Shining the Spotlight on the Audience, Not the Stage

Alex Weinstein (@alexweinstein) is the Director of Product at Wetpaint and the author of the Technology + Entrepreneurship blog where he explores data-driven decision making in the face of uncertainty. Prior to Wetpaint, Weinstein led technology initiatives in Microsoft Live Labs.

Every day, we go to our favorite news outlets and get our fix. We land on the same familiar sites. We seek out the kind of news that fits our fancy. We casually share the most interesting news with our friends – over dinner or online. And, tomorrow, it starts all over again.

Why? What motivates us to watch the daily news, read an opinion in a magazine, and come back to a favorite TV show? For content creators and distributors, it’s easy to think that it’s all about the content.  This view is based on the notion that people desire the intrinsic value of content, such as the knowledge hidden in a report, or the laugh they experience from a comedy sketch.  But this idea is too flat, and it ignores a more powerful force that’s at work, and that drives the tremendous confluence among target populations when it comes to what they read.

Indeed, in many cases, a deeply human driver is far more valuable than the information itself. And that driver is the desire to be a valuable, appreciated member of a group.

As the graphic below shows, this desire maps directly to Maslow’s pyramid of human needs – the need for esteem.

(diagram from NYTimes –

After taking this pyramid or hierarchy of needs in, it becomes clear that, as publishers, we must pay attention to the amount of influence, respect, and social value that audiences are able to earn from their friends after consuming content.

Let’s look at a few examples.

For World of Warcraft geeks, a news article on a long-tail site that covers the latest artifacts is true gold – because it will help them be the most informed in the eyes of their guild.

For fans of Bachelorette, watching the latest episode is very much about having a water cooler conversation about it next day – and the potential social connection that brings.

For Politico readers, it’s about exerting influence on their Facebook friends after they share a controversial editorial.

And, for Lolcats readers, it’s about making their friends laugh for the umpteenth time with a new, undiscovered photo.

Each of these examples is about social influence and social esteem.

Here’s the take-away for publishers in all of this: a key component of the value of the 21st century media company is about helping audiences gain the attention of their social circles.

This represents a radical shift from what we’ve seen over the past decades.

Instead of trying to capture and direct the reader’s attention (“Look at my 100-year-old brand! I curate the world and know best what you should look at!”), the publisher becomes a back-stage prompter, helping readers utter the words that will make them the center of attention among those they care about. The reader can then become an even stronger influencer, or taste-maker.

Every time a friend consumes something that you’ve read, you’ve successfully directed their attention. Your social bank account just became more valuable. And every time publishers help make this transaction seamless and smooth, they are helping you earn some social gold.

This is why Washington Post Social Reader and Yahoo Social are such smashing hits.

Readers want to consume content within these apps, because of the feedback loop from their friends.  (“Hey, I saw you read this article, and I read it, too.”) This is a self-reinforcing pattern that creates social value for all the participants. These publishers, and Facebook’s timeline apps, put audiences first; and, in the process, they generate an ever-increasing amount of social value for readers.

Note that curation and brand very much play into this the social value generation; nobody wants their friends to be misinformed or displeased by media that they endorsed. Content is still king.

If, say, the Washington Post wanted to take this experience to the next level, it could make curation even more personalized. Instead of telling readers that they must care about the Russian presidential election via a big front-page photo – completely ignoring the fact that sharing this knowledge will drive zero social value to its readers – the Post could cater to the unique values of each reader. To do so, it could measure the social response from the reader’s audience – and then personalize the content based upon this response. It’s essential to point out, however, that the reader’s interest – and the response of his or her audience – are not mutually exclusive; a smart personalization algorithm will take both of these factors into account.

That said, in the end, publishers must awaken to the fact that social influence and social esteem are key matters for their audiences today.

How Facebook Is Crushing Search

This piece from Jeff Berman is the second 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?

Radically. The conversation has historically been pretty much one way – media to audience or audience to audience. And it hasn’t been at scale. In the new world, however, the conversation is scaled and omni-directional. Since Gutenberg, or at least since Marconi, media has had a massive megaphone. But the audience hasn’t had real power. Thomas Paine and his patriotic pamphlets may be the exception; Paine had a voice and a platform, but it wasn’t a scalable model and it lacked speed. Today, everyone is a publisher, and there can be millions of Thomas Paines, reaching tens of millions of people instantaneously. Everyone who wants to create compelling content, or a movement, now has the tools. This is a very different world from even seven years ago.


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

First, if you’re involved in a one-way discussion, you’re not taking advantage of the social Web opportunity, and you’re leaving a ton on the table. Another advantage if you’re a legacy media property – let’s say The Wire or The Godfather – is that you now have a chance to stay in the conversation and continue it, so you’re alive and you remain active in the culture. You can keep the property and the franchise in front of new and existing audiences, thanks to the new digital tools. If the show is taken off the air, for instance, it can still be all over Facebook. Audiences are empowered today, and folks want to participate in the conversation. No one may be able to control the conversation, but people do want to shape it – and they can. The social Web gives them choices, and it provides options and alternatives for publishers and media players, too.


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?

Here are some powerful numbers from a recent Forrester report. In 2004, 83 percent of Internet users deployed search engines to find content. That was before the rise of Facebook. By 2010, it was 61 percent. So, we saw a drop of a quarter in a six-year time frame, the same time frame in which social media took off. This isn’t a coincidence; it is, however, a causal relationship – and it makes sense, given what we know.

On a more sweeping level, we’ve historically learned about shows to watch and diapers to buy because we’ve spoken to friends and family. Now we’re taking these word-of-mouth conversations to the digital networks. And we’re not just using Google to search for the answers; we’re going to our friends’ Facebook pages (and, increasingly, to Twitter, particularly for real-time multi-platform engagement). This is trusted referral at scale, and it’s fast and reliable. That’s why Facebook represents such a monumental shift.

But let’s not forget that Facebook is just seven years old; You Tube is six years old; Groupon is three years old; the iPad is 18 months old – so anyone who proclaims a clear vision of the digital world even five years into the future is either a prophet or a fool. Broadly speaking, you will see evolution in SMO, and a continued deep integration of social functionality. The key point here is that Facebook is a part of today’s Internet operating system, so the efficiency and reliability of social sharing and peer reviews is going to increase big-time. In other words, the 83 percent, which fell to 61 percent, will fall even further as the social Web grows.

Finally, I’m especially interested in what Apple does with TV, and what will happen when Web TV is connected at scale and social functionality is built into the experience. The ability to share in real-time straight from whatever screen you happen to be viewing will meaningfully change the way we choose what content we engage with and how we engage with it.


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

There’s an apparent conflict out there right now. The brand world has never been more crowded than it is today. And yet it’s never been easier to build a massive new brand. The reason? As the universe gets more crowded, brand-building tools are being disintermediated. Spotify is a good example. All of a sudden, it’s skyrocketing, in no small part, because its offering is social. The same is true for LivingSocial and Groupon. These businesses have exploded like we’ve never seen before largely because of social functionality. People find it easy to share their experiences about the products, and they like having others show them the way to the marketplace. This is authentic social content.


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

The old axiom that you have to fish where the fish are holds true so it starts with platform ubiquity. We’ve seen this already with the explosive growth of mobile, and it’s just going to intensify as a necessary success factor over the next decade. For the vast majority of publishers, you will have to empower your audience to experience your content where, when, and how they want.

For startups, this is in their DNA. But the recent history of media suggests such change is not easy for mature publishers. You simply may have to cannibalize profitable (but declining or soon-to-be-declining) businesses to build for the future. That, or risk watching a newcomer come along and eat your lunch.


Jeff Berman is the General Manager of Digital Media for the NFL. He previously held a series of positions at MySpace, ultimately serving as President of Sales & Marketing. Prior to entering the digital media space, Berman was Chief Counsel to United States Senator Charles E. Schumer and a public defender representing children charged in the District of Columbia’s adult criminal courts. He also held an adjunct professorship at the Georgetown University Law Center.

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

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.


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