The media game has changed, and people still seem confused by why

There have been a couple of interesting articles recently about the presence of “viral media” (more on that in a second). There was a profile of Gawker’s Neetzan Zimmerman in The Wall Street Journal, including Zimmerman’s traffic chart as compared to other authors. There was this profile of ViralNova on The Wire (formerly The Atlantic Wire), and this discussion of Upworthy by Ezra Klein at Wonkblog (part of The Washington Post). Last April, there was this profile of Buzzfeed in New York. (That video at the top, by the way, is connected to Upworthy.)

There are some insane stats in all these articles — for example, Upworthy has 80 million page views a month off 280 published articles, which is helped in large part by the fact that most Upworthy pieces get 43K likes on Facebook — but they all come back to one central concept: “viral media.” I actually had a friend who used to work at MoMA in NYC and at every staff meeting, some guy would say, “We need to create something that goes viral…” (and this was happening a little bit before the word was really en vogue) and my friend would always come to the bar and say “Viral means the thing has a fucking disease.” Good for a laugh. Anyway. Basically, here’s the idea: in 2013, and probably even more in 2014, or at least until Facebook starts changing its rules, it’s probably more important for media organizations to invest in publishing Facebook-friendly content if they want to drive traffic and, ultimately, make money.

This is totally f’n different than anyone who came up in most aspects of media prior to about 2008 would understand. The model for about 45 years was “tell compelling stories, have amazing sources, become popular and get yourself a few talking head spots” (more or less). If you had good ideas, a good style, and knew whom to speak with, you’d be a leader in generating front-page stories and, once the web emerged, traffic. But now the game has changed. Some people, like Ezra Klein, seem to get it:

The traffic potential of the social Web is far beyond what most media sites recognize. We all might think we understand Facebook and Twitter’s power to drive traffic. But it turns out that when you actually create content specifically meant for those networks — particularly Facebook — they drive vastly more traffic than ever seemed possible.

(In that same article, he does caution against only using page views as a metric, because brands who want social media traffic can also just advertise directly on Facebook or Twitter, and those companies have people who can focus them and manage their accounts to hopeful success.)

Many other people don’t get it, though, especially old-school people. Klein talks about this too:

Publishers need to spend a lot more time thinking about how to package non-social content to give it the best chance on the social Web. This is the one that I’m a bit obsessed with. Newspapers and magazines put tremendous effort into producing hard-hitting reports and beautiful long reads and then basically just hope that they take off socially. The tools they use are, for the most part, the same tools they’ve always used: Headlines and press releases, and nowadays they’ll push articles through their Facebook and Twitter accounts, too.

But they’re not routinely creating visual — much less video — promotions for their best content, even though that kind of content does much better socially. It’s rare for anyone from the PR teams to be identifying key social accounts in the communities that might be interested in a given story and pushing to them directly. Nothing about the articles themselves has been reinvented or revamped to take advantage of the social web. It would sure be a convenient coincidence if the form journalists used on newsprint also happened to be the best way to reach readers on Facebook. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be true.

This stuff is all close to my heart because I’ve spent a lot of years (most of my post-college life) doing things closely related to it. I worked for an older dude at PBS who would always tell me to “take things viral,” but then never want to meet to discuss any strategy (despite being my direct boss; ironically, he was more concerned with TV, because that’s always the perceived bigger prize). When things topped out at 654 page views, he’d fly off the handle. “I see other people taking things viral!” It should be noted we were predominantly (97 percent) covering education, which isn’t really the most viral-friendly topic unless something really stupid or awful happens in the space — and we were working for PBS, so that likely wasn’t going to be covered anyway (I think I got an e-mail once where someone told me it wasn’t “our purview”).

The Facebook like / Twitter share totals on posts are usually erratic — every single article on The Wire of late is reporting 2.3K Google+ shares, which seems optimistic — but a good example of some of these topics is this article from The American Prospect, entitled ‘The 40-Year Slump.’ It’s a great article, and deals with a pressing social trend in America, and it did OK virally — 6.7K Facebook likes, about 1,000 tweets. But the layout is very word-focused, and the characters scroll on the right side; at first that’s interesting, then it gets tedious. It would be cool if this was a multi-page document, or videos broke it up, or even a sidebar of associated content existed. The way this is laid out is cool, and it helps, but it’s also very much in the mind of an old-school newspaper-y person than a “Web 2.0/social web” person. Sometimes packages try too hard, too: I think a lot of the ESPN E-Ticket stuff can be like this, por ejempleo. I think it’s cool for packages to look different, and they should, but whatever they’re doing should fit how someone might be consuming it — on a bus, on a tablet, on a lunch break, etc. Not everyone is interacting with it in the perfect environment, and if the bells and whistles are going to throw some people off, that’s not great either. Just do what fits.

The broader point is this: it’s kind of similar to a tree-falls-in-the-forest idea. The point of creating content, ostensibly, is for someone to see it. You can go around all day and say, “Oh, I tweeted that link, and I have 1500 followers, so…” So? That means maybe 41 people clicked on it. Twitter is a stream of competing links. The most effective way to drive traffic socially, for the moment, is Facebook. So while Facebook is a stream of competing messages too — “Birthday dinner with the girls!” and “Ugghhhhh work” for example — you need to think about how to effectively package something for that space if you want it to truly succeed in the viral sense. 24 year-old girls writing on each other’s Walls 18 times a day don’t care about your sources in Oklahoma politics; they like listicles with cats. That’s the new reality (a simple, watered-down version of the new reality, but still). It will all shift again, too.

(YouTube Rewind 2013. That’s some viral stuff right there. Also, just as a final note, do me a favor — I understand the pros of having a proprietary video embed system, but please put 75 percent of your stuff or more on YouTube, even if you make fans wait a while before putting it there. It’s a much simpler embed system for most of the web-using world and it will help drive awareness of your product, brand, news org, etc. YouTube is good for what I believe the kids call lead generation.)

Ted Bauer