LinkedIn was poised to become a major player in the business news sector. Instead, the professional social network is stuck with dull editorial content. Let’s see why it let the train pass, preferring to bet on quantity above everything else.
The news media sector has become heavily dependent on traffic from Facebook and Google. A reliance now dangerously close to addiction. Maybe it’s time to refocus on direct access.
Digital publishers pride themselves on their ability to funnel traffic from search and social, namely Google and Facebook (we’ll see that Twitter, contrary to its large public image, is in fact a minuscule traffic source.) In ly business, we hunt for the best Search Engine Optimization specialists, social strategists, community managers to expand the reach of our precious journalistic material; we train and retrain newsroom staff; we equip them with the best tools for analytics and A/B testing to see what headlines best fit the web’s volatile mood… And yet, when a competing story gets a better Google News score, the digital marketing staff gets a stern remark from the news floor. We also compare ourselves with the super giants of the internet whose traffic numbers coming from social reach double digit percentages. In short, we do our best to tap into the social and search reservoir of readers.
Illustration by Rafiq ElMansy DeviantArt
Consequences vary. Many great news brands today see their direct traffic — that is readers accessing deliberately the URL of the site — fall well below 50%. And the younger the media company (pure players, high-performing click machines such as BuzzFeed), the lower the proportion of direct access is – to the benefit of Facebook and Google for the most part. (As I write this, another window on my screen shows the internal report of a pure player news site: In August it only collected 11% in direct access, vs. 19% from Google and 24% from Facebook — and I’m told it wants to beef up it’s Facebook pipeline.)
Fact is, the two internet giants now control most of the news traffic. Even better, they collect on both ends of the system.
Consider BuzzFeed. In this story from Marketing Land, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti claims to get 75% of its traffic from social and to not paying much attention to Google anymore. According to last Summer ComScore data, a typical BuzzFeed viewer reads on average 2.3 articles and spends slightly more than 3 minutes per visit. And when she leaves BuzzFeed, she goes back to the social nest (or to Google-controlled sites) roughly in the same proportion. As for direct access, it amounts to only 6% and Twitter’s traffic is almost no existent (less than 1%). It clearly appears that Twitter’s position as a significant traffic contributor is vastly overstated: In real terms, it’s a tiny dot in the readers’ pool. None of this is accidental. BF has built a tremendous social/traffic machine that is at the core of its business.
Whether it is 75% of traffic coming from social for BuzzFeed or 30% to 40% for Mashable or others of the same kind, the growing reliance to social and search raises several questions.
The first concerns the intrinsic valuation of a media so dependent on a single distribution provider. After all, Google has a proven record of altering its search algorithm without warning. (In due fairness, most modifications are aimed at content farms and others who try to game Google’s search mechanism.) As for Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is unpredictable, he’s also known to do what he wants with his company, thanks to an absolute control on its Board of Directors (read this Quartz story).
None of the above is especially encouraging. Which company in the world wouldn’t be seen as fragile when depending so much on a small set of uncontrollable distributors?
The second question lies in the value of the incoming traffic. Roughly speaking, for a news, value-added type media, the number of page views by source goes like this:
Direct Access : 5 to 6 page views
Google Search: 2 to 3
Google News: ~1
These figures show how good you have to be in collecting readers from social sources to generate the same advertising ARPU as from a loyal reader coming to your brand because she likes it. Actually, you have to be at least six times better. And the situation is much, much worse if your business model relies a lot on subscriptions (for which social doesn’t bring much transformation when compared, for instance, to highly targeted emails.)
To be sure, I do not advocate we should altogether dump social media or search. Both are essential to attract new readers and expand a news brand’s footprint, to build the personal brand of writers and contributors. But when it comes to the true value of a visit, it’s a completely different story. And if we consider that the value of a single reader must be spread over several types of products and services (see my previous column Diversify or Die) then, the direct reader’s value becomes even more critical.
Taken to the extreme, some medias are doing quite well by relying solely on direct access. Netflix, for instance, entirely built its audience through its unique recommendation engine. Its size and scope are staggering. No less than 300 people are assigned to analyze, understand, and serve the preferences of the network’s 50 million subscribers (read Alex Madrigal’s excellent piece published in January in The Atlantic). Netflix’s data chief Neil Hunt, in this keynote of RecSys conference (go to time code 55:30), sums up his ambition by saying his challenge is “to create 50 million different channels“. In order to do so, he manages a €150m a year data unit. Hunt and his team concentrate their efforts on optimizing the 150 million choices Netflix offers every day to its viewers. He said that if only 10% of those choices end up better than they might have been without its recommendation system, and if just 1% of those choices are good enough to prevent the cancellation of a subscription, such efforts are worth €500m a year for the company (out of a $4.3bn revenue and a $228m operating income in 2013). While Netflix operates in a totally different area from news, such achievement is worth meditating upon.
Maybe it’s time to inject “direct” focus into the obligatory social obsession.
Social networks and PC becoming an arranged knwoledge network
Let me start with an example. Hopefully, the concept will emerge.
Facebook. The latest fracas is their conflict with Goggle’s Friend Connect,
technology that gives any web site simple tools to acquire social networking features.
As a result, users of my organic gardening site connect, share ideas, recipes, pictures with their friends on other participating sites, such as Facebook, hi5, Orkut and many others (social networking or not). The point of Friend Connect not being forced to become members of other sites, just sharing. A side-effect is it becomes easier to take my personal data from Facebook and move my information elsewhere.
No, no, says Facebook. After initially agreeing to the Friend Connect interchange, it blocked access.
This raises the question in the title: Is my Facebook information mine or not? The company has spent upwards to two hundred million dollars building a “free” service. The value Facebook counts on to generate advertising revenue is what they felicitously call the social graph. As the name suggests, this is information about me, about the people I connect to, what we like, picture we share, music recommendations, games we play, purchases we make, invitations to events.
Everything about everyone, arranged in a knowledge network. Slight exaggeration, but you see the idea. Not just tons of details about me but a web of such details. This leads to the advertiser’s wet dream: ads focused on one individual, at the right time. Gee, Joe just told his friends he’s got a new job, let’s see if he’s in the mood for a new car or a new suit, or inviting his best friends to a celebratory dinner. For you, special prrrrice today!
Facebook is currently investigated by Canadian authorities for its ways with user privacy and we’ll recall last Fall’s stumble with Beacon. Users weren’t pleased to discover Facebook passed information to merchants without their knowledge and consent. The plan was creepy: even when users weren’t logged on Facebook, some of their moves were recorded and passed on to “partners”. There is a pattern here: Facebook thinks it owns my data. This is the gold mine they want to exploit and they don’t like the idea of the data flowing somewhere else (read Google).
They are not alone. Many suppliers in our PC/Internet life clearly think they have extensive rights on our machines and our data. I recall the incessant Orwellian demands to download Windows Genuine Advantage (nice bit of newspeak) to enable operating system and Office updates. But I already proved last week I have a genuine copy of Windows! Never mind, do it again. In ironic ways, it gets worse with companies such as Symantec and their security products. Once installed, they are exceedingly difficult to remove. This is for your safety, you see. We conceal key bits so the virus bad guys can’t remove them. Well, no, you keep insisting and Symantec will reluctantly tell you where to download a removal tool the bad guys can use as well. –JLG
Like many startups, Facebook is confronted with a growth problem. Its outstanding traffic (30-35m unique visitors a month) is no longer growing; newcomers tend not to stay with the service as much as the early adopters still do; the Google-induced OpenSocial protocol is a threat and advertising has not taken off as promised. Recently, the investors in Facebook imposed teenage supervision of a kind: they hired Sheryl Sandberg, a former Google executive (see her interview at the D6 Conference)
Facebook is under more pressure from its investors as explained in New York Times DealBook. There, a professor of economics brilliantly reminds Mark Zuckerberg what are the rules of high tech funding. (For an overview of the social network current situation read also the story in Fortune)