Content Sludge – Why it exists and how to avoid it

We all nod in agreement when someone says ‘quality over quantity’. Whether it’s discussing sausages for the barbecue or picking out flowers for your wedding day, no one wants to be that host who compromises the experience for their friends. It’s a gesture you make to those who are willing to give up their time to spend with you, showing value and appreciation for their presence. The same can be said for client meetings, interviews and even dates, no girl has ever said “That was a really boring date, but I was really impressed he managed to talk for hours!”.

Similarly when we read magazines we are being catered to with the best Screenshot 2015-02-21 at 10.54.18experience possible, New Scientist is a relatively small magazine for the cost, but it never lets the readers down, delivering interesting articles that leave a lasting impression on an audience looking to broaden their understanding of the world.

When it comes to digital content we’re slowly starting to see quantity being valued over quality, without anyone really owning up to it. For publishers pumping out page impressions and growing unique users seems to be the end goal, delivering a quality experience seems to drop into the periphery.

Betraying the community 

Mashable Australia, a respected tech blog that delivers latest innovation, insight and opinion decided to cover a story that has absolutely no relevance to their tech community. This isn’t their first offence, just one of the most obvious betrayals of their editorial integrity.

Not Mashable's finest moment
Not Mashable’s finest moment

As a reader of Mashable I’m not impressed that they’ve deemed this an adequate dish to serve up. I’m dining at Sydney’s exclusive Rockpool Bar & Grill but being served a mainstream Big Mac, and the most insulting part is they expect me not to notice. Is this sort of article worth diluting Mashable’s output and alienating their audience? It really depends on what they’re trying to achieve.

Everyone loves a Big Mac

A story about sweaters for penguins is bizarre, cute, feel good and arguably quite funny. You’d be hard pressed to find a topic and hero image that was more sharable across Facebook across such a broad audience of people ranging from girls cooing over cute animal pictures or guys sharing random weird stuff to their mates. The likelihood is that this article was shared across social channels, attracting a different audience to the usual tech community, and helped to grow Mashable’s unique audience number for that month. Mashable clearly values quantity over quality, and whilst by now you might think this is an attack on their site, it’s a much greater industry problem over how we measure success for publishers.

Look at this headline from Nielsen, Australia’s official supplier of online measurement. It champions Sydney Morning Herald ‘reaching top spot’ for news within Australia – amazing! great news for Fairfax, they’re beating their arch rivals, News Limited, time to break out the champagne!

Nielsen Fairfax News

A minor point in the detail is that News.com.au increased their time spent by a huge 17%! When we look into the breakdown of the numbers below, Sydney Morning Herald only beat News by 2.4% for unique audience visitors, and when you compare the time spent per person, News.com.au smashes SMH with 71% additional time spent. News also generates 18% more sessions per person, indicating a greater loyalty from their community. So who’s the real winner here? I’d argue not the site being headlined.

News.com.au are killing it for audience engagement
News.com.au are killing it for audience engagement

 Reach the people who count, rather than count the people you reach

Advertisers can sometimes take headlines over audience reach far too literally, everyone likes to back a winning horse and picking media partners is exactly the same. It’s far easier to tell your client “You’re in the biggest site in the category” rather than debate audience quality. Who can blame Mashable for their content strategy when reporting audience growth seems to be the only thing advertisers value?

The challenge then becomes a question of who you reach rather than where. If I want to reach an audience of Rockpool food connoisseurs, I can’t assume everyone in there is right for me, if half of them are happily chugging down Big Macs and finishing off with a McFlurry.

Take Subaru for example, they’re advertising the new Liberty, a car that starts at $30k for the base model. Assuming they want to reach an ambitious high income professional, a great audience for them is Business Insider. The problem for Subaru is they happen to release the Liberty during Valentine’s Day, a perfect seasonal stimulus to pump out content sludge.

Not the content Subaru had in mind
Not the content Subaru had in mind

Baring in mind Subaru are likely to have been sold a business audience, it’s likely they paid a hefty premium for such a high impact sponsorship. The last thing they’d think they were about to appear against would be movie suggestions for Valentine’s Day; especially when the audience they’re trying to reach are likely to be literally dining out at Rockpool that evening.

This is clearly a case of Business Insider having their cake and eating it, claiming they have a strong business audience, but propping up their unique visitors with broad viral content that will dilute the premium advertising product they’re selling.

Three tips for advertisers to avoid content sludge

1 – Be specific with the content you buy

The most important tip is not to be seduced by ‘Run of Site’ CPM rates. Most of the time media buyers can get a discount on inventory if they’re happy to run across any pages within the domain, even cheaper to run across a whole network of sites owned by the publisher. The justification for this is usually that you can maximise reach, and a wrongly assumed guaranteed quality of visitors to such niche community sites. It’s buys like this which publishers can take advantage of and fill up their bookings with sludge.

Be channel specific within your environment – You may pay more for channel specific content but it ensures that you reach your desired audience, as well as being contextually relevant and aligning with your audience’s frame of mind at the time of exposure. If you have a finance product, then be in the finance content of News.com.au rather than Run of Site.

It’s also best if you drill into relevant sub categories to maximise audience relevancy. Within finance if you’re providing a mid market insurance product such as TAL’s ‘coverbuilder’, then your most relevant audience are within the subcategory Money, then subcategory budgeting.

Screenshot 2015-02-21 at 13.34.21

Very rarely is there a further premium for drilling into sub categories, so you’re free to be as specific as you need to be – Publishers won’t like it as it makes it harder for them to deliver, but stay strong and get the content you’re paying for.

Mashable post
Unimpressed Mashable fans

2 – Get the most out of audience data

When using Nielsen the most common flaw media buyers have is looking at total audience reach. No surprises that Mi9 or Yahoo7 have the most users of a particular demo, but it doesn’t indicate quality or relevance for the product you’re advertising. The best way to use Nielsen data is to look for the most relevant category breakdown and rank sites by greatest audience index (how rich is the site with your required audience). Whilst Nielsen audience data will always have its flaws over accuracy (as it’s panel based data), this method is the best indication we have in market at the moment. It allows you to weed out the sites who bloat their traffic with mainstream content sludge.

Once you have that data you can insert a layer of site quality to increase the value of your media. You can do this by taking the average user time spent on the site and divide it by the amount of pages they read, giving an average dwell time per page. If you pay for media on a CPM (cost per thousand impressions), it will give you more control to pick the sites where your ads are likely to appear next to engaging content and will therefore be viewed for longer.

3 – Embrace contextual technology

If there are specific content topics you want to appear next to then there’s ad technology which makes this a whole lot easier. Within real-time bidding platforms such as the DoubleClick Bid Manager, you can specify relevant keywords within your bidding strategy. Across millions of websites whenever a page is loading DoubleClick will read the page, detect a relevant keyword and bid on the ads around it. This is great for when you know what type of content you need to be next to, and you don’t mind where it is. For example with Kia’s new 7 year warranty, they can target any pages discussing ‘Car warranty’, and serve the audience a message with their unbeatable offer to an audience highly likely to be receptive to it.

As our media buying approach develops and our measurement technology evolves, hopefully publishers will be encouraged to focus on delighting their hard-earned community, rather than having to slap them in the face.

@martynshaw

Facebook’s ad model is the ultimate smoke screen for taking on the telcos

Since May 2012, over two years ago when Facebook finally filed for IPO their business has had an incredible amount of scrutiny cast over its business model. The main reason for this being a whopping $104 Billion valuation for a business that only managed to record less than 1% of that value in 2011 profit.

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg signs IPO
Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg signs IPO

Given Facebook were already showing signs of audience saturation in 2012 founder Mark Zuckerberg would surely have a hard time keeping investors happy, yet he’s always remained very confident in his mission, often alluding to long term and only last year asking for patience from his trigger happy shareholders.

Facebook have gone toe to toe with many rivals in the past, from Myspace, Twitter, a constant battle with Google for a variety of reasons, and a flirtation with eCommerce. In the midst of their feuds they even managed to make a friend in Apple, bonding over their mutual concern for Google’s potential. However it’s increasingly looking like their long term goal is setting their sights on the telcos, to turn their gravy train upside down and transform our communication ecosystem, and here’s why:

There’s no money in advertising

Well… not enough to satisfy Facebook’s shareholders anyway. In 2013 the company beat its chest over the great growth made within the space of two years to increase the revenue per user from approx $1.00 per quarter to $2.00.

Facebook revenue per user
Facebook revenue per user. Source: Fast Company, April 2014

That’s a pretty impressive increase but it’s still from a very low base. It shows that despite the groans of users having advertising clogging up their news feeds, Facebook actually make very little off a service that has become such a staple media diet in everyday life.

At $2.00 per person and with 1.3 Billion users it’s going to take ten years until they generate enough ad revenue to match the company valuation. Not to mention the fact they’re highly saturated in North America where their most profitable user base is located, so increasing their userbase may increase overall revenue, but they’ll likely become even less efficient per user.

You’d be right to wonder if it’s just Facebook making a mess of the ad model, and maybe they’re not charging enough for their ads; but as Forbes reports, other media owners are working to the same figures, so they’re staying competitive in market. LinkedIn and Yahoo! are roughly the same as Facebook, and whilst Google sit on a search goldmine, thrashing everyone in sight for profitability, they still only make 10 bucks a user.

Revenue per user. Source: Forbes
Quarterly revenue per user. Source: Forbes August 2013

Is selling goods and software the way forward?

So who does actually make money off their audience? Well it seems Amazon have hit the jackpot, they’ve reported that on average they generate an eye watering $968 per customer per year from an active user base of 244 Million. With comparatively only 19% of the user base (Amazon customers vs FB users), Amazon are clearly making the most of their audience. Apple are operating in a similar trend, building value from iOS users through app downloads and iTunes sales at an annual rate of $48.00 per user.

Amazon's new Fire TV and Apple TV
Amazon’s new Fire TV and Apple’s successful Apple TV product

Both are currently battling to increase their user value by supplying their audience’s living room content consumption, creating TV set top boxes Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV.

Rather than selling off your audience engagement as ad space, selling products and services to them directly would seem a more profitable way to make money – That would make sense wouldn’t it? Since that’s what the majority of advertisers are trying to do with their purchased ad space it would effectively cut out the middleman.

Both Apple and Amazon show that size of audience doesn’t necessarily equate to profitability; you can have all the traffic in the world but if you’re not harvesting revenue from it then surely it’s nothing but a vanity metric – Unless of course you have bigger ideas.

I’m sure at some point so far you’ve asked yourself why Facebook don’t just follow the model of recently purchased WhatsApp and charge a subscription fee? Surely the majority of Facebook users will be happy to pay $1 a month for access for Facebook and to avoid ads? When you consider how much people depend on the platform on a daily basis it would still be a bargain for its users and would deliver a 50% increase on the $8.00 annual revenue they’re currently getting from each user.

If you haven’t considered that then surely you’ve wondered why they haven’t gone hard on becoming a supplier of goods and content. Given Apple and Amazon’s success in making their audience work so hard for them.

The telco revenue potential is worth too much to get distracted by short term gains 

The truth is selling goods and content would slow Facebook down in their overall mission,  which I believe is to take on the telecommunication services. To do that they must keep growing connections as fast as they can as they’re absolutely fundamental to the telco business.

Telstra - It's How We Connect

Take Telstra for example, the leading telco here in Australia. They recently announced $25.5 Billion in profit for 2013, that’s more than triple the global revenue Facebook made whilst they announced huge growth! Not bad for an Australian company based in Melbourne; in a country which holds only 1.7% of the worlds GDP

Maximising users and therefore connections are vital to Facebook, whereas by putting up a paywall to access the platform they would almost be guaranteed to drop traffic no matter how low the cost is.

Whilst eCommerce revenue would be great in the short term it would serve as an unwelcome distraction to go down that route when the likes of Telstra and Vodafone are in their sights.

Connections monopoly

Facebook have a monopoly in connections, a currency which has so much potential yet so misunderstood by many. As stated in Metcalfe’s law the value of a network increases exponentially the bigger it grows; this is why in the 80’s mobile phones were seen as a yuppie luxury but in the 90’s as their popularity grew they became a necessity in everyday life.

Zuckerberg has repeatedly said his ‘mission’ is to connect the world, and whilst this sounds sentimental he’s deadly serious.

Metcalfe's Law
Metcalfe’s Law

As the graph shows the value of a network increases the more connected devices you have, which means whilst buying WhatsApp for $19 Billion may seem excessive, but it was highly worthwhile to Facebook’s mission. Adding those incremental connections to Facebook’s connected ecosystem was far more valuable to Facebook than it would be to anyone else due to the size of their pre-existing audience base; and I doubt they’ll stop there on buying connections.

Mark Zuckerberg -“We’ve made some long term bets on the future while staying focused on executing and improving our core products and business. We’re in great position to continue making progress towards our mission.”

As the diagram below shows, WhatsApp is very popular in Europe especially, far more common than Facebook Messenger. When it came to WhatsApp, Facebook had a choice: do they compete for connections using their messenger service or do they bite the bullet and just buy their connections?

Messenger service usage across the globe. Source: Techcrunch
Messenger service usage across the globe. Source: Techcrunch
Facebook's brand portfolio reach
Facebook’s brand portfolio reach Source: Fast Company

It seems Facebook are not looking to wait anymore, the outlay of $19 Billion to bring those connections in was deemed very worthwhile as they’re fully aware just how powerful a connections monopoly is.

Adding the acquisition of Instagram we can see Facebook don’t need to force everyone to use Facebook, they just need to build a portfolio of communities to maximise their connections’ reach.

What’s so important about connections?!

Let’s breakdown what a telecommunications company offers. It provides the ability to connect people and organisations with ease and importantly… at scale. Sounds pretty crucial, doesn’t it? Well, telcos know that already, and they know they can charge substantial fees for their services because of the lack of competition.

Telcos provide the ability to connect people and organisations. We can break this down into two attributes:

  1. Connections – A network, such as a social network
  2. Connectability – Infrastructure which facilitates communication

Connections – I hope by now we can tick off connections within Facebook’s plan, with their monopoly they’re probably the only business at the moment who have the potential to cover this. Google are a contender, but as personal email decays in usage their Gmail database is lagging the Facebook personal data source.

Google have incredible data on everyone, but they don’t hold personal connections since Google+ hasn’t worked out they way they wanted. Android penetration may open this up in the future.

Connectability – This is where the door has been blown wide open by the Internet, Mobile_phone_mastopen for businesses to infiltrate the profit margin of the telcos. Infrastructure has always been the telco’s ace card. They invested in telephone masts across the globe to carry data, and tapped into a universal phone number system shared between all the telcos to deliver the missing connection element.

As internet access becomes so important to society (again due to Metcalfe’s law) governments and tech developments will render internet access ubiquitous. Once internet access becomes a commodity, we will see connection costs drop rapidly.

The internet is eating away at the telco infrastructure with Skype providing a perfect example of their vulnerability. It comes as no surprise that WhatsApp announced Voice Over IP within weeks of being bought by Facebook, sharpening their teeth over the growing wireless revenue source highlighted by AT&T.

By leveraging the Internet, all it takes is for Facebook to grow their connections. Then their mission is underpinned by how fast the internet becomes a global commodity.

Surely it’s time they invested in growing the world’s access to the Internet? Oh wait…. Mark Zuckerberg has began spearheading Internet.org! A joint venture between tech companies to deliver greater internet access across the globe.

Internet.org have plans to deliver internet access in a variety of ways dependant on environment, incuding flying wifi routers, hovering in the sky! They’re not alone on this, Google are currently working on the same, naming it ‘Project Loon’, giving the world internet access with hot air balloons.

What’s holding Facebook back from competing with the telcos? 

The challenge for Facebook is twofold, firstly they need to maximise connections in order to make clunky phone numbers irrelevant. A user intuitive, pre populated phonebook with robust security access settings without the need to associate phone numbers is clearly a more user friendly solution. Until Facebook’s limited reach is addressed there’s still going to be a need for a 100% compatible and far reaching connections service to streamline business and personal communications.

Secondly, they need to drive ubiquitous internet access to devices as fast as they can through an alternative source, once this is done the power of telcos will be potentially matched, leaving Facebook to monetise the greatest network of people in the world, competing against the telco’s connection technology.

Facebook will be able to restructure the whole industry of communication access, whilst making the required profits to keep investors happy.

I live in hope that Zuckerberg will have a positive effect on the world’s communication structure, and that he keeps to his mission of connecting the world rather than shackling it with extortionate fees.

@martynshaw