Living Up To Your Social Potential: How Much Social Traffic Should You Be Getting?

If you’re Buzzfeed and your raison d’etre is to find and distribute viral content, then it’s fair to assume that you should be getting the majority of your traffic from social (and indeed, they do).  But what if you’re Parenting Magazine?  Or Consumer Reports?

While we know that social traffic is increasing as a referral source for publishers, it stands to reason that social traffic would be more relevant to some publishers and less to others.  When I search “how to get rid of a purple rash,” I may find an extremely useful article on WebMD (and I may even forward it to a friend with a similar problem).  But am I going to post it to my Facebook wall?  Doubtful.

If you’re a publisher, you know how much social traffic you are drawing right now.  But how much should you be drawing, relative to your competitors?  To know this, we need to understand what types of content are highly shareable (and which are less so).

Pew Research studied the distribution of topics on Twitter and compared them with the distribution in traditional news sources.  To add one more dimension, I broke down the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 by topic and threw those into the mix.

The conclusions are striking:

  • Facebook users Like pop culture, parenting and weirdness.
  • Twitter hearts tech.
  • Traditional news content lines up barely at all with social sharing.

None of this is to say that traditional news isn’t getting social traffic; in fact, 53% of Facebook’s Top 40 came from four very traditional news sources: CNN, New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.  But while much of the most shareable content comes from newspapers, the average story ends up pretty lonely.

As for the most-shared topics, if you’re a publisher on the subject of parenting, you should be rolling in Facebook traffic.  SEVEN of the top 40 shared articles on Facebook are about parenting (e.g. “How to Talk to Little Girls” and “Dads, Wake the Hell Up!”)  If you’re a tech news publisher, well, Twitter wants to take you out for a lobster dinner and introduce you to his parents.

The wheels are greased, but are these publishers living up to their social potential?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s just say there’s room for improvement.

GigaOM gets a shockingly small amount of social traffic for a specialty publisher directly aligned with the interests of social users.  Parents.com fares better and beats traditional news, but lags far behind People (even though parenting as a topic is 2x more shareable on Facebook than celebrity news).

I would venture to say, of course, that ALL of these publishers should be getting more social traffic than they are right now (traditional news and celebrity gossip included).  But if you’re lagging behind other publishers with less shareable content, you especially need to get smarter about using distribution channels like Facebook and Twitter.  The social networks are ready for you – are you ready for them?

At Wetpaint, we’ve been rapidly ramping up our social traffic (from 14% to well over 20% in the last two months) by constantly refining our social distribution system.   Having content that lines up with what people like to share is only half the battle; you need to be savvy about packaging and delivering that content into the social feed.  That takes not only a great editorial savvy to understand your audience, but a tech mindset to help get it into the social groove.

Now that’s good news for GigaOM, Parents.com, and everyone else as well:  Your content is highly shareable.  Don’t let it go to waste.

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.

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.

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).

Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless

This article by Ben Elowitz originally appeared as a guest post on paidContent

Old MediaIf old-media traditionalists can be relied on for one thing as the world digitizes, it’s to bemoan the loss of what they call “quality.” In fact, the quality of published content has never been better. So why does traditional media get it wrong here? Because they’re using a definition of quality that made sense for the world of Publishing 1.0, from Gutenberg until 1995. But for Publishing 2.0, it’s about as useful as the cubit is in modern architecture.

The traditional-media definition of quality is based on four key criteria – and all of them have fundamentally changed and become invalid. Here they are, along with an explanation of why they’re no longer useful. Next week, I’ll do a follow-up piece on how quality should be defined in the digital era. Continue reading

The Inescapable Inertia of Old Media

Head in Sand

I had dinner recently with a friend at a big traditional magazine publishing house.  We talked about the predicament of the majors: circulations in decline; ad rates falling; a reduction in the number of pages per issue. The traditional publishing model is hanging by a thread.  And as we’ve all seen, blue-chip magazines are closing their doors as they can’t make ends meet in the new world of media.

My friend works in the online division, and has lots of exposure to senior company executives.  And one thing he told me surprised me:  When he talks with his higher-ups, they just plain don’t acknowledge that online is the future of their business.  They’re too preoccupied trying to figure out how to save their bread and butter versus figuring out how it will morph to completely different model – an online one.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that online is going to save the traditional magazine.  It’s not.  The economics of online publishing are arguably even worse than traditional publishing.  But that doesn’t change the fact that consumption of content is moving rapidly and unstoppably from offline to the web and mobile web; and that means that the offline publishing business is in inevitable decline.

The options for an old-school publisher are simple:  they can harvest their declining businesses; or begin the hard journey of building a new business to replace them.  But what is very clear is that the two cannot be done at the same time.  Inevitably, the companies that will succeed in the new digital economy are the ones that are willing to make sacrifices to their existing businesses.

My favorite example of a company that is committed to this sacrifice comes from the world of semiconductors.  For years, Intel demonstrated the philosophy of obsolescing their own products by creating new ones – before their competitors did.  Each generation of microprocessor they produced put the prior one – just a year or two old – out of business.  This is a survival skill in a fast-changing industry like semiconductors.

But decades-old publishers, steeped in their own business heritage, act as though they their world is not changing; when in fact it is changing as fast as microprocessors themselves.  Is it that they don’t know, or that they don’t care?