Social Leaderboard: March Results

How much social traffic did the top 50 web publishers attract in March?  The results are in – and it is a mixed month.

More Social Traffic

Measuring by total visits, March was the second highest month on record for social traffic to the top publishers.  The number of social (Facebook + Twitter) visits to the top 50 grew by 2.9% in March to 403 million.

But a Smaller Piece of the Pie

Volume growth aside, social’s share of traffic to the top 50 dropped slightly, dipping by 0.3% in March.  That’s because even while traffic from social grew, it didn’t grow as fast as traffic from other sources.

What gives?  It’s possible that each and every one of the top publishers’ social media teams was distracted last month by March Madness and solar flares.  It’s also possible that Facebook’s aggressive mobile push is putting downward pressure on this measurement (the comScore data we use for benchmarking overall site traffic doesn’t include mobile traffic, alas).

The Contenders:  NBC climbs, Us Magazine falls, and Wetpaint stays on top

The solar flares must have been particularly distracting to one publisher’s social team: Us Magazine continued its downward slide, falling out of the top 5 entirely this time after dropping last month from 3rd to 5th.

NBC is on a roll, climbing up another rung (after jumping two spots ahead in February) to #2 on the leaderboard.  NFL also ran the ball for an impressive number of yards, moving from #9 to #5.

Wetpaint Entertainment continued to hold a definitive lead, outperforming the closest rival by 9.3 percentage points.  We’re able to maintain this lead by constantly improving our proprietary social analytics and distribution system through rapid experimentation and a deep understanding of our audience.  The amazing thing is that our social growth has not come at the expense of search traffic.  Indeed, our search traffic has been rising as a result of our social success, and total traffic has recently hit record highs of 10 million uniques and more.

And we’re not done yet – social users are the most valuable users, and we want more.

The 20X Difference Between Facebook and Twitter

All social networks are not created equal.

We tend to think of Twitter as some kind of Facebook Lite, but this puts us at risk of missing the fundamental differences that make each platform valuable in its own way for brands and publishers on the web.

Facebook is a hub-and-spoke social network.  I share, you share, we all share with the common goal of promoting our identities within our social circles.  The assumption is that we share our lives – at least as we’d like them to be seen – with our friends.

Twitter, on the other hand, is an interest amplification network.  One person shares, one thousand people listen, and some retweet to thousands more.  On Twitter, the basic assumption is that tweeters share their interests with their followers.  And, with reverb built into the network, that followers do the same.   In this asymmetrical network, ideas can spread farther and faster.  And because Twitter’s connections are interest-based rather than relation-based, they transmit with far more “gain” on the signal.

But how far, and by how much?

Both Facebook and Twitter hold huge potential for publishers, and yet they are measured quite differently.  When a publisher posts to Facebook, they have a pretty good idea of the impact: ~16% of a brand’s followers see a typical post.  As with a radio tower, the signal is broadcast once and (while it may reflect here and there) largely travels by line of sight to its listeners.

The actual reach and impact of a tweet, though, remains nebulous  and hard to quantify.  It’s impossible to track how many of your Twitter followers actually read a tweet, and Twitter hasn’t offered any guidance on the norm.  But above all, Twitter is hard to quantify because the real value of a tweet comes from the ripple effects it creates outside of the Twitter stream.

If Facebook acts like a broadcast tower, Twitter acts like a newswire: think about its “tune in” format and its penchant for news-breaking.  More and more, journalists and bloggers are getting their news tips from Twitter and repackaging those stories for their own online readership.  Which means that one little tweet (unlike a typical Facebook post) can travel a very long way.

Twitter Traffic x 20

In fact, the total impact of a tweet can be anywhere from 1-20x the direct traffic you see from that tweet.  At Wetpaint, an average article gets 3% of its traffic directly referred from Twitter.com.  If a particularly influential person happens to tweet about one of our stories, however, that number goes through the roof.  When Grant Gustin (otherwise know as Sebastian on Glee) tweeted a link to the story “Grant Gustin has Superbowl Spirit,” Twitter’s traffic contribution shot up to 55%.  The same thing happens outside of the Twitter stream when our followers pick up on a story and blog about it – we see up to 20x the typical Twitter traffic in ripple effects.

It’s all well and good when that happens, but as publishers how do we consistently effect that kind of outcome?  Do we relentlessly pester celebrities and bloggers to follow us on Twitter, or amass a giant following in the hopes that some small percent will turn out to be influential?

How do you tweet for maximum ripple effect?

Creating tweets that achieve 20x their expected reach has little to do with follower counts and forced connections, and everything to do with the nuanced science of human influence.  Tapping into the power of influencers in Twitter requires a granular, case-by-case, relationship-focused approach.  Sound time-consuming and difficult?  It is.  But don’t despair – at Wetpaint we’ve been working on this for a while, and I’ll share a few of our hard-earned best practices:

1. Identify the influencers

Sounds easy enough: we all know that an Oprah is worth 1,000 Snookis, and a Snooki is worth 1,000 Elowitzes (sorry, mom!).  But celebrity isn’t everything: even better than a Snooki just may be a Stelter.  Brian Stelter doesn’t have the consumer name recognition of Snooki, but he’s far more influential in setting the agenda of the media and entertainment press.  Influence is all about relevance – and when Brian tweets, the ripples can travel far.

2. Take a look around

Once you’ve identified the influencers most relevant to your audience, it may suddenly become apparent that they’re, well, a bit inaccessible.  If Lady Gaga happens to be your target, then it’s time to get creative.  Who are the influencers of your influencer?

Every person’s interests are shaped and guided by the people around them.  You might read an article about silent retreats after your yoga teacher mentions her recent stint at St. Benedict’s, and you might start reading PandoDaily when your best friend launches a tech startup.  Highly influential people are no different – they pick up interests and news from their sister, their friends, and if they’re really doing well, their driver.  If Gaga retweets her barista, pursue a relationship with him.  And if the barista often retweets his mom, see if she might be interested in what you have to say.

3. Court sincerely

Once you’ve made a list of all the friends you want to make, start earning their friendship.  Relationships – whether digital or IRL – can’t be faked.  But they can be stoked.  Comment on their posts, offer them resources, and genuinely engage with them.  Just like in life, once you have a friendship, you can make asks from time to time.  And – again just like in the offline world – I’ve found that it’s always best to lead with giving for a while before even thinking about what I’ll get in return.

It’s not an overnight process.  Earning influence is just as hard in Twitter as it is in real life.  That’s because Twitter is a network of people, not a technology.

Social Science

These are just a few basics for starters.  At Wetpaint we’ve gotten this down to a science: we have analytical frameworks for identifying influence surround rings and continuous A/B testing to optimize every interaction.  But it all always comes back to real people building real relationships based on real interests.  In the end, even with all that technology to help us, I think it’s the real personal nature of relationships that have helped us be so successful with our audience.  And that’s what inspires our audience to honor us with ripple effects by passing on our content to their own friends.

10 Million(!)

10 million monthly users – Wetpaint Entertainment hit this milestone in March, only 18 months out of the gate.  For a little context (and bragging rights): according to Quantcast, The Huffington Post took more than 3 years to build an audience that size.

We hit the 10 million mark in such a short time by using a super-secret and complex formula that I’ll share with you today:

1. Know deeply what our audience loves.

2. Give them the very best of it every moment of every day.

Sounds simple, right?  But executing on those principles took a ton of data and a great team.  And a willingness to take the risk and bet that this paradigm shift toward digital and social is not only the best way to deliver on the formula above, but also the only way forward for media.

While other publishers were looking at digital as a death sentence, we recognized it as a gift:  an opportunity to know our audience far better than anyone ever before.   So we took our secret formula (see above), along with our social media expertise, and built the best audience insights system on the planet.

Our proprietary distribution technology did a lot of the heavy lifting, too.  Once we knew what the audience wanted, we fed those insights into a distribution system that publishes straight to the newsfeed, and voila: 10 million users and social engagement that far outshines any other major media property.

We couldn’t have done it without best-in-class content, of course.  Knowing exactly what our audience wants helps our editorial team create and curate content that delights beyond audience expectations.  We know what TV shows, celebrities, news events and themes resonate with our users.  That content, delivered in the right way and at the right time, begets strong relationships:  our 1.9 million Facebook fans see us 38 times per month (38! on average!) and look forward to Wetpaint posts in their newsfeeds.

I knew we were onto something when we started building our platform around audience insights and social distribution, but the speed at which we’ve developed our audience has been surprising even to me.

Congratulations to my team at Wetpaint on achieving every media company’s dream:  outstanding content, strong engagement from a big audience, and technology that lets us do it all an order of magnitude better than anyone else.

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.

Social Leaderboard: What Drives Outperformance?

We’re back with the Media Industry Social Leaderboard, fresh off the presses with February results.  For any newcomers, the Social Leaderboard is a ranking of the top 50 media publishers by their effectiveness at driving traffic from Facebook and Twitter.

Overall: No Great Shakes

From January to February, social traffic composition was flat, with the average staying at 7%.  The gap between Facebook and Google traffic coming in to the Top 50, which had been rapidly closing since November, froze in February with Google holding on to its 30% lead for one more month.

At the Races: Us Magazine Falls Behind

Only four publishers in the top 10 improved their social traffic scores this month: NBC (+1.5%) took third place by trading places with Us Magazine (the biggest loser in the top 10 with -3%, now at #5).  Break (+2%) and TMZ (+0.5%) leapfrogged the pack of MTV, NFL and MLB, pushing those three back to #8, 9 and 10.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

But the biggest mover and shaker was Wetpaint Entertainment.  Wetpaint took an even more decisive lead by adding 7% to social traffic composition since January, vaulting it into the elite group of publishers who, based on Compete data, receive more traffic from Facebook than from Google (in good company with People, Yahoo!, AOL, MSN, Fox Sports, and The Post Game).

With 29% of traffic coming from social, Wetpaint is outperforming its closest competitor by nearly 2x.  Is this a data aberration?  Some kind of leap year phenomenon?

Let me fill you in on the story behind the 29%: over the last two years, we took a gamble by building a new platform for social media distribution.  It wasn’t a sure bet, and not many other publishers were doing it, but we had seen compelling evidence that social was the only way forward for the media industry.

We threw all of our time and talent at the problem, building up a fan base while developing and testing and refining new strategies for delivering content through social channels.  We collected tons of data in real time about the preferences of our fans, and then we leveraged that insight to personalize and program their newsfeeds.

Today, the rest of the media industry is just starting to figure out the value of winning fans and courting likes.  But because of our early investment, we’re already two steps ahead – we’re focusing on what to do with our 1.7 million fans.  We’re delivering over 1,000 posts a week, each one targeted for the right fan with the right content at the right time.

And it’s starting to pay off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social Engagement Drives Search Traffic

A year and a half ago, I called an end to the decade-long obsession with search.  I claimed that SEO is dead, and I set my sights on perfecting a strategy for its successor, SMO (social media optimization).

Since then we’ve succeeded wildly in driving social traffic (we are now #1 compared to all of the 50 largest web publishers); but as my friend Jack asked me recently:

Has the success in social come at the expense of search? 

The answer may surprise you, as it has me. By focusing on social, we’ve achieved even more – in fact, unprecendently more, in search.  Here, I’ll show you:

Could it be that by forsaking SEO in favor of social, we earn more search traffic?  Seems perverse.  I went looking for an explanation, and I dug up some interesting info: behind content, social signals are the most important factor in search ranking.

In this interview with Duane Forrester, Senior Product Manager for Bing’s Webmaster program and former head of SEO for MSN, he offers a glimpse of what really matters in the black box of a search engine’s algorithm – and in his words, what matters most for publishers.  He lays out the three most important factors, in order:

1. Content
2. Social Media
3. Link building

This is big news for an industry that’s had years of conditioning to believe that link building and keywords are the Holy Grail of SEO.  In 2010, 60% of companies spent more than $25K on SEO, while a measly 25% spent that much on social.

Looking at this gap, it’s clear that there’s about to be a whole new wave of investment in SMO.  Not only is social a bigger factor than traditional SEO in search rankings today, but it’s trending up.  “At some point, social could be more important than content,” predicts Bing’s Forrester.  “But that assumes you have excellent content in place.”

Publishers: if you have that excellent content in place, put down your old SEO playbook and start investing in social.  What does investing in social look like?  It means repackaging your content for a social audience, and then delivering it to them at the right time and in the right channel.  At Wetpaint, each piece of content gets a tailor-made package (we tweak the title, the timing, the images, even the content itself) depending on its destination.

The best investment in search is an investment in social.  Really, that’s not perverse at all.  As Bing’s Forrester explains, “When you delight someone with the best user experience possible, we pick up all those signals that person shares about their delight, and those signals influence our perception of your quality.”

Now go forth, get social, and delight in the search traffic that follows.

Social Leaderboard: Facebook Is Closing the Gap

It’s time again to check our horses and see who’s pulling ahead in the social publishing race!  And the race is definitely on – 85% of the top 50 publishers increased their social traffic this month.

No looking back now
Until I started charting the incredible growth of social and its impact on the rest of the web, I wondered if it might be more hype than actual paradigm shift.  But the evidence is mounting beyond reasonable doubt, and this month’s results point to the continuation of rapid growth.

Facebook traffic to the Top 50 grew 9% in January (after growing 17% in December).  Not only that, but Facebook is closing the gap with Google: The gap between how much traffic Google sends and Facebook sends to the 50 largest publishers is down to just 30%, from 55% in November.  At this rate, I expect Facebook to surpass Google traffic to publishers some time this year.

Note: This analysis includes portals (e.g. Yahoo), which receive more overall traffic but a smaller proportion of Google traffic than the average non-portal publisher, who might see a larger gap.

 

Favorites hold their lead
At the wire it’s Wetpaint Entertainment (with 22.2% of traffic coming from social) followed by People, followed by Us Magazine.  Coming on strong on the outside is CBS, pulling ahead of NBC for 4th place by drawing 14.4% of their traffic from social (up from 11.7% in December).

Wetpaint Entertainment increased its lead this month, adding 1.4% to its social traffic and widening the gap with #2 People by an additional 0.5%.  People and Us Magazine increased their social traffic composition by 0.8% and 0.6%, respectively – just slightly more than the Top 50 average of 0.5%.  CBS was the biggest mover by far, adding 2.7% to its social traffic.

Ladies and gentleman, place your bets.  It’s still anyone’s race, but one thing is for sure: if you’re spending all of your time on SEO and SEM, you’re backing the wrong horse.