We live in interesting times.
Social media has completely disrupted the way people consume information and get informed about the latest events. A study from Pew Research Center quoted by recode states:
More than two-thirds of American adults — 67 percent, to be exact — “get at least some of their news on social media,” according to new data released Thursday by Pew Research Center. That’s up from 62 percent of American adults in 2016.
When Google Reader was closed on July 1, 2013, the majority of their users stopped using RSS. Sure, some switched to Feedly or a browser extension. But many just gave up to social media. And that’s when it started.
Personal branding and storytelling are on the rise – more than ever – in 2017 and the trend will keep escalating in 2018. People and outlets are fighting for attention. They produce “How to” articles, “Best tips” cheatsheets, “The top terrible ways” for whatever and so forth. Clickbait has been the main technique that almost every outlet out there obeys to.
Headlines are Everything
When compared to reading your favorite media via RSS, readers now skip 80% of the articles if the headline isn’t catchy:
Traffic can vary by as much as 500% based on the headline: According to Koechley, tests show that traffic to content at Upworthy can vary by as much as 500% simply because of the headline. “The headline is our one chance to reach people who have a million other things that they’re thinking about, and who didn’t wake up in the morning wanting to care about feminism or climate change, or the policy details of the election,” he said.
After analyzing a million articles and headlines, here’s what OkDork and CoSchedule concluded:
Headlines matter much more than ever. And they also limit the creativity of a writer in terms of the value provided in every piece.
That’s what led to the title of this post as well – reaching to a larger audience instead of missing an opportunity in social media.
Content shifts toward walkthroughs and sensations. Journalism has been impacted – and this is notable when looking at the desperate attempts of media outlets to get attention and monetize their content in new ways (other than traditional advertising).
Get Authoritative Media Back
While listening to the daily news in my car played by Google Assistant, I stumbled on a very, very different type of monologue by Mashable called “Stop reading what Facebook tells you to read.”
Seriously. If there’s one thing you should listen to this coming January, it’s this one. 13:14min worth of impactful overview of the news ecosystem and what went wrong.
Now, Mashable is too harsh on Facebook. Mashable’s quality went down significantly as well – for the same clickbait reasons. I recall reading Mashable and Techcrunch exclusively back in the day and the content was exquisit. Not so much nowadays. Not to mention that it was recently sold for $50M despite its valuation of $250M.
And Facebook brought some positive opportunities as well – being able to connect with new media sources and influencers directly. The power of traditional media was too strong to overcome as a solo writer without social media.
Here’s what the episode starts with:
Do you want the Internet to be better in 2018?
Want your favorite media outlets to survive in 2018?
After a series of provocative questions regarding the quality of recent news, they jump straight to the ask:
And the ask is simple: Use your browser bar. Or bookmarked websites. That’s it.
Instead of reading stories that get to you because you’re popular […], you read stories that get to you because YOU chose to go to them.
Which leads me to the following.
Are you subscribed to any email lists? You’re probably enrolled in a couple dozen newsletters, reading their news via email.
An office worker receives an average of 121 emails per day. I’d guess that 10% to 15% of those are newsletters and other forms of subscription brought by blogs and media outlets.
Email newsletters are the answer to the death of RSS. Many bloggers are so used to promoting on social media that they don’t even include an RSS feed icon – or even a subscription form – to their blogs.
Which leads to that same trend of writing a catchy type of content in order to bypass the 80% of users who would skip an article unless it grabs their attention.
You’ll increase the incentive for those websites to be, if nothing else, more consistent and less desperate for your attention. People do stupid, bad things when they’re desperate. They lie and they clamor, and they produce shitty work.
Fake news is also the response to a cry for attention. Being unable to consistently produce viral quality leads to a dip in traffic, lower number of impressions and lower revenue. And magazines have to take care of payroll – coming straight from ads.
That’s why the overall content quality has been going down for a while:
In 2017 media outlets have been more desperate and thirsty than ever – and doing dumb things to get by.
Mashable keeps blaming and bashing Facebook for that trend.
While it’s very emotional and sounds truly genuine, I still see it as a byproduct of multiple factors:
- Facebook and other social outlets ran by advertisement.
- The oversaturation of media outlets per capita.
- The advertising model in general – viral content will always directly convert to more money, and that’s irrelevant to Facebook alone.
- The death of RSS readers for the vast majority of the population.
- New forms of media such as podcasts and videos as a primary source of information.
- Millennials and even Gen Z now using the Internet in a completely different way than 15 years ago.
And fake news are real. They may have been the turning point during the US presidential elections as covered in depth by diginomica (who is true to its nature and maintains a successful outlet without advertising).
And yet, it’s apparent that publishers, journalists, bloggers, and influencers have turned to social media for exposure.
Bloggers report a tiny percentage of direct traffic compared to social media, guest posts and mentions, and organic search.
That’s how Mashable summed it up:
Before Facebook came along and screwed everything up for everyone, people entered URLs into browser bars. They used bookmarks. Maybe even RSS readers.
The reason they did this was because these websites were publications people trusted to deliver them a specific kind of information in a specific way. They loved the websites’ voice and ideas, and its utility. They used to read these sites regularly.
And because of that, they were reading things as much because of WHO was covering them as the things that were BEING COVERED themselves. And, believe it or not, the writers and editors of those websites, human beings – and not robots, were encouraged to create things that kept people coming back ABOVE ALL ELSE.
Listen to the full episode here since it’s worth listening to – and I’m frankly surprised by the lack of response by media outlets already.
Mashable delves deeper into the problem and compares Facebook to the financial recession in 2008, outing investment banks and other organizations making irrational choices.
And Facebook keeps prioritizing their profit margins over everything. A couple months ago, they introduced an early version of their Explore feed in several countries:
Facebook has caused a 60 percent to 80 percent drop in referral traffic to news outlets in six countries due to a test that removed Page posts from the News Feed and relocated them to a separate, hard-to-find Explore Feed. But now Facebook’s VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri writes that “We currently have no plans to roll this test out further.” But that doesn’t mean Facebook won’t move forward with implementing a similar change more widely if users prefer their News Feed just be posts from friends.
This makes zero sense whenever you’ve liked a page maintained by your favorite media outlet.
When you voluntarily subscribe for a certain type of content, you’re obviously interested in it. It’s simple as that.
But Facebook incentivizes media outlets to invest even more and boost each and every post of theirs. It’s no longer about the readers – it’s all about profit.
And the gist of it is clear. People no longer follow closely the outlets they read previously. This leads to fierce competition in social media and carefully crafted headlines based on behavioral patterns observed by organizations while analyzing content success.
I wrote a relevant answer on Quora in April discussing the challenges of the ads model based on Medium’s layoffs and their attempts to find new monetization opportunities.
Medium and the Broken Advertisement Model
The controversial post by Ev Williams on their new business model and staff layoffs briefly blamed the ad-driven media model without going into details about what they’ve tried and what didn’t work out.
Sadly, most media outlets (and all sorts of web solutions) often focus on traditional banner advertising. Some take it a step further by implementing pop-ups, sticky ribbons, screen filler overlays and other annoying ads without conducting enough user research upfront.
It’s also worth noting that 26% of desktop users use blockers and Google punishes sites with annoying popups.
What most media outlets fail to understand is the following:
- The increased number of ads across the web builds a resistance in viewers who are used to standard ad locations and skip them entirely while browsing.
- Generic ad placement may harm a brand instead of supporting its sales
- Traditional online advertisement keep decreasing conversion rates while CPM keeps growing
Advertisement may work in different shapes and forms. Examples:
- Non-obtrusive banners that inherit the look and feel of the site and are natural convert better.
- Targeted advertisement will ensure that prospects are potentially a good fit given predefined criteria.
- Ad placements should be concentrated around certain categories or tags, if not placed in high-traffic posts that rank well and are absolutely relevant to the ad.
- Ads using conversion pixels in different media may convert better – such as Facebook or Google pixels placed within the outlet’s fan page.
- In-post ads work better than ones placed in the header, footer, or sidebar. This still needs to be implemented elegantly but works much better.
- Connecting advertising to the actual value for users is rarely implemented. Consider promoted posts with case studies, how to articles or others that include a non-obtrusive advertisement. Providing value while upselling a product converts better than just placing a banner.
- Generic ad networks like Google Adwords (or Adsense, depending on the point of view) may harm the user experience for both the outlet and the brand.
- Focusing on specific outlets that are highly relevant has a better chance to succeed.
- Promoting globally in a large outlet converts less than sponsoring dozens of smaller niche blogs or sites.
- Providing incentives in ads tailored to readers gives a sense of a promotional offer (rather than selling a generic solution).
- Customizing banners for each media outlet will lead to a more seamless experience, thus higher conversions.
I won’t even get into additional advertisement packages that include promotion across social media networks, at offline events, through cross-promotion activities, organizing educational training activities or webinars, sponsoring a product or a newsletter and more.
All of those could be combined together in order to increase the efficiency of advertising channels and reach out to different mediums by using various techniques other than traditional banners.
What Can We Do About It?
The best thing we could do in order to defend the media authority and improve the quality of content is subscribing to the sources that we truly support.
Bookmarks is one option. There is Feedly out there. Email subscriptions, too.
Social media will always be ads-driven and run by thousands of experts in AI, behavioral psychology, digital marketing, conversion rate optimization. They want to see results and keep people in their network for as long as possible.
Browse your history bar, your emails, the pages that you like. Save all of your favorite sources and bloggers consistently producing great content. Make sure you visit them regularly instead of monotonously browsing your social feed for the next clickbait title.
The more we resort back to our favorite sources, the less pressured they will feel about generating traffic out of thin air.