Social Success = Search Success

We’ve seen it at Wetpaint, but it’s not just happening for us.  Social success and search success now go hand in hand for all web publishers.

If you look at the top 50 publishers on the web, there’s a strong correlation between Facebook traffic growth and Google traffic growth:

For every 1% growth or decline in Facebook visits, the top 50 web publishers in our Media Industry Social Leaderboard saw a corresponding 0.5% change in Google traffic.

Correlation but not causation, you say?  I have it on good authority (aka Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan) that social signals will soon be the leading factor (if they’re not already) in search engine rankings.

It’s time to drop the notion that an investment in social has to come at the expense of an investment in search.  It’s now abundantly clear: social traffic and search traffic go together.

Update:  The original version of this post included an incorrect chart.  The correct chart is now shown.

Search and Social: How The Two Will Soon Become One

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

Bing and Google each recently unveiled its own new search interface, designed to better intuit your intent and help you get to the one best answer more efficiently.  And they’ve made it ever more clear that search is heading straight for a merger with social.

The changes are smart.  Google’s knowledge graph is useful – when I search for certain things, I just want a cheat sheet.  What is Faraday’s Law, again?  What exactly is a geoduck?

But Bing’s new feature – “people who might know” – is even smarter.  This is the first major attempt at a merger of search and social – unless you count Search Plus Your World, which I don’t – and this is undeniably the way we’re headed.  There’s a lot of information on the internet, but getting the right info from the right person is still a huge, and mostly unsolved, undertaking.  Nobody knows the answers better than, well, somebody who knows the answers.  And so much the better if it’s someone I trust. (Thank you, Jeff, for the Singapore recommendations!)  The fundamental insight is that when I ask a question, there are lots of ways to help me find the best answer.  If you don’t have it, point me in the direction of someone who does.  Don’t make me ask the same question in a million permutations and sift through a list of 20 possible right answers every time.

What’s more interesting is that this is the biggest step forward we’ve seen since search results started looking 12 years ago the way they still do today (just with more images and toolbars now – exactly what Google got rid of back then!).

Stagnation followed by the springtime of innovation is probably the surest sign that a major disruption is imminent.  (And if that weren’t enough, just think of how much Facebook’s stock price would rise if they captured even a small share in search.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s the endgame?  In 10 years, I’ll still need recipes for dinner.  And recommendations for hotels in a new vacation spot.  And to find something to do on the weekend.  I know how I would make these decisions today, but how will I make them in 2022?

The true merger of social and search will look nothing like the search we know today.  I don’t even think we’ll call it “search.”

The social search of tomorrow will be more like a combination of a whip-smart personal assistant and an intuitive, considerate significant other.  But one who’s exponentially more efficient and who doesn’t mind being woken up at 3am.  (I’m lucky, but not THAT lucky!)

Let’s put on our future-goggles and imagine how a fully social, personal-data-powered search would change our day-to-day:

Proactive:  It’s Tuesday night and I’m hungry.  Luckily, my mobile knows that I just got a CSA box containing sweet potatoes (Full Circle Farm’s Facebook integration), and that I tend to eat at home on Tuesdays (according to my historical pattern of check-ins).  It also knows that it’s cold and raining outside.  Before I’ve gotten around to opening a cookbook or the Epicurious app, my mobile pushes me a sweet potato soup recipe that my certified-foodie friend raved about on Facebook last week.

Personal:  Arrive at the Sao Paulo airport and search on my mobile for the city’s public transit map.  My device knows that I’ve never been there (even though I bought a phrase book on Amazon last week), and it also knows (from scanning TripAdvisor comments about Sao Paulo buses) that the public transit is impossible to navigate for newcomers.  While the map is loading, a message appears gently encouraging me to consider a rental car instead – there happens to be a great deal on an Audi (my favorite(!) as noted on Facebook) at the rental counter 10 feet away.  Talk about targeting!

Social:  Florence and the Machine is touring in New York, and I’m dying to go see them.  I called the usual suspects, and they’re out of town during the concert.  The only thing worse than not going is going alone.  But who else do I know who loves them like I do?  That’s a lay-up for a socially powered search if ever there was one.  Two words:  “Jason Hirschhorn”.  Is that so hard?

There are a hundred other decisions that would be made immeasurably easier with the help of a really good personal assistant – one who knows your schedule and your preferences (and the schedule and preferences of your friends and family); one who has excellent research skills and can track down the appropriate expert on any issue.  (But no, I’m sure it still won’t replace Larisa.)

Most of us don’t have personal assistants.  But we have left a heck of a trail of our interests, associates, habits, and dislikes.  It will take some algorithm to turn that trail of behavioral and social data – combined with the wisdom of topical experts and the vast repository of information that is the internet – into a set of smart, personalized answers for you and me.  But that’s why Google and Facebook and Apple hire engineers with such big brains.

And, surprise!, the better they understand our brains (read: intent, context, and relationships) the better the match they can serve up to an advertiser.  And that means an outrageously good search not only retains audience better, but would improve ad rates.

We’re on the verge of shifting from a search model in which the user is still doing all of the heavy lifting to one where powerful algorithms enable our devices to anticipate our needs and do most of the sifting and evaluating for us.  In the meantime, though, we’re stuck in a “hairball of complexity” (to borrow Adam Richardson’s TV industry analogy) while the industry struggles to find the way from A to B.

The key is in having software that recognizes us as whole people. (And isn’t that exactly the promise of social?)  Now search is undergoing a massive transformation from receiving input in the form of queries – each independent and atomic – to understanding its input in the form of people, who have personal history, context, and relationships.  That means delivering the right result depends on who is asking.  Which is sooooo true.  I don’t like the same music as my teenage niece, and she doesn’t like the same restaurants I do.  Why should we both get the same search results?

Apple’s Siri is certainly the closest, at least in spirit, to the eventual reincarnation of search as personal assistant, even as its true capability has far to go.  The voice-activated question-and-answer experience is light years ahead of the long list of links on a page that still defines search on Google and Bing.  But the trick that remains is to gather, combine and analyze data from myriad sources – social interactions, behavioral data, expert opinions – and deliver it back to the user in a way that makes decision-making more efficient than most of us can imagine.

With all of that time I used to spend inefficiently making decisions suddenly freed up, what will I do?  I’ve been meaning to plan a trip to Sao Paulo….

Is Social a Fad for Media?

I feel like a lot of my posts lately have been beating the social drum, so I need to clarify my perspective.  Social isn’t just a fad.  It isn’t just a channel, or an alternate distribution medium.

It’s actually turning into the new ether.  As in “need it to breathe.”  And while it’s not actually all about friends, it absolutely is about connecting to your audience.

Case in point:  according to Compete, in February Wetpaint Entertainment received more traffic from Facebook than from Google.  Hey, I told you it was gonna happen.  It’s because social has provided a medium for data and connection that lets us deeply relate to our audience.  Increasingly, other publishers are finding the same – The Guardian most recently joined the club.

The best part is that these gains in social aren’t coming at the expense of other channels – our overall traffic (including our search traffic) continues to climb. Social signals have a huge impact on search rankings, and so it makes sense that our social success would drive audience growth outside of social, too.

For the last several years, many a publisher’s greatest fear has been that they’ll lose favor with Google.  Afraid that any shift in strategy from SEO to social will lead to a precipitous fall from Google grace and a drop in traffic, they monitor the search rankings daily to see if the gods are pleased.

But ironically, it turns out that an investment in social is the best SEO there is.

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.

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: 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:

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.