebook and Twitter hold huge potential for publishers, and yet they are measured quite differently.  When a publisher posts to Facebook, they have a pretty good idea of the impact: ~16% of a brand’s followers see a typical post.  As with a radio tower, the signal is broadcast once and (while it may reflect here and there) largely travels by line of sight to its listeners.

The actual reach and impact of a tweet, though, remains nebulous  and hard to quantify.  It’s impossible to track how many of your Twitter followers actually read a tweet, and Twitter hasn’t offered any guidance on the norm.  But above all, Twitter is hard to quantify because the real value of a tweet comes from the ripple effects it creates outside of the Twitter stream.

If Facebook acts like a broadcast tower, Twitter acts like a newswire: think about its “tune in” format and its penchant for news-breaking.  More and more, journalists and bloggers are getting their news tips from Twitter and repackaging those stories for their own online readership.  Which means that one little tweet (unlike a typical Facebook post) can travel a very long way.

Twitter Traffic x 20

In fact, the total impact of a tweet can be anywhere from 1-20x the direct traffic you see from that tweet.  At Wetpaint, an average article gets 3% of its traffic directly referred from Twitter.com.  If a particularly influential person happens to tweet about one of our stories, however, that number goes through the roof.  When Grant Gustin (otherwise know as Sebastian on Glee) tweeted a link to the story “Grant Gustin has Superbowl Spirit,” Twitter’s traffic contribution shot up to 55%.  The same thing happens outside of the Twitter stream when our followers pick up on a story and blog about it – we see up to 20x the typical Twitter traffic in ripple effects.

It’s all well and good when that happens, but as publishers how do we consistently effect that kind of outcome?  Do we relentlessly pester celebrities and bloggers to follow us on Twitter, or amass a giant following in the hopes that some small percent will turn out to be influential?

How do you tweet for maximum ripple effect?

Creating tweets that achieve 20x their expected reach has little to do with follower counts and forced connections, and everything to do with the nuanced science of human influence.  Tapping into the power of influencers in Twitter requires a granular, case-by-case, relationship-focused approach.  Sound time-consuming and difficult?  It is.  But don’t despair – at Wetpaint we’ve been working on this for a while, and I’ll share a few of our hard-earned best practices:

1. Identify the influencers

Sounds easy enough: we all know that an Oprah is worth 1,000 Snookis, and a Snooki is worth 1,000 Elowitzes (sorry, mom!).  But celebrity isn’t everything: even better than a Snooki just may be a Stelter.  Brian Stelter doesn’t have the consumer name recognition of Snooki, but he’s far more influential in setting the agenda of the media and entertainment press.  Influence is all about relevance – and when Brian tweets, the ripples can travel far.

2. Take a look around

Once you’ve identified the influencers most relevant to your audience, it may suddenly become apparent that they’re, well, a bit inaccessible.  If Lady Gaga happens to be your target, then it’s time to get creative.  Who are the influencers of your influencer?

Every person’s interests are shaped and guided by the people around them.  You might read an article about silent retreats after your yoga teacher mentions her recent stint at St. Benedict’s, and you might start reading PandoDaily when your best friend launches a tech startup.  Highly influential people are no different – they pick up interests and news from their sister, their friends, and if they’re really doing well, their driver.  If Gaga retweets her barista, pursue a relationship with him.  And if the barista often retweets his mom, see if she might be interested in what you have to say.

3. Court sincerely

Once you’ve made a list of all the friends you want to make, start earning their friendship.  Relationships – whether digital or IRL – can’t be faked.  But they can be stoked.  Comment on their posts, offer them resources, and genuinely engage with them.  Just like in life, once you have a friendship, you can make asks from time to time.  And – again just like in the offline world – I’ve found that it’s always best to lead with giving for a while before even thinking about what I’ll get in return.

It’s not an overnight process.  Earning influence is just as hard in Twitter as it is in real life.  That’s because Twitter is a network of people, not a technology.

Social Science

These are just a few basics for starters.  At Wetpaint we’ve gotten this down to a science: we have analytical frameworks for identifying influence surround rings and continuous A/B testing to optimize every interaction.  But it all always comes back to real people building real relationships based on real interests.  In the end, even with all that technology to help us, I think it’s the real personal nature of relationships that have helped us be so successful with our audience.  And that’s what inspires our audience to honor us with ripple effects by passing on our content to their own friends.

10 Million(!)

10 million monthly users – Wetpaint Entertainment hit this milestone in March, only 18 months out of the gate.  For a little context (and bragging rights): according to Quantcast, The Huffington Post took more than 3 years to build an audience that size.

We hit the 10 million mark in such a short time by using a super-secret and complex formula that I’ll share with you today:

1. Know deeply what our audience loves.

2. Give them the very best of it every moment of every day.

Sounds simple, right?  But executing on those principles took a ton of data and a great team.  And a willingness to take the risk and bet that this paradigm shift toward digital and social is not only the best way to deliver on the formula above, but also the only way forward for media.

While other publishers were looking at digital as a death sentence, we recognized it as a gift:  an opportunity to know our audience far better than anyone ever before.   So we took our secret formula (see above), along with our social media expertise, and built the best audience insights system on the planet.

Our proprietary distribution technology did a lot of the heavy lifting, too.  Once we knew what the audience wanted, we fed those insights into a distribution system that publishes straight to the newsfeed, and voila: 10 million users and social engagement that far outshines any other major media property.

We couldn’t have done it without best-in-class content, of course.  Knowing exactly what our audience wants helps our editorial team create and curate content that delights beyond audience expectations.  We know what TV shows, celebrities, news events and themes resonate with our users.  That content, delivered in the right way and at the right time, begets strong relationships:  our 1.9 million Facebook fans see us 38 times per month (38! on average!) and look forward to Wetpaint posts in their newsfeeds.

I knew we were onto something when we started building our platform around audience insights and social distribution, but the speed at which we’ve developed our audience has been surprising even to me.

Congratulations to my team at Wetpaint on achieving every media company’s dream:  outstanding content, strong engagement from a big audience, and technology that lets us do it all an order of magnitude better than anyone else.

Social Engagement Drives Search Traffic

A year and a half ago, I called an end to the decade-long obsession with search.  I claimed that SEO is dead, and I set my sights on perfecting a strategy for its successor, SMO (social media optimization).

Since then we’ve succeeded wildly in driving social traffic (we are now #1 compared to all of the 50 largest web publishers); but as my friend Jack asked me recently:

Has the success in social come at the expense of search? 

The answer may surprise you, as it has me. By focusing on social, we’ve achieved even more – in fact, unprecendently more, in search.  Here, I’ll show you:

Could it be that by forsaking SEO in favor of social, we earn more search traffic?  Seems perverse.  I went looking for an explanation, and I dug up some interesting info: behind content, social signals are the most important factor in search ranking.

In this interview with Duane Forrester, Senior Product Manager for Bing’s Webmaster program and former head of SEO for MSN, he offers a glimpse of what really matters in the black box of a search engine’s algorithm – and in his words, what matters most for publishers.  He lays out the three most important factors, in order:

1. Content
2. Social Media
3. Link building

This is big news for an industry that’s had years of conditioning to believe that link building and keywords are the Holy Grail of SEO.  In 2010, 60% of companies spent more than $25K on SEO, while a measly 25% spent that much on social.

Looking at this gap, it’s clear that there’s about to be a whole new wave of investment in SMO.  Not only is social a bigger factor than traditional SEO in search rankings today, but it’s trending up.  “At some point, social could be more important than content,” predicts Bing’s Forrester.  “But that assumes you have excellent content in place.”

Publishers: if you have that excellent content in place, put down your old SEO playbook and start investing in social.  What does investing in social look like?  It means repackaging your content for a social audience, and then delivering it to them at the right time and in the right channel.  At Wetpaint, each piece of content gets a tailor-made package (we tweak the title, the timing, the images, even the content itself) depending on its destination.

The best investment in search is an investment in social.  Really, that’s not perverse at all.  As Bing’s Forrester explains, “When you delight someone with the best user experience possible, we pick up all those signals that person shares about their delight, and those signals influence our perception of your quality.”

Now go forth, get social, and delight in the search traffic that follows.

Living Up To Your Social Potential: Understanding the Emotions That Drive Sharing

Last week I shared how most publishers are realizing just a fraction of their potential audience because they lack a social distribution strategy, and showed which topics are most likely to be shared by connected audiences.

But is topic the only aspect of content that influences sharing?  Could articles with topics as disparate as gardening and bull fighting share some other characteristic that would make them both go viral?

The Journal of Marketing Research published the study What Makes Online Content Viral? in 2011 to appease inquiring minds.  Researchers analyzed 7,000 New York Times articles over 2 months to determine what factors made an article more likely to earn a place on the Times’ “most-emailed” list.

What they found:

  • Intensely emotional content is  more viral
  • Positive content is more viral than negative
  • High-arousal emotions  (like anger, awe and anxiety) increase sharing
  • Low-arousal emotions (like sadness) decrease sharing
  • Practical value, surprise and interest (you don’t say!) all increase virality

But wait a minute…are the factors that predict email sharing the same as those that predict Facebook or Twitter sharing?  Here’s where we run into the difference between broadcasting and “narrowcasting.”  Remember that purple rash I mentioned last week?  I’ll email that WebMD article to my significant other (anxiety! practical value!) but I most certainly won’t tweet about it.

 

I looked again at the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 to see which of the study’s findings held up on the social networking stage.

Sound familiar?  It mirrors the formula for success that Nieman Lab found Buzzfeed using to achieve record results.  And, notably, practical value, the #2 driver of email virality, falls all the way down to the bottom of the list on Facebook.

In social network sharing, emotion is king.  As Jonah Lehrer of Wired puts it:

“We don’t want to share facts – we want to share feelings.  Because people have a deep need to share their emotions, there will always be an insatiable demand for funny baby videos, angry political rants and Justin Bieber songs.”

Before you go and replace all of your content with funny baby videos and Justin Bieber songs, remember that this isn’t about sacrificing the integrity of content for traffic.  It doesn’t work that way.  This is about engaging readers on the most important axis of all: the axis of significance.  Emotional content helps us connect with friends online in a deeper way than a how-to video might.

But what if you’re a publisher of practical content?  No need to despair:

“The future is going to be about combining informational content with social and emotional content,” says Jonah Peretti (founder of Buzzfeed).

We all have a powerful emotional drive to live a great life, and getting there means knowing how to be healthy, how to fix a leaky faucet and how to maintain successful relationships.  Oprah’s tagline “Live Your Best Life” is a beautiful example – no one is better at linking home décor and health advice to something far greater and more aspirational.  Publishers in the midst of developing a social distribution strategy (especially those of us not lucky enough to traffic in Bieber songs) will be wise to follow her lead.

VIDEO: Rebooting Media Think-Tank: Content Creation vs. Curation

This is the second chapter of our Rebooting Media think-tank series.  In this video, our thought leaders address the question:

Do curators bring value to content creators, or are they just stealing content?

Hear media industry executives debate the pros and cons of web curation in the video and read the most salient comments below.

 

Curators are the new editors.

As we’re overwhelmed by an increasing number of voices and information channels, we look to curators to sort through the clutter and tell us what’s important.

“I’m one of those people who reads or watches or listens a little more than the average person.  If a person wants to stay up to date on certain topics but they have a family or a job or a life, curation services can help break through and deliver.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined

“A curator is an editor, essentially.  You become a trusted source by doing the hard work for your audience and telling them what’s important, whether you’ve written it or not.  Traditionally that’s been the role of great newspapers; now that function is being spread across the web.” —Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch

 

Publishers have a love / hate relationship with curators.

Curators help to expand a publisher’s reach, but the publisher risks losing credit (and traffic).  Curators who link back and republish only enough to pique interest will keep publishers happy.

“It’s like the forest episode of Planet Earth: the animal eats the nectar and sort of destroys the plant but spreads the pollen all over.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined

“A lot of money goes into making a piece of content, and then it shows up on somebody else’s website where they are ‘curating.’  That’s one word for it, and ‘stealing’ would be another.  That’s a difficult balance: we want them to put our content out there but, ultimately, if you don’t come back to us, then we’re not capturing the full value.” — Jeff Berman, NFL Digital

“You can’t capture everything and you have to make a decision about whether the value of social distribution outweighs the value of pay-for-each-play.” —Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch

 

How does curation become a real business?  Just add creation.

Curators provide a valuable service to consumers and publishers.  But can you charge for someone else’s content?  The most compelling model going forward will be a curation / creation mix from trusted voices.

“I’m interested in content curators that are getting into the creation game.  Buzzfeed, for example, was a driver of viral content.  Then they shocked people by hiring editors and journalists and breaking a story.  They took content that they owned and used the tools and algorithms they had to publish it into the social feed.” —Greg Clayman, The Daily

“We’ve experimented with all original content and all curated content, but what performs the best is inevitably a mix.” —Ben Elowitz, Wetpaint

 

Part 3: Paid vs. Earned Media

For more from these thought leaders and others, download a PDF of the full publication Rebooting Media:  The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web.  

VIDEO: Rebooting Media Think-Tank: Search vs. Social Discovery

In conjunction with our Rebooting Media series and the live think-tank hosted by Wetpaint and Digitas, we are releasing today the first in a series of videos about the social web.

In this first part, our group of ten executives and journalists chewed on the question:

“Is traditional search dead as a means of discovery?”

Watch the video for yourself, and read highlights of the conversation below.

 

Search is utility, social is discovery. 

Search has never been about discovering something new, but rather finding what you want once you know what you want.  Social, on the other hand, is all about serendipity.

“Pure discovery is in what you weren’t looking for.  In search, I’m determined, I have a path.  The only real discovery in search is I’m Feeling Lucky.”   —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined

“With search I think of words like utility and efficiency; it’s purposeful.  With social discovery, there’s an element of surprise and then, hopefully, delight.  You’re not necessarily sure what you’re looking for, because sometimes you’re not really looking for anything.”   —Wenda Harris Millard, Media Link

 

Are social users more valuable?

This was surprisingly debated in the conversation, and the conversation reflected different experiences from different publishers; and reflects the difference in methods used to draw social traffic.  For example, Forbes sees disproportionate traffic from LinkedIn to reach its largely male and older-skewing audience; while Wetpaint Entertainment uses the Facebook newsfeed to repeatedly reengage the site’s 1.4 million fans, almost all young women.   

“We see 2-3x the value with social visitors – 50% higher duration, 25% more frequency, and we’re seeing virality come [on top] of that.”   —Ben Elowitz, Wetpaint

“When you talk about running a business, the person who comes in through search is a very valuable person – more so than the person who’s coming in through social.  Social users are fleeting users, not necessarily loyal to the site.”   —Lewis DVorkin, Forbes Media

“We see equal engagement from search and social, and about equal percentages of referral traffic.” —Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch

 

Social is hard for marketers. 

While marketers recognize the promise of social marketing, the methods and measurements are far from sophisticated for most.  We need to get better at understanding and tapping into unexpected virality and the seemingly random discovery paths in social.

“I don’t think we really know how to use social as a distribution method, other than putting “Like” buttons everywhere.”   —Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch

“In search, purchase intent is right there.  But for advertisers in the social world, it’s harder to know exactly where that intersection is.  You want to be part of that conversation, but you risk interrupting it.”   —Greg Clayman, The Daily

“Virality happens, but it happens without warning.  By the time you can get to Madison Avenue to sell it, it’s gone.”   —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined

 

Ultimately, social and search will converge. 

As Google works to see if it can decipher the social code, and Facebook moves closer to taking over the entire digital world, we are headed toward a merger of search and social.

“If you look a few years out and you say where’s social and where’s search, they’re in the same place.   There’s a merger between the two.  These two spaces are on a collision course, and we need to start looking three years out to see how that collision course takes shape.”   —Ben Elowitz, Wetpaint

“The intersection between social and search is growing.  I go to Google and search “bunk beds” and I get a set of useless results.  I go to Pinterest and you wouldn’t believe what I find.  That really is the intersection of social and search: it’s utility-driven, it’s purpose-driven and yet the discovery is that much richer, that much more useful.”   —Jeff Berman, NFL Digital

 

The next two parts of this three-part series:

For more perspective, download a PDF of the full publication Rebooting Media:  The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web.