Twitter isn’t a traffic generator so stop thinking it is

A lot of people today are discussing this piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. Thompson takes issue with Twitter effectiveness as a traffic-driving platform, citing that it sends a minuscule number of click-throughs and that many of his tweets saw very low engagement numbers.

His take-down piece ends with this:

It’s fair to come away from these metrics thinking that Twitter is worthless. But that’s an unsophisticated conclusion. The more sophisticated takeaway is that Twitter is worthless for the limited purpose of driving traffic to your website, because Twitter is not a portal for outbound links, but rather a homepage for self-contained pictures and observations.

twitter-bird-blue-on-white.pngThe very thesis that Twitter is and should be a traffic-driving platform is not only a relatively recent development but also not backed-up by any rudimentary experience with it. For at least a couple years after it first launched Twitter wasn’t about “Look what I just published'” but more cleanly and clearly about conversation. It was about trading jokes, discussing topic and more and it wasn’t until the media companies and social media rockstars with their endless lists of tips came along that it became about the links.

Also, anyone who knows anything about Twitter knows that Twitter’s main feature – the Timeline – makes link traffic a sketchy proposition at best. If you look away from Twitter for more than 30 seconds you’re going to cycle through two or three complete rotations of your Timeline, meaning everything that was published in that time is lost to the stream unless you go chasing after it. So you’re dealing with an audience at the tail end of this chain:

All Twitter > Those Who Follow You > Those Who See Your Tweet > Those With the Time and Inclination to Click Your Link

That’s a pretty small subset and shows that Twitter, as anyone who’s run any sort of actual content program could tell you, isn’t going to be your big traffic generator. There are other reasons for that, but the arrangement of the unfiltered stream is the biggest. Certain things will sometimes take off on Twitter, sure. But it’s never, at least not in its current incarnation, going to be a major source of traffic to a story.

That’s not to say, though, that Twitter doesn’t have value for a publisher or individual writer. But that value isn’t always best expressed by click-throughs and site traffic. There’s brand awareness, there’s customer/reader loyalty and so much more. Engagement can and sometimes should be the primary goal.

Yes, Twitter wants to keep readers within its environment. That’s no surprise. Facebook has the same goal and both have made their desire to host more and more media content themselves very clear. That calls into question the entire idea of using social media as a traffic engine since the end goal seems to be to send none at all.

All of this is me spending a lot of time on an op-ed that has the shakiest of foundations: It’s a case study based on one individual’s experience and informed solely by their prejudices and opinions. That in and of itself would be grounds for discounting this without further analysis. But too many people over the last couple days have been giving this far more credence than it deserves.

Letting myself off the hook

I just made a big decision and I feel as though a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders: I gave myself permission to not write the two dozen posts I had in various stages of draft because I just wasn’t feeling them.

Understand that these were all sitting there, either as ideas half-mapped out in Evernote, as links and headlines in Wunderlist or even just saved links in Pocket, and were creating immense pressure. “When am I going to be able to write them? What am I going to say that is unique and interesting? Has too much time passed for this to be interesting? Should I still write it anyway?” All these and other questions were pressing on me each day, days that only brought something interesting to write about.

Pulling the cord and clearing out the baffles (yes, I’m mixing my metaphors. My blog, my rules) was tough though. I consider myself to be, first and foremost, a writer. That despite how most of what I do each day is manage editorial calendars and answer emails. So saying “I’m not going to write about X” was a hard – HARD – decision to make that involved no little amour of internal debate and self-loathing.

I realized, though, in looking at all the potential topics to write about that I wasn’t feeling passionate about any of them. And, more importantly, that there *were* things I was feeling passionate about writing.

Mostly I was feeling the need to keep writing about social media industry topics because…and that’s where the question hit me. Why was I feeling the need to compete in a race I had no interest in winning? It’s 2014. I’m 40 and I’ve been doing this social media thing for well over 10 years now. My reputation is what it is, whatever that might be. Writing 15 blog posts over the course of the next two weeks with my opinions on the latest news out of Snapchat, Facebook and so on probably isn’t going to move the needle much or do anything further to position me as a “thought leader,” whatever that term means these days.

There are all sorts of ancillary questions that are coming up along with this that I may go into later. But for now I’m deciding that I’m going to take a bit of a break from commenting on the news of the day (aside from my regular contributions to PNConnect) and stick with what I feel most called to write. That’s going to push me well outside my comfort zone, but if I’m not going to take the opportunity to do so that a new year, coupled with turning 40, affords me to do so then I may as well stop doing all this soul-searching and settle into mediocrity. That’s somewhere I’ve been hanging out far too long. It’s time for a change.

More to come.

Salesforce looks at 2015 marketing priorities

According to Salesforce’s “State of Marketing 2015″ report (as recapped by Adweek) 70% of marketers are both planning to increase their paid social media marketing and their unpaid social media marketing in 2015. As Salesforce VP Jeff Rohrs points out in the story, the parity in those plans represents an acknowledgement that the unpaid content publishing is important both in its own right and as a support for those paid efforts.

Salesforce-Top-Digital-Marketing-Success-Rates-Jan2015

That’s good – very good in fact – but I’m actually more interested in a couple other other similar data points.

According to the report 66% of respondents 1) Believe social media is core to their business and 2) Have a dedicated social media team.

Now I’m not naive enough to think those two groups overlap completely, but I’m betting if you mapped them on a Venn diagram there would be plenty of common ground. After all, if you hold something to be important you devote the appropriate resources toward it.

The study doesn’t break out whether those teams are internal or are at an agency, which is an extra layer of detail I’d be interested to see since it speaks to internal knowledge, whether that’s knowledge to handle it themselves or to know when they need to call in subject matter experts.

There’s more breakdown of the findings of the study here at MarketingCharts. Specifically looking at digital/social numbers there’s some interesting stuff here.

Unsurprisingly email marketing, social advertising and social media listening are listed among the most effective tactics. The latter is especially important since it’s what companies can use for customer insights on an ongoing basis as well as as a first-alert system for current or potential crises. Email also isn’t a big surprise since it comes with all sorts of data acquisition benefits, something companies are eager to tap into and which is largely lost on social media. To that end it’s called out later as an important direct-revenue channel as opposed to on that’s more about discovery/awareness.

Among the least effective tactics called out is blogging, which is surprising. But here I’m going to guess that it ranks thusly because so few people understand how to do it well and don’t know how to draw a direct connection between what’s published on-domain and any form of conversion goal.

What’s disappointing – and which goes back to my point about many people not being able to do it well – is that social media lags in perceived ROI. Only 29% see it as producing significant ROI, though at least the study calls out that many people understand it has an important indirect role to play in that equation. So, as has been stated before, a Tweet may not always lead directly to a sale but when you string a week’s worth of Tweets together on a topic it may lead to a conversion somewhere else. In other words, people may not click through from the Tweet to buy it, but after hearing enough about it they’ll remember to go to Amazon and buy it.

Gawker doubles down on emulating the newspaper model

In his internal/external note to staff/readers, editor Max Read (an amazing name for an editor, btw) says the following:

Instead of publishing the majority of our stories directly to the front page, we’ll be publishing them on to a set of subject-focused sub-blogs (a.k.a. “verticals,” or, cutely, “diagonals”—I personally prefer to just borrow newspaper terminology wholesale and call them “sections”). Some of them—Valleywag, Defamer, Morning After—already exist. Others—focused on media, news, and politics—we’ve created.

In other words Gawker is abandoning the vestiges of being a “blog,” where everything goes onto the reverse-chronology front page, seemingly because the front page can’t handle the volume any longer and good stories were getting buried. So they need to curate that front page a little more closely and push some stuff to other sections.

gawker-logo

If this sounds familiar it’s because that’s what newspapers do every day. The best/most important news makes it to the front page and above the fold (an old-school term we also still use for web content) while the most important sports stories appear on the front of the Sports section, the most important Arts stories on the front page of Arts and so on.

This, as Joshua Benton points out, is the second story in the past few days that has sounded very much Gawker is adopting more of an old-media model. The first was Nick Denton’s statement about how a “layer of subjective editorial judgement” would now be used to reward writers for a job well done as opposed to measuring their worth simply by actual or expected page view numbers.

That Gawker is moving toward a more curated front page says more to me about how online media has scaled/should be scaling than any story about the number of writers, the amount of advertising revenue or anything else. You know you’re achieved a certain scale when you start having to pick your shots more carefully, not when you just add as many hands to take as many shots as possible.

Denton in his note says that Gawker simply can’t – or won’t – play the page views game against something like Buzzfeed, which he concedes has won that particular match. But Buzzfeed, for all its success – and I’m not a naysayer here – has a “just throw it all against the wall and see what sticks” model. I don’t even know how many hundreds of pieces it publishes each day but it’s hard to see editorial judgement being exercised there. The answer to “should we publish this?” is simply always going to be “Yes” because for all their predictive systems it still comes down to the big hits helping to finance the pieces that don’t take off.

So while Gawker may still publish whatever it darn well pleases at whatever volume it sees fit, the folks there at least acknowledge that a bit of curation and organization makes for a much better user experience.

It should also be noted that this is the first story I’ve read in a while that places some sort of value on the home page. For the last five years or more there’s been a steady stream of “the home page is dead” op-eds as people talk about how people aren’t typing SampleSite.com and clicking around anymore but are coming in via links to specific stories the site or their friends have shared on social networks. But here you have the Gawker editor talking about making the home page a better, less cluttered experience for visitors. That alone speaks volumes about the mindset in place at the site.

Facebook the clear winner in Pew’s 2014 Social Media Update

(Originally published on the PNConnect Blog)

Last Friday Pew released their much-anticipated 2014 Social Media Update, an updated look at what social networks and apps are gaining, rising and otherwise getting the interest of the people over the last 12 months. Let’s look at some top-line stats:

PI_2015-01-09_social-media_01

Facebook continues to be the most-used network, with 71% of adults maintaining a profile there and many seeing it as the “must have” network, a home base regardless of what other networks they may be using. But it’s the only network to not show any growth in the survey from 2013 to 2014. While growth hasn’t moved, though, engagement has. 70% of Facebook’s users engage with the site daily, the highest percentage of any network.

Twitter seems to be in somewhat the opposite situation. The number of overall users grew from 18% to 23% year-over-year, but the number of those who engage on or visit the site daily dropped from 46% to 36% this past year.

Instagram users, though, were heavy daily users, with 49% of them saying they visit daily and 32% saying they check-in several times a day. Instagram also seems to be the most widely-used “other” network outside of Facebook. So if, in addition to Facebook, people are going to be active on another network it’s most likely to be Instagram. 265 of the online population is now on Instagram, up from 17% in 2013.

Also growing significantly is Pinterest, which is up from 21% in 2013 to 28% in 2014. the user base there continues to be mostly women, 42% of whom are active there as opposed to just 18$ of men. Pinterest also has a very even spread among age groups, with young and older users represented in relatively consistent numbers. That differs from other networks, where things are often weighted heavily in one group or another.

Finally, LinkedIn (a Voce/Porter Novelli client) usage grew to 28% of online adults in 2014, half of whom have college degrees. Because of its more professional nature, LinkedIn skews a bit older, with 61% of its user being between 30 and 64. Usage of LinkedIn tends to be less often than weekly, meaning people are still using it as a static resume as opposed to a daily engagement network.

So stats aside there are some points/questions that emerge from the study:

What’s going on with Twitter? Users are up (though not dramatically) but the number of people visiting/engaging with the network daily is down in a pretty big way. It, along with Instagram, though, are the most common “second” network people use in addition to Facebook. If you read between the lines here you can see that while Twitter has high awareness – thanks, it can be presumed, at least in part to all the work it’s done to appeal to major media companies – it’s still struggling on converting that awareness into active users. In fact it may be having the opposite action and just telling people that it’s the place to lean back and *view* updates.

Facebook is the new home page: That just seems to be reality. It’s the one place people feel they have to be, whether they’re connecting to friends, family, co-workers or anyone/thing else, they can’t avoid Facebook. That being said, that growth has leveled off at 71% of the overall adult online population has to mean something, and something more concrete than all the anecdote-driven “teens don’t care about Facebook anymore” stories that have circulated for the last two years. For brand publishers it may mean that, in addition to all the concerns 2015 brings about decreasing Reach, the days of endless audience growth on Faceook – at least for existing channels – may be slowing down.

You can’t ignore Instagram engagement: It’s long been well-known that Instagram is an engagement powerhouse, and looking at these stats, not just in terms of growth but also how people check it multiple times daily. So, since it’s a straight Twitter-like feed (as opposed to Facebook’s curated algorithm) this should just be the latest opportunity for publishers to evaluate their visual assets and how to get the most out of them.

There’s lots of overlap, but don’t let that deter growth: Sure, 58% of those who use Instagram also use Twitter. But don’t let that stop you from, if you haven’t already, getting on Instagram. Or anywhere else where overlap may or may not occur. Expand the program if it’s the right thing to do for overall strategic goals, but figure out how to make each channel unique, either completely or with something on each channel that’s not duplicated elsewhere.

The Internet Rewards The Meanest Person Most

I’ve been reading this post by Sam Biddle at Gawker over and over and it never stops being extremely odd. Biddle is, a year after the fact, looking back at the storm he in part caused around a tweet by PR practitioner Justine Sacco. Sacco, you may remember, tweeted something horribly inappropriate before getting on a plane to South Africa, a tweet that Biddle and others picked up. Over the course of her flight, then, everyone watched and waited for her to land and face the consequences – which eventually included her being fired – of what she said.

The point of the post is, as some have described, a “mea culpa” for his role in the affair and he recounts his meeting Sacco for drinks and such to apologize in person. But here’s the key graf that I keep struggling with:

It was a natural post. Twitter disasters are the quickest source of outrage, and outrage is traffic. I didn’t think about whether or not I might be ruining Sacco’s life. The tweet was a bad tweet, and seeing it would make people feel good and angry—a simple social and emotional transaction that had happened before and would happen again and again. The minimal post set off a 48-hour paroxysm of fury, an eruption of internet vindictiveness.

“It was a natural post.” That right there is what I keep getting hung up on. “It was a natural post.” “I didn’t think about whether or not I might be ruining Sacco’s life.”

Why? Why aren’t we thinking of how something may or may not be ruining someone’s life *before* we publish? Even aside from that, why aren’t we thinking about the implications of what we do before we hit the Publish button?

What Biddle never fully addresses, as least not to my satisfaction, is why Sacco’s tweet was news? What was the value in bringing its existence to the awareness of people beyond those following her? “The tweet was a bad tweet” is a low journalistic bar to clear.

And if we’re not able to adequately answer the question of the tweet’s journalistic value then all that remains to justify Biddle’s post is that it was meant to fill the outrage vacuum, the gaping maw that exists solely to let people righteously wag their fingers at people who have stepped out of line. Biddle cops to this by saying “…outrage is traffic.” Which translates in internet-speak to “…outrage is ad revenue.”

So Sacco was vilified for page views. That’s the ultimate diviner of what is or isn’t news in the current age. And it means that anyone can be the next one sold out and publicly humiliated to the point they lose their jobs and have an otherwise promising career ruined.

I don’t mean to blame Biddle entirely, though he certainly played a large role in the story that unfolded last year. It was horrifying to watch all sorts of people, including those who masquerade as “thought leaders” in the social media PR industry, watch and crack jokes as they waited for Sacco to land. It’s easy to imagine them eagerly chomping on some popcorn as they awaited the inevitable realization on her part of what she had done and what the reaction to it had grown to be. That, more than anything, was what was truly disgusting to me.

It’s good that Biddle wants to reevaluate his decision, though he never fully does that. And I feel for him, just as I do for anyone who gets caught in the maelstrom, as he got pulled into his own controversy involving the Gamergate fiasco through, of course, an absent-minded and misunderstood tweet. But second thoughts need to be had *before* something gets published. Yes, that’s hard. It slows things down and involves someone looking at the big picture and whether or not a piece meets some sort of standard of quality. That’s what journalism is, though. And that’s what’s sorely missing from the instant-publishing, go for the outrage media industrial complex.

That Question Mark In Your Headline Isn’t Fooling Anyone

Question_DCAU_001

More than pedantic and insulting than “13 Things You Didn’t Know About…”

More than “…And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next”

More than “How One Tweet Perfectly Explains (complex topic)”

More than any of those, the most insidious headline tactic plaguing the online publishing world is the dreaded question mark. You know you’ve seen it. And now that I’ve pointed it out you’ll see it even more often, I’m guessing. “Did X Company Just Hire Y Person?” “Did X Company Just Release All Your Data To the Russian Government?” That punctuation is everywhere.

It’s known as Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, something I now know courtesy of Rex Hammock. That law states that any headline with a ? at the end can be answered by a simple “No” since the writer and everyone involved know they can’t back up the claim of the headline, though the rest of the article will lay out why they’re publishing it in the first place.

And it’s used by writers and editors as a sort of Get Out of Jail Free Card, one that seemingly absolves them of being accountable for what they’re writing. By appending it to the end of their headline they can write whatever conjecture, hearsay or unsubstantiated rumor they want, all while hiding under the cover provided by the crook of the question mark. If confronted about it they can always say they weren’t sure about it so were asking the question instead of making a declaration.

It’s a small distinction but one that serves an important purpose. If they were to pass along the same rumor that was coming to them third-hand but report it in a more declarative statement they could be opening themselves up to legal action by the subject of the rumor.

To avoid that the options would be either to A) Not report on it at all or B) Do actual reporting to see if there’s any truth to what’s being said.

The first option isn’t taken because if Site M reports it and Site N doesn’t then the latter potentially loses out on revenue, whether those pageviews are coming from social networks or from search. Not only that but they look out of touch by being so far outside the current buzz.

The second option isn’t taken because, well, who has the time or resources to do actual reporting? While we’re seeing more publication launch than ever before, very few of them are being staffed with writers who have any journalistic skills or contact networks that can be used to substantiate claims made by others.

In many ways this is more destructive than when a publication publishes something but then has to issue a correction/retraction or even take the piece down from their site. Not only does this show that the publication in question at least has the courage of its convictions (not to mention more faith in their editorial staff as a whole) but it doesn’t do as much to destroy the the foundation of tomorrow’s knowledge that we’re building today.

Think about what search results are going to look like two, three, five years from now. Every article will end with a question mark and therefore lack any sense of authority or truth and therefore be unreliable. Subsequent opinions and information will then be built upon the shakiest of sands.

We need to demand more of the publications we turn to for information. And those publications need to demand more of their staff. Most of all, the whole industry needs to be accountable to something more than the race to the bottom where, seemingly, all of the advertising revenue lies.

 

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