Monday, June 2, 2008

Social Media Traffic Patterns

Louis Gray has written a post about a trend that has been on my mind a lot recently: traffic and other activity shifting from the information source to social and aggregation sites. Louis has some compelling data showing that people are increasingly using sites like FriendFeed and Twitter to comment on provocative articles and blog posts.

The overall trend started with blogs and social bookmarking sites but is really accelerating with FriendFeed and tools like Twhirl that bring content right to your desktop and make it amazingly easy to comment.
sggottlieb - twhirl 0.8.1
Uploaded with plasq's Skitch!

There have been a number interesting discussions about who owns your comments and how to control the conversation. Many of the ideas are summarized on this blog post on Read Write Web and the related comments. Not surprisingly, there are even more comments about this post on FriendFeed.

There are interesting implications for publishers. Publishers that depend on advertising revenues are justifiably concerned that traffic is being pulled away from their site. To be sure, some traffic is lost especially when the conversation about the topic goes astray and eclipses the topic itself. But there is also a gain in traffic as people click through to the article to create their own informed opinion on the topic (although less people do this than you would expect. Often they just comment on the other comments).

If a publisher is more interested in mindshare than eyeballs and advertising revenue, this trend is a great opportunity because it gives higher visibly to the idea or business. In particular, companies that publish content for marketing purposes benefit. As Web 2.0 marketing strategies take hold, more and more companies are trying viral communication to get their message out. Of course, because no one controls it, the attitude can easily turn to the negative. Some companies are hurt more from negative commenting than others. Companies that create physical products (and shipped software) are hurt the most because they can't easily address people's complaints. SaaS companies can use the feedback to make their products better and then jump into the conversation and tell everyone that they were listening and made the correction. Many businesses can take the P.T. Barnum's attitude ("I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.") because any publicity is good publicity. Publishers that hope to prevent the expression of negative opinion by disabling the commenting feature have no hope at controlling the conversation.

While the good news is that conversations are happening digitally and out in the open (rather than verbally around a water cooler in some office park or through point to point emails) so it can be tracked, tracking and monitoring a conversation that is happening all over the web is a challenge. Conversations on Twitter are fleeting but the impression left in the reader's mind is much longer lived. You can't bookmark a tweet (even if you could, you may not be able to follow the link because Twitter is often down). You can bookmark and link a FriendFeed post (and its related comments) but Google doesn't index these detail pages very well (it only indexes the listing pages that rapidly change). It seems like the best thing you can do is subscribe to searches for each of the services and more seem to be popping up every minute. Another good strategy is to pay close attention to web server logs (using an analytics package) and look for traffic spikes and referrers. The spikes are likely to be more subtle than a Digg, Reddit, or Stumbled upon reference but the significance from a marketing perspective may be more profound depending what is said about you.

This is a fascinating topic. Please discuss (where ever you want to).