Readers won’t share ads

By Felix Salmon
July 14, 2011
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Is there a company in the world which isn’t trying to “harness and leverage the power of social media to amplify our brand” or somesuch? I’m a pretty small fish in the Twitter pond, and I get asked on a very regular basis to talk to various marketing types about how they should be using Twitter. A smart organization with a big Twitter presence, then, will naturally start trying to leverage its ability to leverage Twitter by putting together sophisticated presentations full of “insights to help marketers align their content-sharing strategies” and the like. Which is exactly what the New York Times has just done.

The slideshow can be found here, and it’s worth downloading just to see how many photos the NYT art department could find of good-looking young people looking happy in minimalist houses. But it actually includes some interesting insights, too, which were spelled out at a conference yesterday by Brian Brett of the NYT Customer Research Group.

The survey claims to be the first of its kind on why people share content, which is a very good question. A large part of how people enjoy themselves online these days is by creating and sharing content, which is both exciting and a little bit scary for anybody in a media organization. And the NYT methodology was fun, too: aside from the standard surveys and interviews, they asked a bunch of people who don’t normally share much to spend a week sharing a lot; and they also asked a lot of heavy sharers to spend a week sharing nothing. (“It was like quitting smoking,” said one, “only harder”.)

The first striking insight is about the degree to which the act of sharing deepens understanding. It’s not at all surprising to learn that 85% of people say that they use other people’s responses to help them understand and process information — in fact 100% of people do that, and they’ve been doing it for centuries. We always react to news and information in large part by looking at how other people react to it.

But more interesting is the fact that 73% of people say that the simple act of sharing a piece of information with others makes them likely to process that information more deeply and thoughtfully. It’s like writing things down to remember them: the more you engage with something, the more important and salient it becomes to you.

This has interesting implications for anybody including sharing functionality on their website. Something like the Huffington Post Twitter module, when it works, makes such sharing unbelievably easy: it comes pre-loaded with a comment and a link, all you need to do is press the button and the content is shared. If you click on a share button and then click the “tweet this” button, that’s two clicks — a bit harder. If you edit the content of the tweet, that’s more engagement still. If you select a passage to share on Tumblr, that’s even more; if you write a long blog entry about the piece, then you’re really engaged. The easier you make sharing, the more sharing there will be — but you’ll be paying a cost in terms of the strength of the relationship you have with the people who do share your stuff.

Another implication here is that people who share content in laborious ways are more engaged than power users. If you copy a URL, paste it into TinyURL to shorten it, copy the shortened URL, go to the twitter.com website, paste it into the box, add a comment — that’s a lot of work going into sharing, compared to someone who has all that kind of thing automated in a toolbar button. And the greater the amount of effort involved, the stronger the relationship between site and sharer, as a rule.

Up until now, most of the emphasis, when it comes to sharing, has been on sharing as a distribution mechanism — if I tweet a link, thousands of people might see it and maybe even follow that link, so publishers love it when I tweet their stories. It’s still very early days, however, in terms of sharing as a relationship-building mechanism — the way in which when I tweet a link, I strengthen my relationship with whatever or whoever I’m sharing. One thing very few sites do, but which should be much more common, is to automatically include the twitter handle of the author of a story in the auto-tweeted text, along with or even instead of the twitter handle of the site the story comes from. After all, social media is about person-to-person relationships, and that kind of thing can do wonders for a writer’s relationship with the people tweeting their stories.

Brett mentioned at the end of his presentation that email was still the most common form of content sharing — not in terms of the number of people reached, but in terms of the number of people reaching out to others. That’s important too, and has been underemphasized up until now. It’s great to reach new people who see your stuff only after it’s shared with them. But it’s equally great to have such fantastic content that people want to share it, even if it’s just by email. Anybody sharing your content is an especially precious user, who loves your stuff and who should be thanked and cultivated as much as possible. (It should go without saying, of course, that it’s downright idiotic to antagonize those people and accuse them of breaking the law.)

The main theme running through the NYT report is the decidedly unsurprising conclusion that social media is social — people use it to define themselves to others, to stay connected to others, to influence others. Human relationships are vastly more important than brands, which is why it’s hard to build a corporate brand on Twitter, and the companies which manage to do so generally do so in a highly labor-intensive manner, one @-reply at a time.

Which is why it’s fascinating to me that this report is aimed at, and was commissioned in service of, the companies which use the NYT for their brand advertising. Brand advertising is important and powerful, but it’s not particularly social; not all brands can or should be fighting to become the rare Old Spice or Volkswagen with a viral ad campaign. And if you do have a viral ad campaign, you don’t really need or want it on nytimes.com. The press release, however, makes it clear that the findings are aimed very much at advertisers, as opposed to the editorial-technology people who would probably find it much more useful:

“The New York Times has invested heavily in social media across our organization, both in our own business and to create industry-leading integrated opportunities for our valued advertisers. As online sharing continues to grow as a tool for marketers, we saw an opportunity to add value to the conversation, by studying why people share online,” said Denise Warren, senior vice president and chief advertising officer, The New York Times Media Group, and general manager, NYTimes.com. “These findings are part of our ongoing commitment to help advertisers effectively reach and communicate with consumers through engaging, successful and creative campaigns.”

It seems to me that the NYT, here, is going along with the fiction that high-profile brand advertising in the NYT can and should be social. If that’s what the advertisers think they want, that’s what we’ll give them. But the smart advertisers will ignore all this — just as they ignored other useless distractions like click-through rates. We know that only idiots click on ads; what makes us think that people who not only click on ads but actively share them will be any smarter?

Viral videos — the rather fabulous K-Swiss one being just the latest example — are all well and good. But high-end websites like nytimes.com are no place for viral videos, or for sharing tools embedded in ads. Those are a bit like the QR codes you see on posters: a sign of fad-following desperation and a good sign that the advertiser doesn’t have faith in the creatives they’ve hired. Brand advertising isn’t and shouldn’t be transactional. And I’m a bit worried that the NYT is enabling those who think it can be.

2 comments

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One of your most thought-provoking posts, and perhaps the most salient question of our times. I’ll add a reason – sharing helps clarify your thinking. If you’re not able to elucidate your thought clearly to others, it causes you to rethink whether the thought has any validity at all.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Just looked through the presentation. While interesting, I have to note that only the NYT can believe that in-person interviews (phase 1) in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco would give them a broad spectrum of data.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive