The Referral-Driven Web

referral

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.

fakemuslimwomen

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!

Pro Journalism’s Erroneous Assumption

By now you’ve probably heard the story of two recent Pulitzer Prize winners who had already left “the industry” for jobs in either public relations or academia. The story brought out the usual suspects saying the usual things about how that damned Internet has robbed the newspaper industry, the result being a great loss to citizens of the U.S.A. The latest is from the Washington Post: Why the PR industry is sucking up Pulitzer winners.

FT_Salary_GapThe piece says it’s all about money and displays a PEW graphic showing the disparity between journalists and PR. Then, it drifts into the cause, which author Jim Tankersley describes as “a free rider problem – if no one pays, eventually the service shuts down – and it’s a different sort of economic disruption that (sic) the ones cause (sic) by other American industries that have shriveled or disappeared or migrated in recent decades.”

When, for example, a corner grocery in Michigan is driven out of business by a big chain based in Arkansas, the people in Michigan still have somewhere to shop. If regional news outlets die, who will dig up corruption by their local lawmakers? Start-up news organizations across the country are trying, but they’re largely struggling to find a for-profit model that works.

It’s fair to ask, in the midst of this, how smaller newsrooms still do so much valuable journalism — and whether they should. As newsrooms shrink, the sort of deep project reporting that often wins Pulitzers has become “harder to justify economically,” Bhatia (former Oregonian editor, Peter Bhatia) said. But it must continue, he added, for business reasons, not just accolades: “It reminds the community of the essential role that ‘traditional media’ plays where people live.”

And there we have it, the sob story of how valuable “the old way” was and is to communities. This is not a fact, at least not anymore; it’s an assumption that is not supported by current data. Public trust in “the press” is at an all-time low. Only 1 in 5 people tell Gallup that they have any trust in the press whatsoever. So all this tearful nonsense about Pulitzers and “shoe leather” and “holding the powerful accountable” is just hyperbole used to defend the indefensible.

Moreover, PR today is another changing animal. Businesses and industries are learning that the best way to get THEIR stories out is through real stories. This is due to the growing education of the public through experience provided by life in a networked world. Attraction, not promotion, is the new paradigm, and this requires people who can write beautiful stories, not “cover” blood and guts.

As Lisa Williams wrote in 2008, journalism will survive the death of its institutions. Professional journalists, however, likely won’t be a part of it, unless they can step off this relentlessly drum-beating high horse.

UPDATE: Independent Contractors for Media

I’ve been writing about the inevitability of media companies moving to independent contractors for over a decade, and the signs continue to point in that direction. As revenues slow, cost-cutting becomes the only way to maintain margins, and the one-to-many need to wrap employees into one super brand will become less important in the profit-driven minds of managers. Besides, the Net — which is where everything’s going — is more receptive to personal brands than those of industry. So-called “social” media is where you’ll find the people formerly known as the audience, and big brands don’t belong there.

INSEAD’s Knowledge blog uses the Dutch model to make the statement: The Future for Labour Is Self-Employment, validating the ideas expressed in an essay that I published five years ago.

nonemployerIn 2005, we crossed a milestone in this country when the number of people self-employed went over 20 million. Data from the Small Business Administration put that figure over 21 million in the latest year for which the information was reported, 2008. By now, we expect that number is approaching 23 million, as more and more people — especially older people — set up eBay stores or find other ways to support themselves and their families online. These people are well-educated in the ways of the Web and don’t spend their marketing money in traditional ways. This figure bears watching, for while they live and work in our communities and neighborhoods, the money they earn comes from everywhere. They are a part of a new subset of our economy, and…it’s actually growing.

The economy is better than it was in 2008, and much of that has been due to the continued rise of self-employment. A Business Week article in 2011 put the number at 40 million and offered the advice that “To boost the economy, help the self-employed.” As an optimist, I believe this is an issue that Congress will have to address sooner than later. The article notes “By 2019, the self-employed will account for 40 percent of all American workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” How can such a staggering number not include reporters, photographers and other practitioners of “the news” downstream?

Another Bureau of Labor Statistics article  published last year offers the below graph. Note that writers and photographers are already two careers with high self-employment rates.

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 10.18.49 AM

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

Ateamsm“I pity the fool” is my favorite saying from the A-Team, the 80’s NBC drama/comedy featuring a team of actors with terrific chemistry. That line is from Mr. T, but the title line comes from the leader of the A-Team, actor George Peppard. It’s tongue-in-cheek, or sorts, because it was always used after something went terribly wrong, but the group ended up winning after all. I’m referencing it here today, because I want to share a couple of recent illustrations about my own prophecies from years past.

We’re at the dawn of the postmodern era, the age of participation (See my October 2003 essay, Participatory Journalism). While my industry, local TV, found my words fascinating, none of it made sense to them. I kept studying, analyzing and writing, but wherever I went to speak, people I was desperate to reach simply couldn’t grasp the concepts. Today, however, I can see things I predicted coming to pass, which both encourages me and makes me sad. “If only” is a phrase with much sorrow for someone who cares.

I live in Huntsville, Alabama, and while I once was the news director at WAAY-TV, my favorite TV news source is WHNT/News19. We got 8 inches of snow Wednesday and Wednesday night, so Thursday, the entire community was shut down. It was a very special snow day for families across the Tennessee Valley, and WHNT-TV led their evening news with clips and photos sent to them by average people (and some REALLY talented). In truth, the programs were filled with such stuff, so the reality was that everyday people produced the news that was on the TV station. This is what I’ve meant by the “Age of Participation.” Everybody is a media company today. Every. Body. And Jay Rosen’s “Great Horizontal” is pumping out content every hour of every day. What was “the news” yesterday here in Huntsville? Grown-ups and kids playing in the snow. The sun came out. It got up to 42 degrees. Roads cleared quickly. And through it all, everybody (well, nearly everybody) had the day off.

the dress

Then, there’s the story being featured nearly everywhere of “the dress” that’s gone viral. What color is it anyway? Is it blue and black or is it white and gold? It began as a question posed by the everyday owner of the dress on Tumblr and spread like wildfire after a Scottish entertainer passed it along. Even major celebrities got in on the act, people like Taylor Swift and, of course, Kim Kardashian. The mystery was solved by another everyday guy who simply tilted the screen of his laptop back and forth. Science then got in on the act, with Wired calling it an optical illusion.

The point is that “the news” is increasingly created and reported by you and me. Meanwhile, the debate over “real” journalism marches on, something I would suggest is a pretty serious waste of time. I mean, what IS “real journalism” anyway? The professionalization of the press is less than a hundred years old, and it has led to the cultural mess we have today, because “the pros” covet celebrity (I mean, CBS led the friggin’ Evening News with Bob Simon’s death — led the news with it! Really!).

We’ve lost our way, folks, but I trust the people to eventually find a way to keep each other informed about what’s important. The only issue is access, but that, too, has become a part of the Age of Participation.

The people formerly known as “the audience” are a whole lot smarter than we ever thought.

Fox News: A Most Dangerous Cancer

For years, I have quietly criticized Fox News for their deliberate pressing of the agenda of the Right. Today, I’m prepared to publicly and loudly call Fox News THE most dangerous cancer on Western Civilization and perhaps the whole world. I believe deeply that all of my conservative friends need to examine the matter and their own hearts. You don’t realize what’s happening, perhaps because you believe their propaganda, but more likely because you simply trust they are speaking for you. You support the Right. They are the mouthpiece of the Right. Fair enough.

I believe in point-of-view journalism. I produced The 700 Club in the early 80s, so I’m familiar with slanted news. It’s okay, but your bias must be stated up front. Fox doesn’t do this, and the problem I have is the degree the disinformation has reached, whether it’s deliberate or not.

Last night, Shep Smith described the video of the Jordanian pilot being murdered. The banner beneath him said “Islamic State Execution.” This is a deliberate, inaccurate and highly inflammatory phrase, and it comes from an ignorance so profound that it’s really difficult to comprehend. I don’t care what name this organized crime group goes by, to repeat the phrase “Islamic State” requires a person or organization with so little knowledge of history, the Islamic faith, and contemporary manipulation that it truly boggles the mind.

Moreover, here’s a quote from Bret Briar during his dinner-hour “special” report: “Tonight, we are going to show you some of the images ISIS has put out. The images are brutal. They are graphic. They are upsetting. You may want to turn away. You may want to have the children leave the room. Right now. But the reason we are showing you this is to bring you the reality of Islamic terrorism. And to label it as such. We feel you need to see it.”

Again, these criminals, as the King of Jordan said earlier this week, are NOT Islamic, so their deeds CAN NOT be described as “Islamic terrorism.” They cannot be, people! And again, this is ignorance gone to seed. I refuse to believe that it’s deliberate, for if it is, it’s a conspiracy so deep and widespread as to defy anybody’s logic OR common sense. I have family in Jordan that believes otherwise, so I have to keep an open mind.

But here’s why I think Fox News is a dangerous cancer: If this continues, we will find ourselves plunged into World War III in the place where war originated, and how do you think that’s going to go?

Fox News is war mongering, and I despise it.