If You Think “Social” Means Viral, You’ve Got It All Wrong

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

A few weeks ago, Forbes Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin and I sparred at the Rebooting Media Live event in New York. With an audience of top digital and media executives, I shared the results my company is getting from social — that social users are more than 2.5 times as valuable as users from search. Lewis surprised me by saying that when it comes to behavior on the Forbes Web site, he is seeing the opposite.

What gives?

With all due respect to Lewis, who is one of the greatest innovators in media, I left realizing that there are different ideas of what “social” can mean on the Web, and that not everyone knows where the gold lies. Putting the whole picture together, there are four different models for social that, despite sharing the same name, are completely different concepts.

Social = Viral Hit

For those on the marketing and advertising side especially, the word “social” often means that you or your client are jealous of someone else’s success. Viral hits are largely based on breakthrough creative, though great distribution is an often-forgotten second factor. Who wouldn’t want to be responsible for the next Old Spice guy? Of course, these kinds of hits are easy to ask for and hard to achieve. And if you do achieve it, you’ll need another viral hit to bring your audience back again.

Verdict: Good luck!

 

Social = 1,000,000 Fans

Here, the theory goes that social means getting lots of fans, and then something magical is supposed to happen. Like the boys’ adventure with the  “South Park” underpants gnomes, it usually ends up with a lot of time and money spent, a big collection achieved, and a big question mark over “what now?” It doesn’t matter how low your cost per fan was, if the value per fan is near-zero. It’s not the size of the fan base that matters — it’s what you do with it.

Verdict: Bad strategy.

 

Social = Comments

Another concept of “social” is that it’s a medium for conversation. With programs like @ComcastCares, brands have used this approach to shape their brand images and reputations — and it has worked. On the publishing side, the Huffington Post and other publishers have succeeded in using social engagement to drive deep participation and connection among an inner circle of its audience. Hosting a conversation certainly builds a relationship. A “Like,” comment, or share from a user can all get you more exposure on the margin, but, as Lewis noted on our panel, the friends who come that way don’t stay very long and don’t come back much. They came for their friends, not for your Web site. That’s why, even though engagement strategies are great for your core audience, they won’t single-handedly drive the large, loyal audience we all crave.

Verdict: Smart, but it’s not enough.

 

Social = Lasting Relationship

A lasting relationship with an audience is the holy grail of every brand online. In fact, it has made Amazon the most valuable e-commerce company on earth, and it’s made Disney and the NFL valuable over decades. But what some haven’t realized yet is that the most valuable mode of social is in keeping these relationships connected.

Do you have any idea how valuable a “Like” is? Any seventh-grader goes all atwitter when his crush says, “I like you.” It’s permission to see someone more, get to know them better, and talk to them all the time — not just once, but every day. If you are doing it right, a “Like” or a “Follow” begins a two-way relationship: One where your audience is asking for programming from you every day, week and month; and giving you their interest data about what works and what doesn’t. With that relationship, you can choose what content you create, and when and how you share it. That relationship isn’t once-and-done — it’s ongoing.

And data from our experience shows that it translates into a million visits a week from our fan base — almost one visit for every fan, not to mention dozens more impressions right in their home page, the Facebook news feed. Done right, social can already drive more traffic than search, making a new top venue to recruit, and more importantly, retain an audience.

More and more, I talk to marketers and publishers who have hundreds of thousands or millions of fans and followers, and yet have no idea what to do with them. They haven’t realized that they have subscribers at the ready, waiting for great content and experiences — the currency of their relationship.

Nor do they understand the tremendous value of those subscribers: If you give your friends what they are after, they’ll keep coming back for more, and they’ll bring their friends. This is exactly how companies like Groupon and Zynga have reinvented their categories and created businesses worth billions of dollars in the process.

Verdict: There is nothing more powerful than a lasting relationship.

VIDEO: Rebooting Media Think-Tank: Paid vs. Earned Media

Paid vs. Earned Media is the third and final video of our Rebooting Media think-tank series.  This time we asked:

What are the implications (and opportunities) of social web distribution eclipsing paid impressions?

See our thought leaders tackle this question and read conversation highlights below.

 

You pay for earned media, too.

There is no earned media without paid media.  Social network distribution hinges on quality content at the outset, which means that investing in your content before you publish it in the social feed is crucial.

“People loved the Old Spice ads.  They were great and funny and they blew up on YouTube, and there was a lot of earned media behind that.  And none of it would have existed if there wasn’t a TV spot that was made and bought and placed and that was very, very good.” —Greg Clayman, The Daily

“A lot of the ‘earned’ arguments came from viral sensations wearing as a badge of honor: ‘we spent no money on traditional marketing.’  People forget the impact that print, radio, and television have on online traffic.  When I was at MTV Networks, I used to joke that the channels were only there to promote the websites.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined

“Now, the people who are getting paid are the people who know how to make media get earned.” —Jeff Bercovici, Forbes

 

Social is better than search for brand building.

Search advertising lacks the brand-building potential of TV and print.  Social, on the other hand, is ideal for brand-building.  Advertisers have been slow to embrace this, and we need to provide them with a compelling return story before they’ll be willing to make the leap.

“Social has enormous potential to be a brand accelerator.   Through social, I think you can build a brand much more rapidly than you can through search.” —Wenda Harris Millard, Media Link

“On the advertising side, there’s an argument that social has the potential to be a vehicle for brand advertising in a way that search can’t be.  But what should be the metric for brand?  Brand impressions are so much further up the funnel before you have an action.  I think people are trying to find some metric between CPM and CPA.”  —Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch

 

It’s time to find the magic metric.

Even though social has been around for a while, most people don’t know how to measure success.  At Wetpaint we’ve made huge strides in this area, and other people in the room were clearly ready to make this a priority.

“There’s a tremendous amount of money being spent by the film studios specifically on television advertising, and it’s a very inefficient spend; it’s carpet bombing.  Virality and targeted advertising are a much more efficient spend, but so far digital media hasn’t been able to show the lift those properties need; they don’t see the payback.  They know it’s happening, but they don’t know how to quantify it.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined

“We don’t have a choice.  We’re either going to figure this out, or we’re going to live another ridiculous couple of decades without understanding why money is spent.  Have I seen a magic metric?  Not yet.” —Wenda Harris Millard, Media Link

 

THAT’S ALL, FOLKS

I hope you enjoyed our Rebooting Media think-tank series, and most importantly I hope it pushes you to join the conversation. 

What does the next decade look like?  One thing is for sure: it will look nothing like the last one.

Search vs. social, curated vs. created, owned vs. earned – these are not binary outcomes.  How do we combine them in a way that meets the needs of the audience?

These are early days still, and there’s a huge opportunity for media players with the imagination, the brains and the courage to get there first.

 

Want more?  Download a PDF of the full published collection of perspectives prepared by these participants and others at Rebooting Media:  The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web

And if you missed part 1 or part 2, you can find them here:

Rebooting Media: A Live Think-Tank for Media on the Social Web

In the last several years, “social” has gone from a college fad to become the fabric that connects the internet.  And yet, even as it has taken over the wiring of the web, there is no established blueprint for what media companies should do with it.  When my company Wetpaint began reinventing media for the social web last year, I went looking for the people who had all the answers.  And I found out there aren’t any.

But there are a lot of bright, inquisitive people who have been running their own experiments and trying to find the way forward.  Wouldn’t it be great to get them all together to make a new think tank for the social web?

In conjunction with the release of our new series Rebooting Media:  The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web, Wetpaint and Digitas convened a group of leaders and journalists with a live audience to attack the question:  “How do you retool media for a social world?”

The conversation featured five leading executives:

  • Jeff Berman@bermanjeff (General Manager at NFL Digital)
  • Greg Clayman@Clayman (Publisher of The Daily)
  • Lewis DVorkin  – @lewisdvorkin (Chief Product Officer at Forbes Media)
  • Wenda Harris Millard  – President and COO of Media Link
  • Jason Hirschhorn  – @JasonHirschhorn (Curator of Media ReDEFined)

And who better to prompt the tough questions than three leading digital media journalists?  Our conversation included Jeff Bercovici (Mixed Media writer for Forbes); Jessi Hempel  (Senior Writer covering tech at Fortune); and Erick Schonfeld  (Editor of TechCrunch).

The conversation, hosted by Digitas SVP Entertainment and Content John McCarus and me, covered three themes.  We will be releasing the videos in three parts, listed below.  I also encourage everyone to download the full published collection of perspectives prepared by these participants and others, available via PDF at wetpaint.com/page/thought-leadership.

Event videos are available at: