Activating social content: streams, protocols and dark social

Content becomes social when your audience shares it with their connections via email, chat rooms, or social networks such as Twitter. An effective social content strategy optimises this sharing so that your content reaches as many people as possible. By reaching a wide audience you increase the potential to attract and retain clients, generate leads, improve engagement and build an online community.

A few current and predicted trends are worth understanding to help you shape your social content strategy. Firstly, there is a shift in your audience preference towards accessing content in app-based streams. There is a prediction of the emergence of social media as a protocol, rather than a platform, and there is the puzzle of uncovering ‘dark social’.

To measure the success of social content, you need to understand how an audience is referred to your content. This can be tricky with ‘direct’ traffic, i.e. when someone clicks on a deep link to your content via email, in chat rooms, or through some apps and secure sites shared with them by one of their friends or colleagues. This is because you can’t trace the path they took to get there. Alexis Madrigal has coined the phrase ‘dark social’ to describe this traffic. He quotes an analysis of media sites which showed amongst those sites that almost 69 per cent of referrals are dark social, with Facebook coming in at 20 per cent and Twitter at per cent.  If these results are indicative of a wider trend, then sharing of your content happens primarily outside of the major social networks. This empahises the importance of not relying solely on these networks for activating the sharing of your content. Your social content strategy should also focus on direct referrals such as email marketing, and reaching out to bloggers and influencers.

In order to optimise the social spread of content via social networks, you currently have no choice but to cross-post it to multiple destinations such as Google+, Facebook, and Tumblr. This is the only way to reach your audience, which is dispersed across the ever-expanding selection of social networks. Thomas Baekdal calls this a state of social media fatigue.

Third-party tools such as Hootsuite and Sprout Social simplify things a little by allowing you to maintain multiple profiles and publish content across a variety of social networks via an integrated dashboard, but this is a stopgap measure.

Baekdal proposes that there will be a shift towards social media as a protocol. This would enable content to be published on whichever social network suits you. Your audience would view it via their social network of choice. This would work much the same way as email protocol. For example, if you are on Outlook, you can seamlessly send and receive emails with someone on Gmail.

This seems hard to imagine at the moment, with platforms such as Twitter starting to restrict third-party access to cross-posting content. However, if Baekdal’s post-Facebook-world prediction rings true it will make it much easier to plan and execute a social content strategy. It will reduce social media fatigue.

Where does content published to your own website fit into this equation?

Increasingly, more of your audience is accessing content via mobile apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Gmail. Australia has one of the largest rates of smartphone use in the world, with more than 60% penetration predicted by the end of 2012. Tablet use is also rising.

Apps display content in a stream that allows your audience to scroll, skim and click links in a single stream of ‘pull’ content. As they become familiar with accessing content in this way, it will become their expectation. They will move away from visiting your website. They will want the content to come to them.

How do you prepare for this change in audience preference? As Anil Dash states, you will need to move away from publishing content to web pages, and start publishing streams. He suggests ‘moving your content management system towards a future where it outputs content to simple APIs, which are consumed by stream-based apps that are either HTML5 in the browser and/or native clients on mobile devices’.

I have been exploring social content trends from the perspective of changes to social networks and platforms. It is equally important to emphasise the role of the content itself in shaping your social content strategy. As Madrigal states ‘the only real way to optimize for social spread is in the nature of the content itself’ while Baekdal imagines a future when ‘the interaction and communication would be linked to the content itself, rather than the platform’. Social networks and platforms will come and go. If you can find that special sauce that is compelling and engaging content your audience will share it and you will have activated social content.

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