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.