March 5th, 2007

Who’s Right About The Social Media Revolution — The People Or The Revolutionaries?

by

What are we to conclude from stark contrast between the (sometimes breathless) praise of USA Today’s “social media” redesign among tech/media bloggers and commentators (with some saying they didn’t go far enough), and the near universal rejection of the redesign among USA Today readers who commented on it? Could it be that it’s really the social media revolutionaries who “don’t get it” when they assume that what the people want is to rise up against the media autocracy and take control, when in fact what most people want is to get high quality information from a reliable source? Or are the negative comments on USA Today’s redesign merely a reflection of the small percentage of users who are always disgruntled when you make a change?

As with most things, I think the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Tech/media bloggers do tend to overestimate the demand for “social” everything among the masses of mainstream users, while many media companies have indeed been slow to take even obvious steps like allowing every item of content to accept comments.

Bottom line is that whether you think USA Today went too far or not far enough, the reality is that the only way for them to find out was to try. So kudos to them for trying and, hopefully, learning. The rest of us in media are fortunate to be able to learn from their experiment as well.

Beyond that, my only other comment is that the word “social” continues to obfuscate more than it elucidates — if you told the average USA Today user that the redesign made the site more “social,” they’d probably have no idea what you’re talking about. But if you said, you can now add your comments to any story and create a profile that keeps track of all your comments, and you can also vote on whether you think a story is important, they’d be able to make a real judgement about the value to them, which will inevitably range from high value to no value.

  • Will Social Networks and Vertical Search combine to challenge Google?

    Publishers and advertising agencies have a very difficult challenge ahead as traditional “horizontal” media like newspapers, TV channels and magazines see their traditional demographics and advertising revenue streams fragmented by the increasing preference of consumers for online access and the huge presence of Google eroding their audiences and potential future revenues.

    Perhaps they should remember the words of Sun Tsu, who once said: “When the enemy is too strong to attack directly, then attack something he holds dear. Know that in all things he cannot be superior. Somewhere there is a gap in the armour, a weakness that can be attacked instead.”

    Google’s major strength - the clean search box and the ease of use, commoditised ad revenues, perhaps masks its principal weakness. As media content and advertising revenues fragment to serve thousands and thousands of “vertical” online communities based on lifestyle or profession, Google may suddenly seem standardised, commoditised and lacking a sense of unique community. Is Google becoming Wal-Mart, while vertical communities may prefer Harrods?

    Whilst “horizontal” media companies are similar to supermarkets, specialist professional “vertical” publishers are very specific in serving niche communities with totally relevant content and requirements. However, the publisher’s principal operating difficulty in becoming adaptive to this asymmetric Web 2.0 opportunity is that most tend to run each of their print, exhibition and online titles/businesses as separate profit and loss items on their balance sheet. As a by-product the vast majority tend not to have a centralised IT infrastructure or the human IT skill sets to manage a large scale data centre or web spidering facility - the prerequisites needed to datamine and aggregate open source, user generated and blog content to create vertical slices of the Web that are relevant for their audiences. Publishers will also need to integrate this content into the online extensions of their print brands and thereby allowing advertisers the opportunity to target high value communities. In addition, the datamining, crawling and hosting to identify relevant open source content will also need to be a continual process due to the continual growth of user generated and open source content.

    Convera have two very large data centres, an extensive web spidering capability and a web index. Convera are now partnering with a significant number of specialist B2B publishers to create a range of vertical websites for specific professional communities. The first example of this is Searchmedica.com with UBM.

    In building the deep vertical search portals, the key is to reach into the specific professional community in a number of ways. First, you can combined the trade publisher’s knowledge and contacts in the profession with community appeals that engage the specific audience in a way that general search cannot, and also by taking special care to use the taxonomies common to the targeted profession in organizing search results so that the user feels more at home and among peers. Building a good vertical engine can be costly and time consuming, and getting a critical mass of users to de-Google their search habits into more specialized engines is potentially a tough sell. However, in tests with focus groups from different professional communities to test these vertical search properties against Google, the results are hugely encouraging.

    In building the beta test sites, the specialist publishers are providing Convera with “white lists” of data sources online and websites that would be most relevant to its readers so that the searches are restricted to reliable and trusted information. Publishers are also securing agreements with owners of key proprietary content not normally crawled by Google by leveraging some of its contacts and resources so that Convera can crawl and deliver some of their proprietary content.

    Another key consideration is getting the user community engaged in the process as co-developers. No matter how bad the results at Google or Yahoo may be for a given professional segment, the interface is familiar and the destination is always at hand. Getting users to think of a specialized brand as the go-to place for business information is the challenge.

    A number of publishers are actively assessing the potential of adding social networking to the mix in order to get professionals interacting with each other and adding weekly podcasts by industry experts on issues affecting the community - these additional services will create more community loyalty and also additional advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

    The publishers can also use their print titles to drive the audience to the new online areas and this will also assist the transition of their high value print ad revenues to online. Publishers also have exhibitions, seminars, events and email newsletters to assist this transition - and recent research suggests that professional communities will actively attend seminars and events to meet peers and other members
    of their community. The theory goes that once you get some professionals involved then the viral mechanism or behavioural “Hive Mind” also kicks in and professional workers start referring to the vertical portal as a community source. It is also allows advertisers and public relations organisations access to a clearly defined, affluent, influential and stable audience.

    Google does not allow you to have a beer with a potential business partner - it doesn’t have that sense of community. But Google is fighting back - the recent launch of Google Custom Search and acquisition of teenage social network sites indicates they are aware of their weakness - but specialist publishers see this as a Trojan Horse. Social networks for teenagers are highly transient and target a demographic that is volatile, unpredictable and has a low level of disposable income - whereas a social network alongside a vertical search service for 22,000 bio-chemists, 55,000 UK GP’s, 55,000 insurance risk assessors or 120,000 US psychiatrists is stable, affluent and attractive for advertisers.

  • I'd agree with Joe, but most people don't know how to shoot.

  • It seems to me that in a meeting at USAToday's offices, someone told them that making the site look and feel better was somewhat mutually exclusive from offering social features, so they chose "social and really ugly" over "not social but more visually appealing".

    As a designer and someone who visits many news sites each day (New York Magazine, NY Times, Newsvine, Daylife, etc.) I can honestly say this is the most appalling visual redesign I've seen in awhile. There are huge gaps of whitespace randomly strewn through the interface, major news article headlines are in the smallest font possible, images are not integrated thoughtfully within each article's masthead box, they do not explain what the random small colored blocks mean throughout the interface, the bottom half of each page looks like someone just gave up and never designed it, etc., etc.

    So are "the people" right or the bloggers on TechMeme? Notice that everyone who is praising the social features on this site is praising *the technology* first and not even mentioning the shotty, haphazard user experience, but isn't that what Web 2.0 is all about? Fawning over Ajax technical implementations and programming libraries before noting that nothing is actually *designed*? Seems like all the technical or social media prowess on the planet can't buy you happy users, and USAToday is learning that firsthand.

  • I don't think the USAT debacle is a verdict on social media. Rather it reflects a lack of understanding of its user base and utter disregard for user testing 101. The changes were overwhelming and most users seem to be commenting on the layout rather than the social features.
    I am a big fan of social media but I don't see any wisdom in killing the features that users obviously liked. The key lesson here is that if publishers want to test their user base's response to social media features, they should roll out the new features - few at a time to monitor the response.
    As mentioned in the post, value of the offering should be communicated clearly to the users, rather than getting hung up on what it's called, "social" or otherwise.

  • dawdler

    As Don Dodge pointed out in his blog, a lot of the negative feedback is targeted not at the addition of "social" features, but at the dramatically different layout/UI. (I scanned the comments and can definitely confirm this). Many people had a problem with reading the new layout and finding their news, not whether or not they could comment or see what stories are most popular or whatever.

    But of course most bloggers immedietely conflate all the negative feedback with the "social" features and completely ignore whether or not layout and UI design have anything to do with it.

    I don't necessarily agree that there is this schism with regards to social media between those in the know and the "mainstream". I think USA today went too far with layout - not necessarily with features.

    Is it possible that USA Today could have incorporated many of the new "social" features while changing the layout less? I think probably - but I don't know for sure.

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