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: 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.

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:

Tearing Down the Walls That Traditional Media Built

This piece from Lewis DVorkin is the fourth in a series of 10 posts about the future of the media industry contained in a report titled: Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web.

Q: How does the rise of Facebook change the relationship between media and its audience?

There is an interaction between the two. Facebook turns everybody into a publisher. They publish what’s important and interesting to them, and they share it with friends and colleagues; they become publishers like the media. A whole group of people is distributing content to friends and putting a value on it. And that value is important to friends. People all over are distribution channels today, and they’re editing their feeds. But as they edit their feeds, they’re editing themselves.

 

Q: What’s changed fundamentally about media with the rise of the social Web, and what do publishers need to do to adapt?

Publishers who adapt to the social Web need to understand that content is content. Publishers, marketers, and audiences all create content; each brings knowledge and expertise, and it’s mingling in one place. So publishers must accept this new reality. They no longer control the content platform, and they have to invite others into the process. The traditional role as media gatekeeper isn’t valid anymore. The question is how you let others participate. I think you have to clearly state and transparently label each contributor’s identity, so users can form their own judgments. In the old world, traditional media would decide who got respect and who was worthy.

 

Q: We’ve gone from SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to SMO (Social Media Optimization), so how will search change as the Web becomes more social?

Search will always be important as a way of discovery, so publishers have to continue to optimize; they can’t give up SEO. But now there’s a new layer, and that’s social media. So you have to work with tools like Twitter and Facebook to understand where the conversations are, who is spreading the word, and how to get your relevant content in that stream in a way that’s positive. There are a number of opportunities to become part of this world; and social media, which drove zero traffic in the past, can now be a significant traffic driver if you optimize content for it. The key question is how you get the edge in Facebook ranking versus Google page ranking.

 

Q: How do you build a brand in publishing when, with greater frequency, media is distributed through social channels?

At Forbes, we now have a core group of full-time staff people and a core group of contributors. Most of these contributors are publishing content under their own individual names and own individual brands of knowledge. By doing this, we’re curating, and we’re extending the Forbes brand, especially with all the comments and conversations that result. Advertisers and marketers can take advantage of this extended brand, and they get to use the same tools, because they can also create content. Everyone who’s involved believes in our brand attributes – enterprise, the entrepreneur, smart investing, and doing something good with wealth that will make a difference. So, the extended Forbes brand is enabling like-minded people, people who believe in what we believe in, to share information and insights.

 

Q: What are the critical success factors in publishing as we look to 2020; and who will be the winners?

The economics of publishing today and going forward are vastly different than they were 20 years ago. And we’re not going to return there. Publishers must create scalable new business models for content creation and the voracious appetite for content. Staffers alone can’t meet this need, or equal the expertise of thousands of contributors. Publishers can’t control this experience either; so the trick is how to open up and still maintain brand values and attributes, while helping people feel a sense of partial ownership. Traditional media built up walls – between journalists and audiences; journalists and advertisers; and advertisers and audiences. But media is about connections. If you control the connections, it’s not what everyone wants. You can’t maintain silos; I just don’t see how you can do
that anymore.

 

Lewis DVorkin is the Chief Product Officer at Forbes Media. He joined the company after True/Slant, his entrepreneurial content network, was acquired by Forbes in the spring of 2010. Previously, DVorkin has been Page One Editor of The Wall Street Journal, Senior Editor at Newsweek, and an editor at The New York Times. He has also been Senior Vice President, Programming, at AOL, and played a significant role in the launch of TMZ.com.

To download the complete report, please click here:  “Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web”

Introducing Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web

This is the first in a series of 10 posts about the future of the media industry contained in a report titled:  Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web.


As Don Graham, Chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Company, recently remarked on-stage at a conference of leading CEO’s, the media industry as we have known it for the last 100 years is collapsing. The basic structure of our industry – content creation, packaging, distribution, and monetization – have shifted so substantially that the rug has literally been pulled out from underneath media’s business model.

A new model must be created – and the DNA of the medium itself has been irreversibly altered so that it is now innately social.

And yet, in the midst of this upheaval, I’ve found that even the brightest and most well informed strategies are able to tap only part of media’s new nature and capture just a slice of the industry’s remaking.

At a time like this, to get a complete picture of the territory ahead, there is nothing wiser than integrating perspective from the best and brightest people in the publishing world.  And, over the course of the last several years, I’ve been immensely grateful for those leaders’ intelligence and vision.

So, I thought it was only fitting to help create the ultimate social network – one that will enable our industry to share the smartest ideas as it remakes digital media.

That’s what this compendium is all about.

Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web brings together eight of the most thoughtful influencers and offers their most cogent assessment of the new online relationship-building that is helping to connect people in absolutely unprecedented ways.

Together, these eight contributors reinforce three dominant themes:

Building a media brand on the new social Web means that publishers have to meet consumers where, when and how they want. It’s all about user-driven pull, and publishers need to offer experiences and establish relationships that may not be on their own terms.

Facebook is a transformative platform driving new personalization and connectivity across the upstart social Web. We are still waiting to see all of what Facebook ultimately becomes, but we know it represents a once-in-a-generation paradigm shift.

Any way you look at it, search (as we know it) is declining. The open sharing of social networks, and the power of social endorsement, are seriously altering what consumers look for on the Web, and how we’re engaging with content. The search algorithm has lost out – big time – to the will of the audience.

But the most powerful insights are in the essays that follow from each of our eight contributors.

Jeff Berman (@bermanjeff), General Manager of Digital Media for the NFL and Buddy Media board member, talks about how Facebook is eclipsing search.

Greg Clayman (@Clayman), Publisher of The Daily, explains why Facebook is taking sharing to a whole new level.

Jason Hirschhorn (@JasonHirschhorn), Curator of Media ReDEFined, considers the element of surprise in social media.

Lewis DVorkin (@lewisdvorkin), Chief Product Officer at Forbes Media, discusses how he’s tearing down the walls that traditional media built.

Anthony Soohoo (@anthonysoohoo), Co-Founder & CEO of Rumpus and former SVP & GM of Entertainment at CBS Interactive, focuses on the way that the people-powered Web is changing innovation.

Wenda Harris Millard, President of Media Link LLC, advances the notion of a new personal recommendation engine on today’s Web.

Erik Flannigan (@butterking), EVP of Digital Media at MTV Networks Entertainment, shows how to build great relationships with social media fan bases.

Theresia Gouw Ranzetta (@tgr), a Partner at Accel Partners, zeroes in on the way that ecommerce is blazing a trail for social Web publishers.

I have already learned a lot from each of these people and their pieces, and I hope you do, too – not only to build your own ideas, but to help our industry move forward. To that end, I invite further conversation with me, and with our contributors.

The digital dialogue is so essential as we all work to re- invent publishing for 21st century audiences. 

 

To download the complete report, please click here:  Rebooting Media: The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web

What’s Really Behind The HuffPo Revolt (Hint: It’s Not About The Money)

I sent the following thoughts to Fred Allen at Forbes.com about how bloggers made The Huffington Post what it ultimately became, and profited all along the way.  For Fred Allen, Lewis DVorkin, and all of Forbes’ leaders, they are taking on the challenge of merging world-class editorial and brand reputation with the new reality that one can’t pretend to serve one’s customers best by writing all the good stuff onself.

Just realizing that the formula needs to change though is only the beginning.  It immediately leads straight to serious questions to conceptualize and implement:  now they have to figure out how to combine two different philosophies – one of proprietary branded editorial, and one of curation.

It’s a live laboratory as we get to see them take on the challenge, even as AOL and Huffington Post have a similar challenge of bringing their own two approaches together.

My comments to Fred are reprinted below; and Fred’s thoughts are here at Forbes.com.

There has been a backlash against Huffington Post in light of its acquisition last week by AOL.

People who were willing to contribute to HuffPo for free are suddenly irritated that the AOL deal creates a payoff for shareholders but not for them.  Since AOL is a publicly held corporate entity, these contributors’ expectations have changed, and now they want to get paid.

It’s a noisy revolt, but I think HuffPo’s dissident contributors are waving spatulas in the air, rather than guns.

Underlying these revisionist claims of exploitation, one thing has been clear from the get-go: The dominant motivation of the bloggers who have posted on Huffington Post has always been far more about narcissism than altruism.

The reason Arianna Huffington was able to attract such thoughtful and provocative bloggers in the first place was because her site is a promotion machine. With each new post and blogger added, Huffington’s creation became a more powerful destination. And that meant that the site was even more attractive to the next potential blogger. The choice for a new contributor was simple: Set up your own blog, and patiently hope you can build audience over a period of years, or join the club and get instant exposure. Like the AAA automobile club or AARP, the more members in the club, the greater the value became.

The benefits of joining Arianna’s legions were numerous: Posting at HuffPo offered instant reach, credentialing, and ego gratification. Make no mistake about it, these benefits were valued by contributors all along the way. (If they weren’t, then Huffington Post wouldn’t have any contributors in the first place.) In fact, these non-financial benefits have proved far more valuable to contributors than cash.

Looking back, then, it’s definitely been a win-win: Bloggers built their own value while creating value for HuffPo at the same time.  And in the AOL transaction, absolutely nothing changes that value equation retrospectively—except jealousy.

Now, on a prospective basis, the only question is whether the value received by contributors going forward will be just as great.

In terms of traffic, there’s no doubt that it will be. But the real issue is whether the HuffPo brand under AOL’s auspices will be as valuable when it comes to providing the most important of all of Huffington Post’s assets—the halo of its brand prestige. From my perspective, this remains to be seen.

And, finally, consider this: If The New York Times had acquired HuffPo, would there be a blogger revolt at all?  Absolutely not!

This highlights the greatest opportunity and the greatest risk for AOL and Arianna Huffington. If they can truly enhance the Huffington Post Media Group so that it’s an even stronger and more prestigious media destination, then their pipeline of great content will expand further, because the benefits of contributing will continue to grow. On the other hand, if the brand is diluted down to “old AOL” standards, then all will be lost.

Tim Armstrong was wise to put Arianna Huffington personally in charge of this, because the success of last week’s deal may very well hinge on her ability to promise, persuade, and deliver at a high bar. AOL will be relying on her strength of vision, her standards, and her personal brand to bolster not only the Huffington Post’s brand, but AOL’s as well.

So the real threat to Huffington Post’s contributors is not that they will be exploited; rather, it’s the potential loss of the media machine that has been promoting them for so long.