“From Search to Social” – BuzzFeed, Facebook, Metro & UsVsTh3m at #SMWLDN

Today I was part of a panel at Social Media Week London talking about the big shift “From search to social”. Here are some of the notes I took whilst on stage with BuzzFeed UK’s Luke Lewis, Facebook’s Karla Geci, and the Metro’s Richard Moynihan. Multi-tasking FTW!

“From Search to Social: The Big Power Shift In Media”

Richard Moynihan joined Metro two years ago, when they took their social media efforts in-house. “I inherited all these stories made for SEO” he said. He explained that, to him, the difference between SEO and social traffic is that you get an SEO click with a headline, but that you earn a share through the content itself. He prefers the latter.

At Metro they realise they can’t always compete with more fully-staffed newsrooms like the BBC’s, and so their approach to making something shareable is to look for another angle. Most of the paper copy goes online, but they also try to adapt some of it to make it more shareable. Some journalists, for example, use online to put much more of their own voice into their work.

They make some online content specifically designed with sharing in mind, a classic example being an April Fools round-up post, where they tried generating traffic off the back of the people whose content they were faking. Their nihilistic live blog of the last Papal Conclave was also exceptionally shareable.

On traffic numbers, Richard said that their Facebook traffic has increased sevenfold in the last year, but, given the wider context of growth on the site, looks like it has flatlined in percentage terms. Karla Geci said that Pew in the US had found that, on average, publishers get 9% of their traffic as referrals from Facebook. She reckons that if your number is lower than that, it probably shows you have room to optimise. Karla whizzed us back in time to before the ‘Like’ button was launched, when Facebook would maybe only make up 1% or 2% of a site’s traffic. Those long gone days? 2010. Can you believe that something as ubiquitous on the web as the concept of a Facebook Like is still that young?

In terms of FBO, Karla said that headlines were vital in social. Metro have adapted their CMS to include a “social headline” as well as an SEO one. Powerful images also drive clicks, she said. She also advised publishers to optimise for reputation, not reach. The level of interactivity you can repeatedly generate helps position you in the news feed. And there was a reminder that half of all Facebook traffic is on mobile, and so your content, and your headlines, needs to be shareable in that truncated presentation.

A couple of recent talks I’ve seen about Quartz have explained that in their editorial workflow, they have to create the headline that will make a sharable tweet before they write the story. If they can’t get that story into an interesting enough nugget likely to promote sharing, they don’t write it.

Luke Lewis of BuzzFeed UK made a great point about the emotions involved in getting someone to share. He said BuzzFeed found through research that the emotions most likely to trigger sharing were happiness and awe. Snark, negativity and cynicism in an article weren’t great for sharing. Presumably why this blog languishes in the basement of the internet, since they are my stock-in-trade.

Luke said that BuzzFeed UK were hiring a science editor precisely to generate more content with that ‘awe’ factor. Karla reiterated this, by saying that what makes people share is to show others something they are proud of, or something that “makes them look good.”

Richard added that he was always concerned about whether people would be “glad” to see Metro content sandwiched in between pictures of babies and your friend’s status updates, or whether it feels like an intrusion.

In contrast to his role at BuzzFeed, Luke talked about the page view driven “leaky bucket” model than many traditional publishers are hooked on. Since they monetise page views, they churn out lists like “50 exciting things about X” as galleries that require 50 click-throughs and which are smothered in display advertising. It is a horrible user experience, and as Luke said, if you get 30m page views one month, you need 40m the next, as the value of CPM continues to plunge. Luke said that his job is much more creative and enjoyable since he had one that didn’t care about SEO. “You can’t trick someone into sharing an article” he explained.

Media wonks like me tend to focus on Twitter, but Luke cited Pinterest as BuzzFeed’s second biggest referrer of social traffic. They started a DIY section full of pictures of life hacks in order to capitalise on this. This struck me as reminiscent of the old printed media move into glossy weekend supplements in order to soak up display ad revenue from fashion and luxury brands. Luke said that BuzzFeed had an advantage of being able to start afresh, and it was striking to me that the examples of social media success I’ve heard about in the last couple of days from Quartz, BuzzFeed itself, and UsVsTh3m, are all free of the legacy constraints of trying to support any non-digital media. If Pinterest went out of business, BuzzFeed could quickly shutter that DIY section. A lot of legacy print operations are still producing a raft of expensive supplements for reputational reasons, even though they aren’t the display ad cash cows they once were.

Richard said he felt that social traffic was “more democratic” than search traffic. SEO is dominated by the traditional media beasts that have a big audience anyway. With social, brands like UsVsTh3m and BuzzFeed are able to punch above their weight with really great content. “You get judged,” he said, “on the quality of the content itself.”

Much of my own contribution focussed on my recent work with UsVsTh3m, although I did get a chance to reminisce about the steam-powered internet days when I used to do SEO at the BBC, with the job title “Registration Co-ordinator” because at that time you literally had to register new URLs with search providers like Excite, Yahoo! and AltaVista.

At UsVsTh3m, an experiment by publisher Trinity Mirror in making social and viral content, our product principles were very much focussed on “Social, not SEO”, and making everything the site does be tweetable and sharable. Since launching in May this year, the audience has grown to a million monthly uniquer users on the back of social alone, since we’ve spent very little on marketing and had zero brand heritage value.

We’ve found that Twitter acts as a good coalmine canary as to whether something is going to be a success. If you tweet some content, and it doesn’t get picked up or retweeted in the first twenty seconds, it is probably dead in the water. You can almost hear the clunk as it hits the bottom of the internet, never to be picked up again. I’ve described that as a depressing feeling, but it is also slightly depressing when something becomes a hit, since in the social content game, you are only as good as your last post. A big hit just means you have to aim higher next time. Facebook traffic has been more of a slow-burner, but you can generate a great deal of it, eclipsing that sent by Twitter. Maybe I just worry too much.

Part of my feeling about the relationship between editorial businesses and social was formed when working closely with Facebook while I was at the Guardian on the ill-fated experiment with “frictionless sharing.” One thing that I learned through the app was that individual articles had much higher potential reach through social media than the Guardian ever achieved for them organically. It struck me that they, and many publishers, might get joy by producing less content, but then promoting and working each individual piece of content much harder socially. If content isn’t good enough to make people want to share it, is it worth publishing?

There was a question from the floor about what was the best time to post. Getting topical timing right was an aim for Metro’s Facebook page. Richard said that pushing out a story about something grisly being found in someone’s food works well if posted just before lunchtime with a message “Hope this won’t put you off your lunch”, but they tend to focus on more serious stories first thing in the morning, when people are checking for “news”.

Karla said that some organisations do well with scheduled posts in the middle of the night. While most of the population you are aiming to target may be asleep, there are always some people up and awake, and there will be less competition in their news feed at that time.

And she suggested that, with a network of over a billion people, there is always someone up and interacting on Facebook. Which is a little bit how I feel about beer o’clock—at any given moment it must be beer o’clock somewhere

You might also be interested in
“The who, what and why of UsVsTh3m” – Martin Belam at Hacks/Hackers London
“We aren’t here to steal anyone’s lunch” – Buzzfeed’s Luke Lewis at Hacks/Hackers London
“Every story starts with an audience of zero” – Jay Lauf of Quartz at news:rewired
The rise and #fail of the Guardian Facebook app