One of the more striking elements of Rolling Stone's latest cover story image is how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev looks like the kid next door. In a sense it has achieved a goal magazine publishers either embrace or run away from, attracting loud and impassioned criticism which leads to an enormous amount of coverage in mainstream and social media. Some of the discussion focuses on giving an accused murderer the celebrity treatmentâ€”an aspect that's not to be downplayed. Rolling Stone does have a dual cover story approach that alternates between its celebrity coverage and more serious investigative pieces, but it appears many only remember its celeb covers. At least that's what CVS, Walgreens and other retailers have decided when they banned the issue from their newsstands. The rest of the debate reminds us that the cover is an alarming, journalistic, but honest, depiction of a face of terrorism we're not used to seeing. A microcosm of this conversation is happening now at FOLIO:'s Facebook page. Here's Rolling Stone's statement in reply to all the coverage:Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stoneâ€™s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens. â€“THE EDITORSIn the meantime, here's a range of outlets that have weighed in on the cover:Boston.comThe Boston Marathon bomber is a rock star, says 'Rolling Stone'The New YorkerThe Inconvenient Image of Dzhokhar TsarnaevChristian Science MonitorRolling Stone cover: Are stores going too far in pulling the magazine?USA TodayDon't stone 'Rolling Stone' over Boston bomber coverSlateRolling Stoneâ€™s Boston Bomber Cover Is BrilliantHuffington PostRolling Stone Boston Bomber Cover Story: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Image Stirs Controversy, Boycotts
In prior postings, I laid out a high-level framework for turning your company into a digital first publisher. Now, I'll discuss one of the key drivers of digital success in more detail: the editorial e-newsletter.
Email is the number one way in which people sample content; at ALM, we've learned that the e-newsletter is in many ways the product. This is where most subscribers first experience and interact with our brand. If their email experience is bad, we've lost that reader, they will never click-through to our site to read our content. This makes intuitive sense.
With our printed magazine, we take the time to ensure that the cover is outstanding: It has a great photo, a beautiful layout and engaging calls to action, so that subscribers don't trash it with junk mail and are drawn to open it up and read it. Now, we put that same level of thought and effort into our e-newsletters.
So, where did we start? The first step was to evaluate whether we had the right e-newsletter platform partner, because technology is a big driver of the digital experience.
At ALM we identified five key attributes that we require from our e-newsletter platform:
â€˘ White-Listed Providerâ€˘ Mobile optimization optionsâ€˘ Personalization toolsâ€˘ Excellent tracking and metricsâ€˘ A/B testing
I'd like to highlight the two that have been critical in our success to date (that's two months since launch) - having a white-listed provider and having mobile optimization options. These two are the most crucial components of ensuring that your e-newsletter is delivered and readable. In later posts, I'll talk about how you can use the other three categories to create a highly personalized, relevant e-newsletter for each of your readers, once they're receiving the emails.
What is a white-listed provider? It's a trusted mail carrier. This means that e-newsletter platforms, like USPS or FedEx, have technical reputations, and you want to use a provider that is white-listed by all the major ISPs. Think of it like being on the VIP list at the club. You want to be the guy who can slip right in, not have to wait outside in the line and hope you get in.
If you use a white-listed provider, you are working with a company who is recognized for sending trustworthy emails. This means that when Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and other email platforms see email coming from these providers, they trust it. Their servers look at the IP address(es) that your emails are coming from and examine whether they are on the white list. Since your IPs are white-listed, you give yourself the best possible opportunity to get that newsletter into the inbox. By contrast, if you use a non-white-listed provider, your emails will get through if you're lucky, but more likely than not, they'll end up in a junk folder or they'll bounce.
Our hard bounce rate is 0.5 percent (a typical media bounce rate is about 0.7 percent). We've been able to get it down below the average because our provider's IPs are widely trusted by email servers. This might seem like a tiny difference, but every email that goes through counts tremendously.
Mobile Optimization Options
Once you've ensured that your e-newsletters aren't bouncing, you have to make sure that people can read them. In this day and age, the most important way to make sure that an end-user can access an e-newsletter is to create a mobile-optimized version of every email you send.
The cost of not making e-newsletters easy to access on a smartphone is high and rising. According to Bluehornet's recent survey of more than 2,000 Americans, 80 percent of users will delete an email if it is not optimized for their mobile device, up from 70 percent in 2012. Equally as important, the number of people who will unsubscribe from that non-optimized mobile e-newsletter has nearly doubled in the last year (from 18 percent to 30.2 percent). WithÂ more than 36 percentÂ of readers opening emails on their smartphones, having a mobile optimized email is not a nice-to-have-it is a must-have.
In thinking about the presentation on a mobile optimized device,Â YesMail identified three important factorsÂ that should be considered (and from our reader reactions, we concur):
â€˘ The highest area of consumer frustration with mobile marketing emails is too much scrolling (42 percent)â€˘ 29 percent say that the layout of messages is wrong for their mobile deviceâ€˘ 27 percent state there is too much content
Not all providers give you the option to create a mobile-optimized version. In vetting any provider you should ask both access their technology capabilities in providing optimized versions and also ask to see sample versions being run by similar companies.
One important caveat, a mobile optimized e-newsletter should be accompanied with a mobile optimized site-there is nothing more frustrating to the reader than going from an optimized experience to a slow-loading, hard-to-read, flash-loaded (i.e., doesn't work on iPhones) made-for-desktop website.
Focusing on just these two concerns over the past two months has yielded incredible results for ALM. Since switching to the Sailthru email platform, a mere three months ago, we've seen the following results:
â€˘ Over the past two months, page views driven by e-newsletters are up 33 percent.â€˘ Since we launched our e-newsletters as mobile optimized versions we have seen the click-thru traffic from mobile devices rise by an astonishing 72 percent. â€˘ On a monthly basis, visits driven by e-newsletters are up 58 percent month-over-month with e-newsletters now responsible for referring nearly 30 percent of all traffic to our sites.
In coming articles, I will further elaborate on the remaining framework structural drivers, as well as provide focus on the ins and outs of personalizing email and performing A/B testing for e-newsletters.
Once we are set with our digital subscription offers and people start subscribingâ€”the calls, emails, and Facebook post complaints start pouring in. And just like with our print products, we need to make sure we have some quality control processes in place, bundled with a customer service thatâ€™s fast to respond to these inquiries. Here, I outline what we do at NewBay Media to ensure that our digital editions are rendering properly on all platforms, that they go live on schedule and how we handle the customer service.Quality ControlThis is one of the most important and time consuming processes that we handle in our department. Currently, New Bay Media has 23 Apple editions (with different circulation models), 9 Nook editions, 7 Kindle editions, 8 on Google Play and 2 on Zinio. The first thing we did was create a master schedule (just like we have for our print edition), which provides the due dates for file uploads, approvals and on-sale and live dates. We then use this schedule to go into all of our platforms and check that the issues go live on time and that they are rendering/displaying properly in the device.
Itâ€™s important to have this quality control in place so we can catch any problems that our readers might experience and fix them quickly. And if in the process we get a customer complaint we can inform them that we are fixing the problem. Our quality control person also checks the pricing on our single issues and subscriptions. This is especially important when we are doing discounted promotions for a certain time period; we want to make sure that what we are promoting is what the reader is seeing on the device.Customer ServiceBy having our quality control process in place we are able to service our readers better when they call. We also feel itâ€™s important to have one dedicated customer service representative handle all the inquiries from our Apple subscribers. We provide this repâ€™s name, direct email and phone number within our apps via banner ads (inside the issues). A tab in the container app also provides the customer service contact information and cross promotes to our other brands.
Our policy is to reply to our customers as fast as we can, especially since most of them are reaching us via email. Even if we donâ€™t have a solution to their request we let them know that we are looking into it. Obviously, customer service for the digital platforms is not very different from print. Bugs, however, are an issue unique to apps and digital editions. In these cases, we have to be in constant communication with the readers who experience a technical glitchâ€”asking them for screen grabs of what they are seeing on their devices and following up with them to make sure that once the bug is fixed they are not continuing to experience it.Â â€¨
Apart from the complaints we get via email and phone, we also monitor the comments left on our iTunes and Facebook pages. For the Apple editions you can find the customer reviews link in your iTunes Connect account. This will give you a listing of all the comments for the all the different versions of the app. You cannot respond to the comments left on this page, but it does provide insight into the reader experience. On Facebook, we can reply to customer concerns and address any issues offline.Itâ€™s important to have a quality control process in place for all of your digital platforms. This helps you prevent bad customer experiences and lets you catch and correct problems sooner. And as you move more of your magazines onto all the different platforms, your quality control process will get longer and more tedious, but itâ€™s just a matter of scheduling and time management. Like anything else we tackle as marketers and circulators, we can intelligently deal with these issues no matter how many apps we have to review or how many customer complaints we have to resolve.
â€¨In my next post, Iâ€™ll talk about the different circulation models we have throughout our various digital platforms and our system for reporting them as qualified circulation in our BPA and ABC statements.Until thenâ€¦
There is a great temptation to use all things new in promotions and ignore the oldâ€”the wise circulation manager and audience developer will not fall into this trap. Not every promotion makes a profit, sometimes things have to be done for what they achieve rather than what they cost. Insert cards for instance almost never pay for themselves, but they get orders from every issue and are a good source of low-cost subscriptions compared to other types of promotion. If you donâ€™t believe me, ask the folks at TV Guide.Wraps and tips were once very popular but fell out of favor when we started to push people to order or renew via a website rather than accept an order form sent in via fax or the mail. Some markets (and some people), despite the digital world, still prefer forms you can drop into the mail. If you have not tried a wrap or a tip of late it might be a worthwhile walk on the wild side to see what happens.Tips and wraps are inexpensive to produce although both will result in an additional cost at your printer. However, the additional cost may be worth it. Tips and wraps can be used for both new subscriptions and renewals or re-qualifications, but with renewals and re-qualifications, you will probably achieve a better cost per order. Keep the design simple. Remember, if people already subscribe they do not need to be told how wonderful the magazine is, they know that already. They need to be told in the kindest possible way why their life will be less pleasurable if they do not renewâ€”the more suffering the better! There is not a great deal of difference in cost between four-color and two-color printing anymore, but on controlled publications two-color will normally suffice. Your magazine printer will have size and trim requirements for tips and wraps so make sure any design is done in consultation with them. Indeed, give the printer the final sign-off.These days you can include a personalized URL and a QR code but if your tip or wrap has an order or qualification card, it really doesnâ€™t make sense to give people devices to avoid mailing back the order form. You should get a bigger response if you pay the return postage on tip and wrap order forms, but some publishers have dropped their BRM accounts so yours might have to say â€śAffix Postage Hereâ€ť.If you are selling or offering a new subscription using a sampling program, in many cases, a tip will work just fine because the prospective subscriber has a copy of the magazine in his hands and can determine its value immediately.Â Consider a tip as part of your paid renewal series, especially on the last issue the subscriber will receive, and if you grace your subscription file, I do mean the last issue they will actually receive.
"Print is dead." I hear it all the time. People love to say it. "No one reads magazines anymore."Here's the thing, though: Print isn't deadâ€”at least not yet. Digital is growing at an aggressive rate, but it hasn't obliterated print. In fact, according to a recent survey by AdWeek, 98.6 percent of all magazine consumption is still rooted in print. And with the majority of magazine readers reading print, then publishers still need to be concerned with mailing a print productâ€”even if it feels like the U.S. Postal Service can't get it together.It's not the USPS that failed usâ€”it's Congress. The USPS can't make any major moves without its approval. We've all read the storiesâ€”the USPS isn't really broke; it's just been mandated by congress that it pre-fund future retiree health benefits, which costs the USPS over $5 billion per year. This is something no other federal agency is required to do; in fact, even few corporate plans are fully-prefunded. Esquire, Forbes and even my publication, The Nation have all covered it. And Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) are jointly sponsoring legislation which would reverse the mandate.See, the discounted rates to mail magazines weren't created to support the Publishers Clearinghouses of the world. They were set up as a tactical way to honor the freedom of the press and to give a price break to media outlets educating the public. But let's be honest: The way Congress has screwed up its oversight of the USPS does not instill confidence in its commitment to a free press.
Let me be clear: Just because Congress has turned the USPS into a model of inefficiency does not mean that I support privatization (especially considering the economic impact of potentially lost jobs, and also the reliance of private companies like UPS on the USPS for delivery of non-USPS items). What it means is that we should treat the USPS like any other company that is faced with necessary changes. Let's remove the $5.5 billion/year roadblock to let it do its job and grow. Let's support a Congress that values a free press; that isn't focusing on slash-and-burn techniques to save the institution, but rather gives it room to adapt; that reinvigorates the USPS's role in American communities, rural and urban.Publishers need to care because people still read print. At the gym, on the subway, in bed. For every 1 Alec Baldwin who refuses to turn off his cell after being asked by the flight attendant (full disclosure: I'm watching 30 Rock as I write this), there are, like, 800,000 other people who rely on print magazines during take-off and landing. These are people who identify with a brandâ€”print or digitalâ€”and who read whatever is convenient in the moment. For everyone following TSA regulations, that would be print. And it's the publishers' job to engage people with their brand, not with a device.Is print going to be around forever? I have no idea. As long as it is around, it is my responsibility to produce and deliver it as efficiently as possible, and to treat print readers the same as digital and mobile ones. My role with a publisher is to market the brand, not the delivery. And if people want their magazine delivered to their doorstep? Then I need to make sure it gets there.
Last month, I introduced the challenge facing executives in the publishing industry: What should you do when your CEO challenges you to get a digital strategy quickly and turn your company into a â€śdigital firstâ€ť publisher? I laid out a suggested framework consisting of five key areas and then offered an overview of the first two:Five key channels to a successful digital strategyâ€˘ Online Presenceâ€˘ Mobile & Tablet Optimized Websitesâ€˘ Mobile & Tablet Native Appsâ€˘ Digital Editionsâ€˘ NewslettersThis month, Iâ€™d like to provide a high-level explanation of the last three channels.Mobile & Tablet AppsThe world has gone app crazy. However, Iâ€™d advise you to first ponder the question of whether you actually need an app. Can you, like the Financial Times, effectively reach and build a large readership using just the mobile web? For those who are still pondering the question, here are some helpful rules of thumb.In general, the average reader of an app comes back more frequently and looks at more pages per session than that of a mobile website. Apps ultimately are for your most loyal readers. After all, think about what an app is: Itâ€™s a piece of your readerâ€™s smartphone real estate, available to launch at the touch of an icon. Apps have lower reach in general than the mobile web, but higher frequency of use and deeper levels of engagement.The disadvantage of not having an app is that you are not highlighted in the app stores, which means you are missing out on a prime marketing opportunity. As they say with the Lottoâ€”youâ€™ve got to be in it, to win it. Apps can be expensive to build and maintain, but also provide a number of additional benefits that canâ€™t be realized with the mobile web. For most b-to-b magazines and newspapers, the primary benefits will be:Â (a) push notification, (b) inclusion in the Apple Newsstand/Play Magazine store, (c) offline reading, (d) faster page loads, (e) direct integration into social elements of phone like email, Facebook, Twitter, and (f) more real estate per screen to show content.Digital EditionsIt has been said that print dollars are being replaced by digital dimes and mobile pennies. In fact for 2012, the ratio was about 15 print dollars lost for every digital dollar gainedâ€”even worse than the 10 to 1 ratio in 2011. This is where digital editions can be powerful. Digital editions can provide a way to extend the life of the print business model, while also providing a great on-the-go reading experience for subscribers. Ultimately, digital editions are â€śreplicasâ€ť of the printed version, and have a beginning and an end. For the reader they provide an experience of completion that you cannot feel with the web or with â€śnews readerâ€ť apps. For advertisers, the digital edition counts toward the paid/verified circulation figure, and with the average person spending up to 43 minutes per session with a digital edition, publishers are providing an experience that the advertiser can understand and relate to. In general digital editions are fetching similar CPMs to print, and in some cases getting even more than print as you can turn that flat ad into an interactive experience. Digital editions are the win-win-win for publishers, advertisers and readers/subscribers, but they do take time, effort and dollars to produce like their print counterparts.NewslettersEmail is still the number-one way in which people sample content. If you donâ€™t have a sophisticated email strategy get one right away. Along with social and search it is typically one of the top three ways in which readers connect with your brand and access your content. Newsletters are unique because they are pushed out to readers each day and sit in their inbox just waiting to be opened. They are a constant reminder of your brand and are one of the few push technologies available that are still very effective in getting users to take action.So your CEO comes to you and tells you he/she wants turn the company into a â€śdigital-firstâ€ť publisher. Itâ€™s not easy, but it can be done. In the course of the next few articles in this series Iâ€™ll dig into each of these five channels and provide some case studies and results that Iâ€™ve seen work across the B-to-B and publishing space. Stay tuned.
B-to-b publishers have been downright inert about coming to grips with video. Nearly a century after Philo T Farnsworth broadcast his first electronic television signals, many b-to-b publishers are at best paying lip service to its marketing powers, with a few token videos on their sites, and perhaps a YouTube channel.Â And who can blame them? Evaluating the ROI of a video investment is challenging. Video can be painful to integrate into website and editorial workflows. It doesn't necessarily produce compelling metrics in the traditional sense (i.e., pageviews), and decent analytics are often divorced from standard site analytics, or worse, non-existent.That's about to change.Â New and enhanced platforms and player technologies designed specifically for b-to-b are gaining traction, giving marketers tools to better promote products and services within video content, and integrating with CRM and marketing automation systems to help optimize conversions.Â The trends driving videoâ€™s growth among b-to-b marketers are compelling, and publishers would do well to take note. According to the Content Marketing Instituteâ€™s 2013 B2B Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends report, video content is now used by 70 percent of b-to-b marketers, up from 52 percent in 2011. And 58 percent of b-to-b marketers view video as an effective marketing tool, comparable with their opinions on such b-to-b publishing staples as blogs, e-newsletters, research reports, and white-papers.Â While many b-to-b marketers utilize YouTube for hosting and promoting videosÂ (as well as placing them on their own sites), YouTube is primarily a community-building and branding platform, and virtually useless for anything related to lead generation and conversion.That's where new platforms can give b-to-b publishers an edge. At GreenBiz Group, we've been testing out two of these platforms: Vidyard and Wistia. Both provide video marketing platforms, along with tools to manage, measure and optimize video content. In addition to standard ad serving technology, Vidyard integrates usage data with leading marketing automation platforms, including Eloqua, Marketo, and Hubspot. Wistia provides similar capabilities for Pardot (Sales Force), Hubspot, Mailchimp, and Constant Contact.Now instead of just providing general play stats or ad impressions, we can report audience and lead-gen data to sponsors on who watched their video, for how long, and on which site and pages for videos embedded in other sites. And for videos that promote our own events and products, we can use these same detailed viewing statistics to identify prospects for our own programs, and trigger drip marketing and sales campaigns via our marketing automation application.As audiences continue to migrate towards mobile devices, video as a preferred form of content is growing at a disproportionate rate. For our own sites at GreenBiz, nearly 50 percent of all our video consumption currently takes place on mobile devices. As our mobile audience continues to grow, video will inevitably play a larger role in our content creation and distribution.With new technology enabling publishers to take better track and monetize their video audience, b-to-b publishers may have finally found a reason to tune-in.
Hugh Byrne is SVP of Product and Audience Development for GreenBiz Group.Â Find him on Twitter at @greenbiztweets.
Whether you think direct mail is making a comeback or it never went away, the truth is publishers are returning to direct mail. The good news is that it does not have to be that expensive and a good example of this is the double postcard format.Double postcards will not work for every publication or occasionâ€”for instance, new magazine launchesâ€”but certainly in many cases, especially if your magazine is well-known, a double postcard may be just what you need to get back into the mail. True, you are limited in the amount of copy you can use, but sometimes less really can be more. Â Consider offering â€śRisk-Free Issuesâ€ťâ€”always a good seller. Can you give away a gift? If so, why not test a premium offer against a non-premium offer and see what works best for you.Despite being in the digital age, people still like involvement devices so consider one on the order card. The Spectator magazine once did an offer where the potential subscriber was told in the copy â€śremove this sticker to reveal an example of The Spectatorâ€™s sense of humor,â€ť many people did, liked what they saw and placed that sticker on the order card and sent it back for a subscription.If you can use the word â€śFREEâ€ť so much the better. I know spam filters do not like the word â€śFREEâ€ť, but it is a powerful word and at least in the world of direct mail there are no filters dictating what words we can and cannot use in copy.A â€śreply byâ€ť date is also an effective way to move prospects to action, whether this is an actual date or â€śnext Tuesdayâ€ť or â€świthin the next week.â€ť A â€śreply byâ€ť creates urgency and should prompt the recipient to mail the reply card in straight away so they do not miss a great deal.To increase response, pay the reply postage for the recipient. This increases your costs slightly, but the increase in response should be worth it. You could consider using a personalized URL, although giving the recipient an option may decrease response. The fewer options offered the better. You donâ€™t want prospects putting the promotion aside so they can decide later what to do.There are certain design restrictions that you need to adhere to for addressing as well as postal regulations, but any good direct mail writer and designer will already be aware of these. If you need information check the Domestic Mail Manual for specifics.Double postcards are a good form of direct mail for many publishers and if you have never done direct mail before they are an inexpensive place to start.
Itâ€™s easy to understand what a print magazine is. When our readers sign up for a print subscription they know what theyâ€™re going to get. But a â€śdigital subscriptionâ€ťâ€”with an ever-growing array of devices and platformsâ€” is such a broad term nowadays. It can be confusing for our readers to understand what we are offering them.
If we offer the iPad edition, readers will also ask about the Android version, the Nook edition, the Kindle edition or the Google Play version. And where does that leave our beloved web-based digital editionâ€”that link we email our readers? What version or edition do we name it so we donâ€™t confuse our readers?
We need to show our audiences and our readers that they now truly have the option to read the magazine on different platforms or devices, and that they can really read it the way they want. Below Iâ€™ve outlined three variations of digital editions and how we market them to our readers:
1. The Computer or Desktop Browser Version: In my marketing efforts weâ€™ve re-named this digital version the â€śweb-based digital edition.â€ť The distinction was necessary because people signing up for digital-only versions or a print and digital combo were under the impression that they were also signing up for the iPad/iPhone edition.
2. iPad/iPhone: When marketing the Apple digital edition, we are making sure we let our readers know that they can read the magazine on both the iPad and iPhone device. Itâ€™s one subscription as long as they use one Apple ID on both devices.
3. Nook/Kindle/Google Play: These three digital platforms are interesting to market. A person who has an Apple device can easily download the Nook, Kindle or Google Play application and can log into their account and access our magazines. Or if they have one of these devices they can also find our magazines there.
However, when we marketed these digital subscriptions individually, we felt we were confusing our audience and many times not offering them the platform that they wanted. To help make it clear for them, we combined all the digital subscription offers into one message, as the image above shows. This type of combined promotion seemed to be the most effective way to let our readers know where to find us and how they can subscribe.
The important thing to keep in mind with all of these platforms is pricing. If you have one rate on one platform and a lower rate on another, the customer will notice.
As you can see, this is just the start. Next time Iâ€™ll talk about quality control and customer service issues regarding digital editions, and how we handle them.
If you have any questions feel free to email me at email@example.com.
That rainbow of lines you get from your analytics team in those monthly reports aims to give you a quick snapshot of the different sources of traffic to your websites.
Here's what that graph looked like for TheAtlantic.com in a recent month. At Atlantic sites, the blue line tracks users who type in our Web address or bookmark our site directly; the purple line follows those who arrived via search; the red line reports links from other sites; the green line monitors referrals from social media.
Click to Enlarge
Â That seems clear enough. But it turns out we (and probably you) are only getting part of the picture. Whatâ€™s missing in this dataâ€”or, to be more accurate, whatâ€™s captured in this data but not broken out in any useful wayâ€”is traffic that comes from sharing but is not generated by the familiar pillars of the so-called sharing economy: Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, Digg, StumbleUpon.
The stories that fall between the cracks are those that are passed around in casual ways, outside the social media super-structure, millions of times a day. â€śMost of the time,â€ť writes Alexis Madrigal, â€śsomeone Gchatted someone a link, or it came in on a big email distribution list, or your dad sent it to you.â€ť
Alexis, who is the tech editor at TheAtlantic.com, gave a name to this black hole of traffic: dark social. These sorts of referrals are not broken out in the chart above. But they represent a large part of the audiences we all receive. At The Atlantic, our director of analytics, Adam Felder, estimates that dark social accounts for about one-quarter of all referrals to our sites.
So whereâ€™s it coming from? Since those four lines in the graph add up to all of our traffic, readers arriving under cover of dark social are stealing market share from one of the other categories. Specifically, dark social is coming out of typed/bookmarked category, which is the catch-all bucket for sources of traffic that canâ€™t really be traced. Adjusting for that fact suggests the true power of user sharing: nearly half of The Atlanticâ€™s traffic, as an example, is coming through the combination of traditional and dark social.
None of this surprised Alexis. Growing up in rural Washington, he spent a lot of time in the pre-Twitter social world: bulletin boards, ICQ, and other virtual hangouts of tech-minded mid-90s adolescents. So more than a decade later, he wasnâ€™t buying the idea that social networks had somehow birthed a new social Web. Sharing was sharing; the tools were just getting better.
Then Alexis saw how Chartbeat was dividing visitors who showed up without referrer data into two categories. The first group was people who were going to a home page or landing page. The second was people going to any other page. This second set, Chartbeat figured, were users following a link, because nobody actually types in http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/what-the-man-who-first-summited-everest-thought-of-the-first-american-to-orbit-earth/276305/, for example. Chartbeat called them direct social. Madrigal was ecstatic. â€śThey'd found a way to quantify dark social, even if they'd given it a lamer name!â€ť
So why should we care about dark social? As editors and publishers, we need a clear understanding of where our audiences are coming from. Thereâ€™s a false sense of security in believing a greater portion of our audience is coming in through typed/bookmarked than is really the case. Our audience, it turns out, may not be loyal repeat visitors after all.
On the other hand, if there are more visitors coming in through the social side doorâ€”the Facebook/Twitter axis plus everyday dark socialâ€”well, that tells us something about the content we are creating: It works! People are sharing it. People want others to see it. In the sharing economy, quality wins. And if that sharing economy is bigger than we realized, quality matters more than ever.
Our new understanding of dark social comes just as analytics gurus are coming to realize thereâ€™s something quirky going on with search referrals. BuzzFeed, in a post titled â€śWhere Did All the Search Traffic Go,â€ť notes that traffic from search engines to digital publishers has dropped 30 percent from September 2012 to April 2013. Some of that is an actual decline in the power of search as the sharing economy takes off. But some, alas, is the result of incomplete data.
As Digidayâ€™s Jack Marshall explains, Safari and Firefox â€“ in certain circumstancesâ€”are not passing along accurate referral information when users click through from search. That means search is undercounted, and no one knows quite how much. Danny Sullivan, the search engine expert and consultant, has dubbed this delta, of course, Dark Google.
The challenge now is to find a way out of all this darkness. If we canâ€™t see where we are, we canâ€™t know where weâ€™re going.
Being a â€śdigital firstâ€ť publisher is quickly becoming the new standard. Readership is shifting from print to digital devices and the number of devices that your readers are using is growing at a phenomenal rate. According to a recent study by the NPD Group, U.S. homes have more than half a billion devices connected to the Internet.
Even more shocking is that the number of connected devices per house (currently at 5.7) is more than double the average number of people per household. In only a few years publishers have gone from serving an exclusively print and online audience, to now having to reach readers who donâ€™t even own a computer and certainly donâ€™t tote around printed magazines and newspapers.
So what should you do when your CEO challenges you to get a digital strategy quickly, and turn into a â€śdigital firstâ€ť publisher? Where do you begin? How do you determine what will have the highest return and the quickest impact? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer, but before you hit the panic button, let me give you a framework that can help.
To ensure you are not missing anything, consider these five key areas:
Five Key Channels to a Successful Digital Strategy
This month, Iâ€™d like to provide a high-level explanation of the first two channels, and next month Iâ€™ll walk through the remaining three.
Online PresenceBy far your largest reach and largest audience will be your online audience. Youâ€™ve probably been building up this audience over the last decade and with almost 80 percent of the U.S. population online; this should be the foundation for any strategy.
Ensuring that your online sites are best in classâ€”from load times to layouts and user experiences, to social and SEO elementsâ€”is a critical place to start. It came as a surprise to me that many b-to-b publishers havenâ€™t overhauled their online presence in many years, even as their online readership has grown, and their readers have become more sophisticated users and have come to rely on this medium as primary way of interacting with your brand.
Mobile & Tablet Optimized WebsitesItâ€™s been just six years since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, and in that short time mobile Web traffic has grown exponentially. Today, one out of every six Web pages is viewed on a mobile device (Adobe Study 2013).Â In the last year alone, mobile traffic as a percentage of total website traffic nearly doubled from 10 percent to 18 percent from Q4 2011 to Q4 2012. This trend is only going to accelerate with todayâ€™s smartphones having the same computing power as the top-of-the line desktops in 2005, and smartphone shipments eclipsing that of desktops and laptops.
It seems like everywhere you look someone is pulling out a smartphone, but the one thing they are not doing a lot of anymore is talking on the phones.Â The vast majority of the estimated 130 million smartphones roaming U.S. streets are spending their time accessing content and informationâ€”the Online Publishers Association found that 93 percent of smartphone users are accessing content/information. Ignoring the smartphone user is no longer an option.Â Publishers need to get on the mobile bandwagon quickly and ensure that they have an optimized viewing experience for these smaller screens.
Itâ€™s not just smartphones, itâ€™s also increasingly becoming a tablet or touchscreen world. Adobe analyzed more than 1 billion visits to more than 1,000 websites and found that 9 percent of the traffic came from tablets. That ranks ahead of the 7 percent of visits that came from smartphones, and tablet penetration is a fraction of smartphone penetration. In the coming years mobile Web traffic will eclipse online traffic, and publishers need to move quickly to form a deep relationship with this growing audience.Â
One of the promises always made by consultants and system providers offering integrated audience solutions is â€śthe single view of the customer.â€ťÂ â€śYouâ€™ll tie together all of the ways you reach your audienceâ€”publications, newsletters, web traffic, webinars and eventsâ€”and be able to see how each unique member of the audience engages with you.â€ťItâ€™s a promise that puts stars in the eyes of b-to-b media executives. But beyond a few mysterious references to â€ścomplex algorithms,â€ť very little gets said about the nuts and bolts involved in creating that single view. Namely, how do you match up all those engagement records from dozens of files and registration systems to make sure you correctly identify each unique individual?Â Â Identifying the single customer used to have a much less glamorous nameâ€”de-duping. One of the most basic steps in the controlled circulation audit process was to check for duplication, and catching duplicate subscribers was (and still is) an obsession for managers and fulfillment companies. We even had inside jokes about it: One Halloween, the circulation staff at a big bto-b publisher dressed the same, wore name tags with their directorâ€™s name slightly misspelled, and called themselves collectively the "Dupes of Earl."We would de-dupe lists for new subscriber promotion against our existing database, and de-dupe the responses again as we added them to the file. Then we would run a suspect dupe match and do a clerical check to identify duplicates the computer hadnâ€™t caught. After all that, the auditor would find yet more duplicatesâ€”although we hoped few enough to keep within BPAâ€™s (supposedly top secret) auditing tolerance.Â Â What makes de-duping such a challenge? Well, to start with, we have all the normal variations in names and addresses that slip past a computer match. But in the b-to-b audience, it isnâ€™t enough to pin down the same name at the same address. What about individuals who had offices at more than one of their companyâ€™s plants? Those who switched jobs mid-year and showed up at two different companies? People who got magazines at their home address as well as the office?Â Knowing how much work it takes to identify duplicates in a controlled circulation list of 50,000 or so, Iâ€™m always floored when database companies brush by the question of how they will match up unique individuals across several million records drawn from multiple sources. And Iâ€™m even more dismayed when some admit that they simply rely on the new â€śunique identifierâ€ťâ€”an email address.At first it makes perfect sense: While everyone at the same business location shares one mailing address, each has a separate and unique email address. You cannot even create identical email addresses that point to two separate, unrelated inboxes. If you have one email, you have one individual. Right?Well, half right. Yes, one email address equals one inbox. But a surprising number of businesses still have inboxes shared by multiple individuals. And a much larger number of individuals use multiple addresses. In my last company, I did an analysis of the 1.5 million records in our corporate database, and discovered that nearly 20 percent of our audience members had more than one email address on file with us. And 4 percent of our email addresses were connected to more than one individual at the same company.Â Â If we had assumed each email represented a unique individual, we would have been hugely misled about the true size of our audience.For the purpose of sending out an email blast, it may be enough to de-dupe by address only. But to accurately identify one individual across many points of engagement, and deliver a single view of each customer, we canâ€™t avoid the tough, old-fashioned work we learned with controlled circulation. Accurate identification takes multiple levels of matching, multiple points of contact information, and usually some clerical clean-up after those â€ścomplex algorithmsâ€ť have done their best. Itâ€™s not glamorous, but itâ€™s a challenge we have to face to make our databases accurate and reliable.Who knows? Maybe someday, at a Halloween party, weâ€™ll see an integrated audience database team dressed up as the Dupes of Earl.