Note from Jimmy Hua: Making money is always good.
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Though social media has proved itself an effective tool in helping journalists gather news and connect with their communities, a pervading question among the skeptics still remains: Where’s the money?
As social sites like Twitter and Facebook build their empires and seek to remedy their own financial instability in the hope of turning profits, news organizations are experimenting with ways to monetize their social media presence and leverage the social web to complete an online revenue puzzle.
The revenue is there, but the social web won’t necessarily solve that puzzle. “There’s no silver bullet,” Jim Brady, the general manager at TBD.com, said at the Online News Association Conference last week. “There’s just shrapnel, pieces of revenue.” Brady, who launched TBD.com this summer, said display ads are certainly not the future in revenue for news and that it will come from multiple revenue streams. News organizations have certainly been experimenting where they can to get revenue in pieces, from mobile applications to launching group buying sites. Here’s a closer look at some of these efforts.
Self-Serve “Real Time Ads”
Much of online advertising consists of static display ads that are sold based on a CPM ad model, a varying price per 1,000 impressions. An advertiser delivers an ad design that then rotates with others on the site. What if small business advertisers could change the message of that ad in real time?
That’s the idea of Minnpost.com’s Real Time Ads, which essentially use customized widgets that pull in messages from an advertiser’s Twitter, Facebook or YouTube accounts. Local businesses can buy the widget space for a specified amount of time, instead of a CPM model, and are able to update the content whenever they’d like, making each message timely and perfect for a daily deal or promotion.
It is especially useful for local business. Even if they don’t have a social profile or an RSS feed to attach to the ad, they can update their ad by e-mailing a new message to their account, said Karl Pearson-Cater, director of operations at Minnpost.com — a non-profit news organization that relies largely on donations.
“Advertisers love real-time ads. The biggest benefit is how easy it is to get set up and how easy it is to maintain,” Pearson-Cater said.
If real-time ads work for Minnpost.com, Pearson-Cater said they can help adapt the platform for other publishers as well. In the past few months, he said they’ve begun to see a significant revenue stream. They now have approximately $15,000 in annual contracts using real-time ads.
At Yahoo! News, Anna Robertson, director of social media and original video, said they’re considering sponsorships around social widgets on pages as well, or another form of sponsored modules. It’s likely that this form of advertising will become more prevalent across news sites.
At TBD.com, Brady and his team are leveraging a network of blogs to sell distributed ads. When they come to advertisers, they’re able to sell ads across a network of 196 blogs, which they share 35% of the revenue with. It’s a win-win for TBD and its partners that get revenue they may not have gotten otherwise.
Another approach, of course, is being on the receiving end of social partnerships or revenue sharing. YouTube, for example, shares revenue made through AdSense and publishers can have Promoted Videos run on their page. And as of late, YouTube has become even more sophisticated in making money off of copyright infringers, sharing revenue with the original publishers.
On websites, display ads coexist beside content on a page. But more and more content is becoming part of the social news stream. Users are becoming more accustomed to receiving and digesting information in a stream format on Facebook, Twitter and other sites that display updates in real time. Because people often engage the content in the social space and may not even come directly to the site, monetizing social media off-site is just as important, said Mike Orren, president and founder of Pegasus News in Texas.
“The thing that hasn’t been figured out is how to do so without alienating the social media audience that seems generally trained to disdain ’sponsored’ postings,” Orren said. But of course, that could change.
It’s also important to set clear user expectations of what’s what. Robertson from Yahoo! News said if done effectively, while protecting “church and state,” it can be a good option. She said it’s up to the news organizations to be transparent about what is an ad and what’s content in order to protect journalistic integrity.
Twitter has begun releasing several products to monetize its service, including Promoted Tweets, which are sponsored messages that are featured within a user’s stream. However, news companies have experimented with selling in-stream messages to advertisers and sponsors. The Austin-American Statesman experimented with selling sponsored tweets for $300 per day for two tweets. And according to the paper’s social media editor Robert Quigley, who had to approve the tweets before they went out, followers found them non-intrusive.
In fact, sites like Ad.ly work with advertisers who buy sponsored messages that appear on their participating partners’ Facebook Pages, Twitter accounts and mobile and site widgets. Its partners include a slew of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and publications like TIME.com.
Laura Heck, director of business development at TIME.com, said more publishers are starting to experiment with this format. At TIME.com, Heck said they’ve recently begun to offer advertisers access to its 2.2 million Twitter followers and 165,000+ Facebook fans for sponsored messages. Heck said they’ve put strict rules in place for the type of messages they will feature, frequency, etc., to make sure it doesn’t hinder the user experience.
Selling Traffic and Amplification
The ROI for news companies putting resources to build their social presence has often been a more “engaged” community of readers, a notion that is too often measured by a sheer increase in traffic referrals from social sites or more time spent on site. Many defend social investment by showcasing an increase in traffic, traffic that can then, hypothetically, sell more ads.
Ken Doctor, author of Newsonomics and news industry analyst at Outsell, said social networks have become the fastest growing source of traffic referrals for many news sites. For many, social sites like Facebook and Twitter account for 10% to 15% of their overall referrals, but are number one in growth. The results are even more heavy on social for news startups like CapitalNY, Doctor said, who get 40% or more of their traffic from social. And of course, the quality of these referrals is often better than those readers who come from search. They yield better conversation and are more likely to become regular users of the site, he said.
Though many news organizations have driven traffic organically, The Washington Post recently bought #Election as a “Promoted Trend” on Twitter, which then highlighted its tweet above others using the hashtag in Twitter conversation, likely resulting in a big increase in referrals from visitors who came across the Promoted Trend above all others in the Trends sidebar.
“When we talked with Twitter about the idea, we thought it was a great opportunity to be innovative, go to readers and highlight our content front and center with Twitter’s vast and engaged audience,” said Katharine Zaleski, executive producer and head of digital news products. “The idea wasn’t just to sponsor The Post, but rather, we chose a broad hashtag, probably the broadest for elections, to be able to aggregate the best election tweets from multiple sources and not just us.”
But perhaps more importantly, social amplification has become part of the sell. On top of the site metrics and reach, advertisers want to now know how the content will be amplified off the site with social media. Such is the case with content sponsorships. If an advertiser has its name on a piece of content that they sponsored, they also want to know how many times it was retweeted, shared on Facebook, dugg on Digg, etc. For example, TIME worked with an advertiser on a “Stay Connected” package, which included leveraging social features on TIME.com and its social networks.
Making Ads More Social
Advertisers have begun trying to make ads more social by adding a Facebook “Like” button within the frame or a stream of tweets that make the ad something that readers can interact with. It’s a light-weight way to get users to engage with and even sometimes share advertisements with their social networks while helping advertisers increase their one-to-one relationship with readers by growing their own social following, said Heck from TIME.com.
“Ads are increasingly becoming more social as we’re giving users the ability to engage with and share the ad content,” Heck said.
The idea of course is that users are far more responsive to content recommended by their friends or personal connections rather than content from a branded account or page. At TIME.com, Heck said they’re working on identifying ways to include advertiser branding within shared content. But the details of that formula have yet to be worked out.
Sponsored Contests and Social Campaigns
On-site social media contests can often satisfy an advertiser’s need for amplification and offer a way to engage readers and users with their product in a unique way. There are several routes. Contests can be sold as a package –- on their own or as an up-sell to a sponsorship or ad on the site. Orren from Pegasus News said his organization will only run contests for paying advertisers.
“Part of the promise there is a push through all of our relevant social media,” Orren said. “This is still an added value, but increasingly, advertisers want to know about the reach and engagement of our social nets in making their buying decisions.”
Depending on the product readers are competing for, it may have enough value for the news site to simply use it as a tool to drive traffic and engagement among its audience. In such a case, the advertiser gets exposure to its product or company, while the news site has a community that perhaps feels more appreciated. Contests, however, take time and effort by the staff conducting them and the ROI should be strongly considered. It’s not just a display ad, but results in essentially being a campaign for the product. If a contest wasn’t sold, the amount of time and investment should be considered appropriately.
Leveraging Social Site Real Estate
Though display ads may not be the future, they can be simple to integrate on social sites. News organizations like TIME and more recently the Silicon Alley Insider have sold their Twitter backgrounds as a social display ad.
Similar to readers landing on TIME.com and being exposed to display ads on the site, Twitter users landing on @TIME on Twitter were also exposed to a display ad in the background. Thinking creatively and putting effort to sell those spaces can make them more valuable by adding another spot for display inventory.
What’s Next? Personalized Social Ads
The start and glimmer of what’s possible with personalized and more socially targeted ads has been the result of news organizations like The New York Times and others selling advertising that specifically targets readers who came to the site through Facebook or Twitter. Twitter itself has targeted its Promoted Tweets in the stream based on relevancy, though it is sometimes tied to a Promoted Trend.
News organizations could take advantage of building structured data to better target their advertisements to readers, and perhaps even making advertisements more useful. Of course, this already takes place at a lot of organizations. At Pegasus News, Orren said its entire business model centers on using structured data to customize display ads with all of its content being tagged using a hierarchical taxonomy of more than 3,000 local topics and geography. But, he said, the company hasn’t yet figured out how to take that offsite or to open the flow of data between its sites and the social web, while at the same time respecting privacy.
Doctor said he sees social media optimization as a driver of audience and engagement, and that engagement getting monetized through targeting, rather than blasting social marketing pushes. Being able to get more sophisticated in targeting individuals and specific communities will make monetization efforts easier.
Social media, which effectively has infiltrated all corners of the web, has great potential in not only bringing in revenue but also making ads more useful to readers while also satisfying the needs of advertisers aiming to effectively reach the public. The social web can change the way we think about ads, by making them social and personalized to create utility for the user.
Robertson, from Yahoo! News, said we’re just at the beginning of this space. Yahoo acquired Citizen Sports close to a year ago and it’s done a good job of bringing in revenue attached to social media streams. Yahoo is working to scale some of the concepts to news, Robertson said.
“This is still a fairly new space with a lot of opportunity for news organizations and brands to experiment and innovate,” she said.
More Social Media Resources from Mashable:
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