If You Think “Social” Means Viral, You’ve Got It All Wrong

A few weeks ago, Forbes Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin and I sparred at the Rebooting Media Live event in New York. With an audience of top digital and media executives, I shared the results my company is getting from social — that social users are more than 2.5 times as valuable as users from search. Lewis surprised me by saying that when it comes to behavior on the Forbes Web site, he is seeing the opposite.

What gives?

With all due respect to Lewis, who is one of the greatest innovators in media, I left realizing that there are different ideas of what “social” can mean on the Web, and that not everyone knows where the gold lies. Putting the whole picture together, there are four different models for social that, despite sharing the same name, are completely different concepts.

  • Social = Viral Hit
    For those on the marketing and advertising side especially, the word “social” often means that you or your client are jealous of someone else’s success. Viral hits are largely based on breakthrough creative, though great distribution is an often-forgotten second factor. Who wouldn’t want to be responsible for the next Old Spice guy? Of course, these kinds of hits are easy to ask for and hard to achieve. And if you do achieve it, you’ll need another viral hit to bring your audience back again.
    Verdict: Good luck!
  • Social = 1,000,000 Fans

    Here, the theory goes that social means getting lots of fans, and then something magical is supposed to happen. Like the boys’ adventure with the “South Park” underpants gnomes, it usually ends up with a lot of time and money spent, a big collection achieved, and a big question mark over “what now?” It doesn’t matter how low your cost per fan was, if the value per fan is near-zero. It’s not the size of the fan base that matters — it’s what you do with it.
    Verdict: Bad strategy.
  • Social = Comments
    Another concept of “social” is that it’s a medium for conversation. With programs like @ComcastCares, brands have used this approach to shape their brand images and reputations — and it has worked. On the publishing side, the Huffington Post and other publishers have succeeded in using social engagement to drive deep participation and connection among an inner circle of its audience. Hosting a conversation certainly builds a relationship. A “Like,” comment, or share from a user can all get you more exposure on the margin, but, as Lewis noted on our panel, the friends who come that way don’t stay very long and don’t come back much. They came for their friends, not for your Web site. That’s why, even though engagement strategies are great for your core audience, they won’t single-handedly drive the large, loyal audience we all crave.
    Verdict: Smart, but it’s not enough.
  • Social = Lasting Relationship
    A lasting relationship with an audience is the holy grail of every brand online. In fact, it has made Amazon the most valuable e-commerce company on earth, and it’s made Disney and the NFL valuable over decades. But what some haven’t realized yet is that the most valuable mode of social is in keeping these relationships connected.

    Do you have any idea how valuable a “Like” is? Any seventh-grader goes all atwitter when his crush says, “I like you.” It’s permission to see someone more, get to know them better, and talk to them all the time — not just once, but every day. If you are doing it right, a “Like” or a “Follow” begins a two-way relationship: One where your audience is asking for programming from you every day, week and month; and giving you their interest data about what works and what doesn’t. With that relationship, you can choose what content you create, and when and how you share it. That relationship isn’t once-and-done — it’s ongoing.

    And data from our experience shows that it translates into a million visits a week from our fan base — almost one visit for every fan, not to mention dozens more impressions right in their home page, the Facebook news feed. Done right, social can already drive more traffic than search, making a new top venue to recruit, and more importantly, retain an audience.

    More and more, I talk to marketers and publishers who have hundreds of thousands or millions of fans and followers, and yet have no idea what to do with them. They haven’t realized that they have subscribers at the ready, waiting for great content and experiences — the currency of their relationship.

    Nor do they understand the tremendous value of those subscribers: If you give your friends what they are after, they’ll keep coming back for more, and they’ll bring their friends. This is exactly how companies like Groupon and Zynga have reinvented their categories and created businesses worth billions of dollars in the process.
    Verdict: There is nothing more powerful than a lasting relationship.

Ben Elowitz (@elowitz) is co-founder and CEO of next-generation Web publisher Wetpaint, and author of the Digital Quarters blog about the future of digital media. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile (NILE).


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