The Referral-Driven Web


The vast majority of online consumers of news and information connect with content through what Google calls “referrals,” and in my experience and study, second place isn’t even close.

This phenomenon has been growing for years, but the rise of social media has accelerated it to the point where it cannot be ignored. In fact, we’re at the place where it’s safe to say — with a great deal of certainty — that for traditional media companies, online distribution is referral-driven. Our online strategies and tactics, therefore, need to be centered around this reality, and that includes making money.

I like to use Google Analytics, because it provides an apples-to-apples comparison with most of the Web, including local businesses. If you’re going to use data to sell your services, you might as well use a reference that your customers understand. There are many other analytics systems available to media companies, but understanding your web usage through Google’s eyes provides standards accepted by our real online competition — the pureplays. We can only gain.

Session Acquisition is a key component of website understanding: how and where do our “eyeballs” come from? Google identifies people who visit a site by rules-based groupings known as “Channels,” which is their way of quantifying sessions. These involve several types of referrals, including social, search, email, and others.

Of the limited sites I’ve studied, around 3/4 of traffic comes via referrals. They tend to view one page and leave via that same page. Contemporary media websites have become mostly mobile, as shown by shrinking numbers of sessions recorded as originating from desktops. This is important, because the vast majority of those sessions are acquired via referrals.

The top referrer I’ve seen is Facebook, and its dominance is enormous. A recent site I studied revealed over half of all traffic (52%) came via Facebook, and most of those (68%) came via mobile.

This strongly suggests that people themselves are showing media companies how they want their content served, and our response is crucial.

Will we force them into an infrastructure built upon our wants and needs, or will we create an experience for users that will encourage them to come back? Remember, this is a world of abundance, not scarcity, and that means it’s entirely a pull medium.

Attraction works better than promotion. People don’t have to tolerate our interruptions anymore, because they can find what they need elsewhere. Oh, there are occasionally “must see” pieces of video, for example, but exclusivity is an advantage only where distribution can be controlled.

People can find them almost anywhere today, even down to just the core scene or scenes. Trying to protect this offline advantage online forces us into relentlessly playing defense at a time when we’d be better off adhering to the new rules being written by the people formerly known as the audience.

For ideas about how to create a favorable pull experience for users, we need to look to new media companies, those who aren’t bound by the concept of competing online as an offline company.

Click on any link from ESPN or Digiday, for example, and you’ll find the piece you’re seeking is at the top of an infinite scroll. I mean, how smart is this? If users are going to view only one page via referrals, why not make that page into something that allows (not forces) them to scroll on beyond a single story? We’re the ones who believe the one-page equals one-story model is what we need. despite the evidence that people don’t like to click, especially via mobile.

The question hounding media companies since the dawn of the Internet and its World Wide Web has been “how can we use this invention to further our business model?” Newspapers created a response that was identical to its offline products and even carried the same language with words like “pages” and the “fold.” TV stations responded initially with the newspaper model, but when we finally got around to video, we brought with us the 30-second spot. Brand extension has always been our goal, for it’s the power of those brands that fueled the business of mass media, a scarcity that only those with a license or a printing press could provide. We had the levers that those with money could pull to grease the wheels of commerce, and it was a heady thing.

As we’ve learned by now, however, the Web is nothing like what we imagined, and evidence is now coming forth that offers a very clear understanding of how users connect with media content. We owe it to ourselves to look at this with a clean whiteboard. Our future depends on it.

Thou shalt not bear false witness!

People wonder why I come off as angry, especially a certain crowd on Facebook. Well, let me be blunt. The world is so swimming in the muck of lies and distortion that we’re all drowning in our own bullshit. If you dare, take a look at this. It was posted on Facebook by a prominent Christian author, speaker and radio show host, Dr. Michael Brown. As of this writing, it’s been shared by over 2,100 fans. The comments are a long stream of attaboys, backslapping, and “thank you for the truth” accolades. The problem is it’s all crap.


The problem here is that this isn’t a photo of some random gathering of Muslim women! Who knew, right? I mean, it fits the message so beautifully that I’m surprised Bill Maher hasn’t used it already. I did a Tineye search of that image and discovered that the copyright is owned by a photographer named Scott Nelson, who writes this in his description:

BAGHDAD,IRAQ-APRIL 03: Female members of the al-Mehdi Army march in Military formation during an April 03, 2004 military parade through the streets of the Sadr City neighborhood in east Baghdad, Iraq. The Al-Mehdi Army is a Shia militia aligned with controversial Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, and the parade was meant to be a show of force in tandem with Sadr supporters’ continued protest against the occupation of Iraq by the U.S. lead coalition forces.

Wait, what? Their faces are covered for good reason? This was a Shi’a (Iranian roots) militia marching in a public parade in Baghdad after we took over their country. In his keywords, Nelson used military and war terms and was careful not to use the word “burka,” Muslim women, oppression,or anything else inflammatory. It is in no way representative of women without political rights. It’s a con job and one that is designed to inspire fear.

Yet the picture has been used in the Dr. Michael Brown context 80 times since. His clever poster is just the latest.

And so I ask, where is journalism in any of this? Why is Snopes the only website dedicated to sniffing out these frauds? Culture is being torn apart by lies, and our only worry is who’s going to pay for “journalism” in the future.

Shame on us!

Free Range Content Consumption

flytvsmHere is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

Free Range Content

Facebook’s wish to put media content inside its own application is potentially self-destructive to those providing the content. Moreover, for Facebook, it smacks of the days of AOL. All of this would be irrelevant, if media could bring itself to release its content into the wild of the Net, but that appears more and more to be an impossible task.

To media companies, their competition is and always has been other media, which is an absurd proposition online. When a TV station, for example, behaves online only as it does in the linear world, it has already lost in the battle for relevance.

The power of personal media

I had the good fortune of spending a few minutes today with Amy Wood, the social media pioneering TV News anchor from Spartanburg, South Carolina (WSPA-TV). Amy has an enormous following online and was a very early practitioner of personal branding. Far more people in the market follow Amy than the TV station she works for, which is the point of working social media as a single entity over a “brand.” Her father recently passed away, and the outpouring of love she experienced online was absolutely overwhelming. Enjoy the next 16 minutes and learn a few of Amy’s secrets to success.

Social Media’s Antisocial Behavior

Here is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

Social Media’s Antisocial Behavior

My old friend David Johnson calls advertising on Facebook “antisocial,” and I have to agree with him. It’s part of a much bigger argument about the nature of advertising in general on the Web, but for social media companies, it’s even more acute, because, well, they’re supposed to be “social.” Most advertising assumes a mass audience, as if presenting from a stage. However, advertising in a social environment is more like being at a party, and it’s very tricky, because nobody’s there to see a show. On the other hand, Facebook is experimenting with forms of content that are really ads, and I think this has great downstream possibilities for all media online. One thing is certain, changes in online advertising are accelerating, and we all need to be aware.

The WalMart reality: what Silicon Valley doesn’t want (or get)

There’s a certain arrogant but humorous P.T. Barnum flair that accompanies a core Silicon Valley notion that a company’s value is higher if it doesn’t have a growing revenue model. Fortunes have been made via this slight-of-hand, slipping beneath the cracks of common sense and traditional business logic. Money has that effect on people, I suppose. It reminds me of the head-scratcher in the mortgage loan portfolio foolishness that led to our economic collapse five years ago — that you could make a TON of money by selling bad loans. Huh?

The essential lure of technology and technology investments is big money fast, so the core approach of 99.99% of venture capital initiated start-ups is — and must be — top-down. It uses the global reach of the Web to dazzle everyone with numbers so astronomical as to set aside common sense. The trick is to build the scale rapidly to initiate dynamic value, regardless of whether the economics make sense. I got caught up in this game with my own Web start-up and lost. Our investors-cum-“advisors” took a perfectly sound, albeit bottom-up concept and destroyed it by switching it to top-down.

A fascinating CNET article alludes to the same problem with Facebook, and those of us especially in local media need to pay very close attention. Opportunity is knocking. More on that below.

Traditionally — at least in the U.S. — business growth has come through expansion: create something that works somewhere, and expand it elsewhere to grow the company. In this way, systems and processes are put into place that cater to the people who bring in the revenue. In some cases, it’s consumers; in other cases, it’s other businesses. Regardless, the interaction between the company and revenue is the tried and true method of up close and personal.

Walmart logos over the yearsWalmart is a great example of this. According to the Forbes Global 2000 list, Walmart is the world’s 18th largest public corporation and the largest public corporation when ranked by revenue. Wikipedia notes the company is also the biggest private employer in the world with over two million employees, and is the largest retailer in the world. It has 8,500 stores in 15 countries, under 55 different names.

Yet, it all started with Sam Walton opening Walton’s Five and Dime in Bentonville, Arkansas in 1951. Walton’s strategy for success was simple: make money by volume sales at slightly lower prices than competitors. Sounds familiar, right? He opened the first Walmart Discount City in Rogers, Arkansas in 1962 and began spreading outward.

In the modern start-up world, headquartered in Silicon Valley, businesses want nothing to do with 60 years for growth, and so everything is shortcutted in the name of scale. Scale without revenue, after all, provides only the illusion of business bigness, or the potential for bigness.

In the CNET article (Frustrated advertisers to Facebook: Take our money — please!), writer Paul Sloan says Facebook has become a victim of its own success. While Facebook users can interact and relate with anybody, Facebook itself ironically relates or interacts with very few.

It’s automating its process and using technology to increase efficiency. But that’s not the same as dealing with a human being; big advertisers are a needy bunch who want hand-holding. However, plenty say they can’t even find anyone at Facebook to take their calls — or their money.

Here, for instance, is Mike Parker, the co-president of U.S. operations of Tribal DDB, talking about his frustration with Facebook: “For the longest time, we’ve been trying to call Facebook to do business with them and there’s nobody to pick up the call,” said Parker. “They’re very focused on the consumer experience, and less focused on revenue and working with advertisers.”

And here’s David Smith, the CEO of digital agency Mediasmith: “Facebook just doesn’t seem to care. They’re still trying to grow this thing. The question is, do they want the big bucks?”

This inability to make contact in order to do business isn’t limited to Facebook either, especially from a local perspective. Have you ever tried to reach someone at Google to discuss business? I’ve actually spoken with someone at Twitter about local business, but the prices were so outrageous as to evoke only an odd form of belly laugh.

You see, when you build a business from the bottom-up, you have no choice but to immediately cater to the needs of the people who are paying you. Since venture capital supports Silicon Valley, companies are able to sidestep the issue in the name of generating scale, because revenue isn’t really the mission. Local media companies sit back and watch this happen without seeing the opportunity to seize the revenue while others are building the scale. I remember one media company owner who asked, after I proposed creating a local search portal, “Do you honestly think we can compete with Google?” In scale, glitz and tools? Of course not, but most definitely in market revenue, especially with a television station at its disposal to promote the site. Advertising at the local level, after all, is sold, not bought. I don’t care how sweet the social media application is, the opportunity for revenue is local, because the preponderence of the app’s use is local. Self-service ad software, no matter how simple it may seem, is no substitute for listening, interacting, and the occasional hand shake.

Advantage local media.