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February 28 2011

15:00

“Like,” “share,” and “recommend”: How the warring verbs of social media will influence the news’ future

It appears that Facebook has settled on a central metaphor for the behavior of its 600 million users.

See an interesting article? Want your friends to see it too? Facebook’s offered up two primary verbs to bring action to that formless desire: “Share” and “Like.”

But the writing’s been on the wall for “Share” for some time. Facebook seemed to abandon development on “Share” in the fall. And on Sunday, Mashable reported that the remaining functionality of “Share” is being moved over to the much more popular “Like” button. (Clicking “Like” on a webpage will now post a thumbnail and excerpt of it on your Facebook wall, just as “Share” used to do. The old “Like” behavior made the links less prominent. It’s actually a pretty big deal that will likely lead to stories spreading more readily through Facebook.)

But I’m less interested in the details of the implementation than the verbs: sharing (tonally neutral, but explicitly social) has clearly lost to liking (with its ring of a personal endorsement).

There’s actually a third verb, “Recommend.” Unlike “Share,” it’s not its own separate action within FacebookWorld; it’s just “Like” renamed, with a less forceful endorsement. But it lives deep in the shadow of “Like” everywhere — except on traditional news sites, which have tended to stay far away from “Like.” I just did a quick scan of some of the web’s most popular news sites to see what metaphor they use to integrate with Facebook on their story pages.

“Share”: Los Angeles Times, ProPublica, Talking Points Memo, Reuters, ESPN, The Guardian.

“Recommend”: MSNBC, CNN, New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post, Globe and Mail, Le Monde, El Pais, Newsweek, Telegraph, CBC.

“Like”: Gawker, Politico, Slate, Wired, Time, Wall Street Journal.

Both “Like” and “Share”: Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune.

Now, that’s an unscientific sampling. And, among those who use “Share,” some might have preferred the different functionality (although that difference has now disappeared). But looking at those names, it seems to me that many more traditional news organizations are uncomfortable with the “Like” metaphor that has become the lingua franca of online sharing. The “Likers” are more likely to be Internet-era creations; news orgs that existed 30 years ago tend toward the more neutral choices. (With a few exceptions.)

And that’s understandable: Newsroom culture has long been allergic to explicitly connecting the production of journalism and the expression of a reader’s endorsement. (Just the facts, ma’am!) And “Like” is awkward. When I click a button next to a story, does that mean I like the fact that “Tunisian Prime Minister Resigns,” or that I like the storyTunisian Prime Minister Resigns“? But there’s no doubting the appeal of “Like,” which feels like a vote when “Share” mostly feels like work.

Facebook hasn’t announced that “Share” buttons will stop working any time soon, and there’s always “Recommend” sitting there as a milquetoast alternative for the emotion-squeamish. (Although technically “Recommend” presents most the same problems as “Like” — it can still be read as a fuzzy endorsement.) But there’s a bigger issue here, as news organizations — many of them traditional bringers of bad news — have to adjust to an online ecosystem that privileges emotion, particularly positive emotion.

Emotion = distribution

I can tell you, anecdotally, that for our Twitter feed, @niemanlab, one of the best predictors of how much a tweet will get retweeted is the degree to which it expresses positive emotion. If we tweet with wonderment and excitement (“Wow, this new WordPress levitation plugin is amazing!”), it’ll get more clicks and more retweets than it we play it straight (“New WordPress plugin allows user levitation”).

For harder data, check out some work done by Anatoliy Gruzd and colleagues at Dalhousie University, presented at a conference last month. Their study looked at a sample of 46,000 tweets during the Vancouver Winter Olympics and judged them on whether they expressed a positive, negative, or neutral emotion. They found that positive tweets were retweeted an average of 6.6 times, versus 2.6 times for negative tweets and 2.2 times for neutral ones. That’s two and a half times as many acts of sharing for positive tweets. (Slide deck here.)

Facebook’s own internal data, looking at major news sites’ presence within Facebook, found that “provocative” or “passionate” stories generated two to three times the engagement of other stories.

Or take the Penn study by Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman of The New York Times’ most emailed list. It found that “positive content is more viral than negative content,” but noted that it’s actually as much about arousal (speaking emotionally, not sexually) as anything. Content that you can imagine someone emailing with either “Awesome!” or “WTF?” in the subject line gets spread.

Social media as the new SEO

Here’s the thing: The way that news gets reported and presented is influenced by economic incentives. When publishers realized that Google search traffic was a big driver of traffic, you saw punny headlines swapped for clots of “keyword-dense” verbiage and silly repetitive tag clouds — all trying to capture a little bit more attention from Google’s algorithm and, with it, a little more ad revenue.

But I believe we’ll soon be at a point where social media is a more important driver of traffic than search for many news organizations. (It certainly already is for us.) And those social media visitors are already, I’d argue, more useful than search visitors because they’re less likely to be one-time fly-by readers. As people continue to spend outrageous amounts of time on Facebook (49 billion minutes in December), as Twitter continues to grow, as new tools come along, we’ll see more and more people get comfortable with the idea that their primary filter for news will be what gets shared by their friends or networks.

And that means a phrase like social media optimization will mean more than just slapping sharing buttons on your stories and telling your reporters to check in on Twitter twice a day. It’ll also mean changing, in subtle ways, the kinds of content being produced to encourage sharing. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing — just that it’s the natural outcome of the economic incentives at play.

Does that just mean more listicles? Maybe. But I’d argue that, on the whole, figuring out how to make people want to share your work with their friends generates a healthier set of incentives than figuring out how to manipulate Google’s algorithm. Providing pleasure — pleasure that someone wants to share — is not an inappropriate goal. And when you broaden out beyond “positive emotions” to the idea of driving arousal or stimulation — positive or negative — the idea starts to fall a little more neatly into what news organizations consider their job to be.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that news orgs should become engines of happy stories or only focus on the most outrageous or enticing news. Their mission can’t be channeled exclusively in that direction. I don’t know what it will look like for a quality news organization to focus on making more sharable journalism; it’ll be up to the very smart people who work at them to figure out how to do that while defending their brand identities. But I do know that the role of social media is going to keep increasing, and with it will come increased economic pressures to maximize for it. They may not “Like” or “Recommend” it, but I suspect it’s a fate they’ll all, er, “Share.”

April 08 2010

18:30

Three ways Apple’s iAd might impact the news industry’s continued advertising woes

Apple’s Steve Jobs just unveiled iAd, the company’s new advertising platform for the iPhone and iPad. It’s an ad platform designed for apps, like the news apps that many news organizations make, and Jobs promises to use the app framework to provide a more interactive, engaging, and rich-media experience to users. Here’s his pitch. (Quotes are taken from Engadget’s live coverage of today’s Apple event and thus may be off by a few words here and there.)

We have a lot of free or reasonably priced apps…we like that, but our [developers] have to find ways to make money. So our devs are putting ads into apps, and for lack of a better way to say it, we think most of this kind of advertising sucks.

When you look at ads on a phone, it’s not like a desktop. On a desktop, search is where it’s at. But on mobile devices, that hasn’t happened. Search is not happening on phones; people are using apps. And this is where the opportunity is to deliver advertising is.

The average user spends over 30 minutes every day using apps on their phone. If we said we wanted to put an ad up every 3 minutes, that’s 10 ads per device per day. That would be 1 billion ad opportunities per day. This is a pretty serious opportunity, and it’s an incredible demographic. But we want to do more than that. We want to change the quality of the ads too.

You know the ads on the web — they’re eye catching and interactive, but they don’t deliver emotion. What we want to do with iAds is deliver interaction and emotion. So that’s what iAd is all about. It’s about emotion plus interactivity. The ads keep you in your app. Today when you click on a banner ad, it yanks you out of your app and throws you onto the advertiser’s web page. So people don’t click on the ads. Because iAd is in the iPhone OS itself, we have figured out how to do interactive and video content without ever taking you out of the app.

For devs to add this to their apps is really simple. They can do it in an afternoon. Apple is going to sell and host the ads, and we’re going to do a 60/40 split [Apple keeping 40 percent of revenue].

Jobs then went on to show a number of in-app ads that served as immersive experiences: launching mini-apps within the app, showing videos, games, and more. They did look impressive (although calling them “emotional” might be pushing it). This sort of rich-media advertising feels like the next wave, at least, now that devices are starting to have the horsepower necessary to stream these kinds of experiences.

And here’s how Apple’s pitching iAd on their site:

iAd is a breakthrough mobile advertising platform from Apple. With it, apps can feature rich media ads that combine the emotion of TV with the interactivity of the web. For developers, it means a new, easy-to-implement source of revenue. For advertisers, it creates a new media outlet that offers consumers highly targeted information.

So what might iAd mean for news companies? It’s waaaaay too early to tell, but here are three quick thoughts:

Smaller newspapers have an extra incentive to build iPhone apps. The nationals (NYT, WSJ, WP, etc.) all already have iPhone apps, and they would be hesitant to hand over a significant part of their advertising franchise to Apple anyway. (Hesitant to hand over 40 percent of revenue, too.) But for smaller news outlets that haven’t been able to see a return on an app-development investment — and without the sales-force resources that might be necessary to educate local advertisers about mobile advertising — iAds promises an easy reason to get on board. With the cost of basic content-app development dropping — you can get a decent app built with under $1,000 and a few days of a staff nerd’s time these days — the CBA equation gets simpler.

A shift away from search and toward content could really help news companies. iAd argues that while search advertising is justly dominant on desktops and laptops, the app experience is the right target for ads on mobile devices, because people spend less time searching and more time in their favorite apps. If that turns out to be true, that’s a huge boon for content companies like news orgs. Search is a field that news companies have no business competing in; local search efforts have flopped, and Google is an unscalable mountain.

But building apps that sustain people’s interest for extended periods of time? That’s at least a game that news orgs can compete in. As we’ve seen, news apps aren’t as engaging as they could be, and news content still isn’t a perfect match for mobile in a lot of ways. But I’d be a lot more optimistic about news companies figuring out ways to make their apps better and more engaging than I’d be about news companies stealing a slice of search advertising revenue from Google.

Could there be room for a Yahoo-style newspaper partnership? The Yahoo deal with newspapers comes down to a simple equation: Yahoo gets a ton of eyeballs, but doesn’t have the ad sales force to reach local companies. So newspapers provide the sales force and Yahoo provides the eyeballs.

I have no doubt that the Nikes, Disneys, and Targets of the world will be happy to deal with Apple directly. But will your local furniture store? Or your neighborhood Korean restaurant? We’ve already seen indications that Apple wants to keep location-based advertising to itself, but who’s going to sell those ads? Maybe a future some predicted years ago — newspaper sales teams serving as a one-stop shop for advertisers seeking placement in a variety of online and print locations, some newspaper-owned, some not — could finally come to be.

There’s lots we still don’t know about iAd — like whether apps that use the platform will still be able to use other ad platforms, say, to deliver developer-sold advertising alongside Apple-sold messages. iAd won’t arrive in apps for several months, and it’s unclear how many companies will want to invest in building the kind of immersive experiences Jobs showed off today. But at first glance, I’d guess that Apple’s entry into the Google-dominated online advertising world might not be a bad thing for news companies seeking a digital lifeline.

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