Social media in the age of free, unlimited information. Do people really want to be lied to?

Categories Insights

 

Do people want to be lied to? Why can’t they help uncovering the truth behind an informational gap, in an age where information is unlimited and free?

Information is everywhere. Information is free. We’re used to getting it all in one place, getting it all in exchange for nothing and we, most often than not, rely on single sources to argue our points of view or shape one’s positions regarding any given topic. After all, if it’s on the Internet, and if it appears in the top searches on Google, or is shared by a friend or a connection on a social network, it MUST be true. Right?

Social media became our number one source for information. Whatever we get in our news feed is most likely shaping our thoughts, changing our views, biasing our emotions and influencing our decisions. We are exposed to an overwhelming amount of information every day, which we cannot possibly ingest or have time to read. So we select. We sort our information based on some simple criteria: what’s interesting for us, proximity, what moves us, and most of all, what intrigues us.

But what happens when you have incomplete information? What happens when a title is lacking in essence, but provides enough keywords to intrigue our imagination? What happens when a story is inaccurate, but is easy to believe? It’s simple: we open it. We read it hoping we to uncover the mystery. We are so used to getting everything we need in one place that we are intrigued by the exact opposite.

There are 1.87 billion users on Facebook. This is a social network that emerged in 2004 and  skyrocketed ever since. It quickly became not only one of the biggest publishers in the world, but the main source of information for hundreds of millions of people every single day.  There are 600 million Instagram users, 550 million on Tumblr and 317 million on Twitter. These are all people that (some more actively than others) are reading, posting, commenting and sharing information – in all of its forms.

The result? The biggest change brought to us by social media – which is also the saddest story for traditional publications – is that everyone can now be an author.

Everyone is now a published writer  

This challenged the old paradigm, the so-called ”natural order of things” in the publishing industry. Blogs started emerging, regular people, with no expertise in a particular area, started getting online attention, unknown writers managed to get traction out of nowhere, and publications, online magazines, newspapers and any traditional content creation website had hundreds of new competitors overnight.

Being a writer – as a job – became more and more redundant since everyone is now a published and read author. If you analyze the traffic data of several top-rated blogs, you can hardly distinguish it from news websites.

For example, BuzzFeed, a website started as a blog, now has more than 220 million monthly visits. It started with no editors or writers, but rather with an “algorithm to cull stories from around the web that were showing stirrings of virality”. In comparison, Bloomberg, one of the most respected and credible publications in the world, has little more than 88 million visits per month. *(data compiled from SimilarWeb.com for February).

But in terms of revenue, credibility is no longer enough. When we talk about the digital world, a click is a click and one viewer’s profile is the same no matter if they go on Bloomberg or BuzzFeed. And this is just one example. There are hundreds of blogs that emerged from zero to an Internet sensation in just a flash.

So it’s no longer sufficient to deal with your historical direct competitors. Every one of your readers is now a potential competitor and promoter at the same time. If they decide they like your story, they will share it, you will gain more traffic, and subsequently higher revenue. If they don’t like it, they will leave a comment, in which case their friends, connections or acquaintances will still see your post, maybe interact with it, pour out their frustrations or dissatisfaction, but add to your visibility in the process – technically still a win for you.

But what if they decide they like the story so much that they wants to make one of their own? They will then find inspiration in your article, write a story of their own, and, given the humongous amount of publishing instruments available for free on social media, they will promote it the best they can. And their network of people will no longer see your story, but rather their own. So what do you do?   

“Sugar, spice and everything nice”  

This is where publications had to adapt. With the explosion of social media, a new KPI was born: virality. This relatively new term is defined as “the tendency of an image, video, or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another; the quality or fact of being viral”.

Publishers had to reinvent themselves. Editors had to change the way they promote their stories. The titles became more intriguing, the images more attractive. “Sugar, spice and everything nice” became more relevant than ever.

But in the rush of getting more traffic to their websites, they soon realized that an attractive title is no longer enough if the information is readily available in the title. There’s no reason for the casual reader to click. They don’t have time to read THE ENTIRE article, they just see the title and it’s enough as a conversation starter or a casual wise-line in a discussion, you can still appear to be informed.

So everyone started to shorten the titles, give them a little “je ne sais-quoi”, until that became an actual fact – most of the time you don’t really know what to expect when you read a title, you can just assume that it’s not misleading. But you can’t know for sure until you click, can you? So you click. And maybe you like the article, which proved to be really interesting. OK, maybe it’s not exactly what it sounded like when you first clicked on it, maybe the title really was clickbait. But you still liked the information. So you share it. And others will repeat the process you just went through. And so, the white-lie becomes viral. A somewhat misleading title, combined with an attractive image, the “secret sauce” that makes your recipe win the virality game.

Flawed priorities when it comes to KPIs of content platforms?

One of the reasons behind this ever-so-common practice is the fact that most of the time, publications have their KPIs all wrong. They emphasize the need to get traffic so much, that the KPIs of almost every publication lead with unique users and visits. They forget that quality is what drives a user to return and getting what you paid (clicked) for is the number one way to transform a one-time viewer into a returning visitor to your website. Bounce rates skyrocket, time spent on page rapidly decreases, and all this is due to bad priorities when it comes to their key performance indicators.

So the question is, do people really like to be lied to? No, but as long as the lie is proven to be interesting or appealing, in the social media world nobody will care that much. And after all, what do we all long for? Most of the time, a polished lie makes up for a better story than the hard truth, and that is what news agencies, content creators and publishers have to figure out a way to solve.

Your priority should be convincing visitors to return

If we look at content websites, there are multiple ways to monetize traffic. I’ve put together a list of several possible content-specific business models for the digital world. The list is not exhaustive complete, there are countless ways to make money, but these are the most common business models I’ve encountered or worked with:

  • Free content, supported by ads
  • Subscription
  • Freemium
  • Affiliate & Content that help companies saves money

The reason I’ve compiled this list was to show that, in each particular case, your revenue stream is dependent upon one metric, one KPI that rules them all: returning users, who are the bread and butter of every content-driven business. 

Check our blog for the analysis of every content business model.

Sebastian is a journalist and digital strategist with years of experience in the news industry, social media, content creation & management and web analytics.


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