The days of search engine optimization (SEO) as a critical audience-driving strategy for digital publishers are numbered. Forward-looking marketers need to educate themselves about a far more meaningful and effective way of bringing audiences to media destinations -- social media optimization (SMO.)
Unlike SEO, which uses algorithms to rank top search results, SMO uses the will of the audience to determine what's important. More significantly, SMO puts a digital face on every member of the audience. Unlike SEO, it differentiates and distinguishes individuals, making sense of their specific content wants and needs. There are no false, fruitless, or futile searches that approximate what people are seeking. Fueled by the passionate participation of real people articulating real interests, it eliminates the fuzzy proxy of an algorithm as middleman. The good news for publishers is that the editorial product is back on top above the technology, as content words replace keywords in importance.
The dramatic shift in web navigation as the social network replaces the search engine as the start page translates into the average web user spending almost three times as much time on Facebook than Google. (For those ages 12-24, it's more than four times!) Reengineering your approach to distribution for the social web is more critical than ever before. With that said, here are the seven most important elements of an effective SMO program for any premier publisher.
Know precisely what the audience wants
The idea of SEO was based on appealing to search engines -- if you compel Google's attention, then Google will bring you more audience. But we are now entering the post-Google age of digital media, and in this social age, the new formula is that if you compel your target's attention, those individuals will bring you more audience. Whereas, Google played an arrogant and reigning monarch, Facebook is a representative democracy -- it listens to the audience and amplifies what it hears.
The first step is winning the attention of the audience and knowing what it wants, not just in the abstract. The key question is, what do they want from you (i.e. what is your brand good for, in their opinion), and when and how do they want it?
Fortunately, this data is abundant. You can find it in your analytics system, in customer research, in your competitors' wins, and at any time of day on Twitter. The trick is to make use of that data to find insight.
Knowing what the audience wants means asking and observing them and then marrying those observations with creative vision. When we started our company, we asked the audience about the shortcomings of their TV viewing experience, and we found out that there was an opportunity to extend the relationship with their favorite shows by completing it with more gossip, news, photos, recaps, and other content connectors. So that is the content we produce. Then, we track what gets consumed when and by whom. We found that our users watch longer videos disproportionately in the evening, so we gear our programming to deliver those videos after the work-day ends.
Ask the audience often; it gives you need-to-know answers, and gets people immediately engaged in the conversation.
Build your fanbase
I can guarantee that the tactics of SMO will change over time, in much the same way that social media will change drastically. But today, Facebook and Twitter are the two significant social media distributors -- Facebook is analogous to the retail side of the media economy, serving consumers directly, while Twitter drives media distribution behind the scenes on a wholesale basis. Together, these two make up the vast majority of the media distribution landscape.
An effective SMO strategy doesn't just sit and hope Facebook and Twitter start coalescing the greatness of your website by telekinesis. Instead, it's up to savvy publishers to get the party started. Set up a marketing drive to bring your fans to your fan page. Use Facebook's advertising platform to help make potential fans aware of you. And, above all, build a base of influencers to a size that approaches critical mass, so that you are fully connected within the social network from the beginning, rather than sitting outside just looking in.
Create content worth spreading
Instead, the way to put the social wind at your back is to publish content that is worthy of being shared -- and to wrap it in experiences that your users can't wait to share with their friends -- with pride -- which is the emotional fuel that powers the Like button. With your audience as the judge, it's all about the quality of what you share with people.
I can't think of anyone who has surrounded this idea more than the organizers of TED. With an iconic focus throughout its entire organization and community on "ideas worth spreading," TED has created an influential community of audience and participants by focusing on incredible -- world-changing -- ideas and experiences. And in the process, it has built an audience of mind-blowing quality and quantity, with a top-1,000 website by the numbers, and even greater elite status if you factor in impact.
Package to get attention
OK, so in a social world you're not competing for Google's attention. No, far harder, you're competing for attention in a Facebook feed or Twitter stream like a light bulb in Times Square at night. My homepage view on Facebook is pre-loaded with 33 posts vying for my attention; and Twitter's endless scroll appeals to the insatiability of my appetite like the bottomless salad part of the Olive Garden experience. We crave infinity as much as it overwhelms us.
As far as Facebook and Twitter are concerned, their value proposition is more, but for publishers it's a different story -- it's about being best. Standing out in that crowded field puts the focus not just on what you say, but on how it's said -- what are the iconic images and headlines that appear in a Facebook feed, and how do you maximize the 140 merchandising opportunities in a Tweet?
The editors at The Huffington Post have made themselves experts in both the art and science of packaging. They start with the artful side by writing compelling -- even at times sensationalistic -- headlines designed to grab attention, and that compounds their expert capability with a scientific approach. It's no wonder that The Huffington Post has seen a tremendous boost from social networks fueling its explosive growth overall.
Design for virality
Viral distribution is about much more than the content itself -- it's also about an experience that promotes sharing. Your site, your experience, and your Facebook page all need to be designed for virality. Turn content into interactive features with sharing.
It starts with greasing the gears. Make sharing easy by:
- Including the familiar icons and social traction
- Placing them in obvious intersections where readers should want to share (middle/end of article vs. homepage)
- Pulling in social conversations relevant to your content -- what are people saying on your Facebook page and Twitter, and how can they participate in that conversation right from your site?
Doing all three of these things provides a tightly integrated social experience.
The Huffington Post is one of the leaders here as well with its "hot on" feature and prolific integration of social sharing at the right points. But still more needs to be done. How do I know which stories should be hottest for me and my friends? And wouldn't it be awesome if I could see content that my friends would like but haven't read yet? Then I'd be the water cooler cool guy, the first person to send it to them, and we'd have a system that cues it all up for me.
Engage and reward your audience
This means getting involved in the conversation to incite dialogue, talk alongside your users, and ask them what they want. Closely related to this is making the conversation authentic: Engage your audience like a true fan, not a marketing PR executive.
And here's the key to rewarding your audience -- it's all about appealing to people's emotional desire to feel important. Rewards for these folks are intrinsic to the sharing itself. For example, on Twitter, the reward is getting more followers and retweets, helping to build social capital and prestige.
You've also got to recognize people with your content when they do something awesome. For example, curate a trend they break on a related theme. Call out the forum/message board they run when they post the content. Engage in the conversation they start. It's a two-way street. This will amplify their interest in you, and reinforce their desire to build reach for you.
The core measurements of SEO are obscured by the fact that Google reveals scant details of quality and page rank, but SMO strategies, on the other hand, are completely measurable. On each and every page, you can measure how many people viewed it and shared it, and how many more people that brings. You can test and vary every element, from the window-frame of tools that promote sharing and sharers, to the content itself. Test rigorously, and learn what works for your property and your audience -- and do more of that.
These are just seven of the most important ways that SMO can be effectively deployed. The most important thing right now is recognizing that SEO is fading away, and that we are embarking on the post-Google age of digital media, which will, once again, change all the rules of engagement -- almost certainly for the better.