Blog advertising metrics: passion and hubness
Saturday, May 24th, 2003
Amid spiraling surpluses of news, opinion and commercial messages, blogs offer unique benefits to advertisers. This presentation examines two possible new advertising metrics ‘ passion and hubness ‘ in which blogs excel other media.
The presentation has four sections:
· Unbridled media proliferation poses a perverse challenge for traditional advertisers: ad space becomes free but ineffective. Blogs, offering unique passion and hubness, may save advertisers.
· Passion: blogs command reader loyalty far greater than that inspired by traditional media and corporate online publishers.
· Hubness: network theory suggests that advertisers should, rather than blanketing entire demographic cohorts, seek out the influential individuals (and these folks are increasingly bloggers) who serve as network hubs.
· Emerging tools will make the metrics of passion and hubness tangible.
1) Infinite ad space short-circuits today’s advertising metrics
The Internet has outstripped traditional media as an information source. No wonder. While the number of print and broadcast players is relatively stable, the Internet’s Big Bang has sparked an ever-expanding universe of information sources. New weblogs, forums and e-mail lists appear every minute. Some like www.command-post.org and www.marketingfix.com , are metamedia, while others, like http://atrios.blogspot.com and www.andrewsullivan.com , mix in original reporting and sharp commentary.
Online advertising opportunities swell apace with these new information resources, and ad prices tumble. Free classified site Craigslist.com now does 200 million page impressions a month in San Francisco alone. Google, which answers in excess of six billion queries a month, allows advertisers to buy ads against specific searches for as little as 5 cents a click. (To put these numbers in perspective, the biggest US newspaper online, the New York Times, does roughly 350 million page impressions a month.)
But, perversely, virtually free and infinite ad space is not necessarily good news for advertisers. As volume increases, the cost of being heard rises even faster. The ad classics ‘ banner, button ‘ have been stretched into 15 shapes and sizes, ranging from the ‘microbar’ (88×33) to the ‘wide skyscraper’ (160X600). But even with this new artillery deployed the basic problem remains: traditional metrics for purchasing advertising like ‘demographics,’ ‘frequency,’ ‘share of voice’ and ‘reach’ are becoming obsolete; so what if you can reach 80% of the males age 20 to 25 ten times a day for free if every competitor and his brother can do the same? In short, traditional advertising strategies for getting and holding the consumer’s attention may become as futile as inflating a zeppelin with a bicycle pump.
New metrics ‘ passion and hubness ‘ could rescue savvy advertisers from the paradox of infinite free advertising.
2) Passion and blogs
Fueled by passionate discourse, blogs are opinion factories. Intuitive for both readers and writers, blogs inspire intimacy, passion and loyalty even across thousands of miles. Advertisers may harness unique reader loyalty by underwriting, sponsoring or advertising on relevant blogs.
Passion is the most straightforward and easily understood blog metric, since it draws on the lingo and pitch of traditional media. After all, what magazine does not claim to be ‘loved’ by its audience?
But ‘l’amour du blog’ is different in scale and quality. An American blogger explained his foray into blogging by saying ‘I got tired of shouting at the television.’ Turn the coin over and we see that many blog readers love blogs because they are tired of listening to a monotony of corporate mumbling.
Because blogs are run by ‘us’ (individuals, entrepreneurs’. people!) and not ‘them’ (owners, bosses, conglomerates), readers relate to them better and invest significantly more time, energy and emotion in reading and responding to blogs. Some anecdotes to suggest the scope of this passion:
· While many traditional daily newspapers receive only a handful of letters every day, Glenn Reynolds, law professor and author of Instapundit.com, receives 300 reader e-mails on an average day. Instapundit traffic now equals 1% of NYTimes.com traffic.
· Megan McArdle’s site, Janegalt.net, gets up to 50 comments per post.
· Blogger Andrew Sullivan attracted $80,000 in donations after a two week fund raising drive. Like Instapundit, he gets 2.5 million page impressions a month.
· A link from community weblog Slashdot.com can send 10,000 readers to a story.
To roughly quantify relative states of media passion, I’ve done a few Google searches and tallied the number of times a particular word or set of words is found in Google’s index. As you can see, blogs have a disproportiate share of passion words.
Google index counts on April 28, 2003
Newspaper Magazine Blog
Total matches 13,400,000 35,400,000 4,930,000
+ Love 2,090,000 2,970,000 811,000
+ Hate 691,000 1,050,000 391,000
Blogs inspire above-average levels of passion, intimacy and loyalty. As the Internet’s vast network of servers and links provide even more data about our reading and writing habits, it seems inevitable that metrics like audience passion will be measured and used by advertisers, and that blogs will benefit from the comparison with traditional media. I’ll talk a little more about measurement at the end of this paper.
Why are blogs so influential and passion inflamed? I’d outline four possible factors:
a) Journalists are over-represented among blog readers; always hungry for new opinion, factoids and spin to report and recycle, the traditional press can ingest an individual blogger’s faint vibration and amplify it into a sonic boom. Obviously, this disproportionate influence will fade as (or if) the general population reads blogs at similar levels.
b) Successful bloggers are self-selected as hyper-communicators, evangelists, controversialists, speed-of-light-empowered worker bees who want to spread the pollen of new ideas across geography and ideology.
c) Because each successful blog fosters a self-conscious community of readers and blogrolled friends, a blog can confer insiderness or hipness to its ‘participants.’ This quality of open clannishness ‘ in which the clan meets publicly and anyone can aspire to join ‘ can be magnetic.
d) Blog communities are echo chambers. A community of bloggers can create the ‘hive mind’ that pursues a story or meme far more doggedly than any traditional news organization. The seventy participants in group blog www.command-post.org, were posting one link a minute at the height of the Iraqi conflict and posting 24/7.
Now, let’s turn to the second possible metric, which is remote from traditional media metrics and difficult to measure, but, also, potentially more powerful: hubness.
3) Hubness and blogs
Network science theorists say the key to dominating any network lies in controlling its ‘hubs’ ‘ the handful of hyper-connected nodes that wire together most other nodes. Appropriating this potent metaphor (or, as Malcolm Gladwell calls it ‘a very literal analogy ‘), some marketers argue that companies should win key opinion makers in their respective sphere of interest and confidently wait for the rest of the population to ‘tip’ and follow that lead. Network theorists would call these people ‘hubs.’ Gladwell calls them ‘connectors, mavens and salesmen.’
I believe that blogs, connecting broad audiences of individuals who are themselves pivotal communicators in their respective online and offline communities, are the hubs of the new information age.
To be sure, some might object that bloggers only influence (or annoy) other bloggers — much as Hungarians, a relatively small circle of people talking their own eccentric language, huddled in a linguistic coffee house that is barred to the outside world. Reinforcing the impression that bloggers are insulated from broader society, ‘the blogs’ have traditionally been understood as a single, self-contained and self-indulgent ‘sphere.’ Google show shows 61,300 uses of the word ‘blogosphere’ but only 442 instances of ‘blogospheres.’
But it is increasingly clear that while most bloggers do love to read other bloggers, each blogger actually belongs to two or more separate blogospheres ‘ weaving a web of links between, for example, the bloggers, warbloggers, biobloggers, Lamaze bloggers, Brazilian bloggers, humor bloggers, Brit bloggers, and PR bloggers. Here’s one measure of this cross-fertilization: while Lesley Eaton’s web portal http://portal.eatonweb.com/ catalogs blogs from 38 different languages (including ‘other’) and 101 categories, the directory’s 11,000+ blogs have each been placed in an average of five different categories.
And non-bloggers do read bloggers, for many of the reasons enumerated in the section on passion. Bloggers are now recognized as opinion-makers in offline society, whether in tipping Trent Lott out of office, discrediting a Microsoft marketing campaign, providing fodder for former Nixon-speech-writer William Safire’s column in the New York Times, or buttressing George Bush’s confidence in flouting elite European opinion on Iraq.
With such credentials of influence, blogs have an obvious appeal even by the standards of today’s simplistic advertising metrics. But I think we can wring even more value from blogs.
What unique value might a blogosphere’s self-conscious and articulate community offer to advertisers? Let’s zoom out a second to the level of theory. Consumers often grapple with what economists call ‘coordination problems,’ situations in which participants need to know what their peers are doing before making their own decisions. For example, I only want to buy a fax machine that I know will be compatible with the fax machine that you are using. For established goods and services like fax machines and VCRs, standards are clear, so this coordination is not problematic. But for new products, the uncertainty can be debilitating and inhibit market growth as buyers wait for a standard to emerge.
We don’t look to our peers just for technology standards. Economist Michael Suk-Young calls all the products and services that rely on network externalities ‘social goods,’ and social goods are more common than you might first think. In fact, many of our purchases are made in the context of what our peers are doing. I will rarely eat in an empty restaurant. While no slave to fashion, my wife won’t buy a dress that her friends might judge to be unstylish. And you may go to see Matrix Reloaded — even knowing it to be deeply flawed — to be sure that you can join the chatter at the pub.
To tip potential buyers out of standardless inertia and consensusless gridlock, companies often rely on what advertising around what Chwe calls ‘common knowledge events.’ These are events where we not only see a message, but see our peers seeing the message (and know that they see us seeing the message and seeing them see the message’.)
The televised yearly United States football championship called the Super Bowl offers one example of this. Because a giant community of Super Bowl watchers at once becomes aware of an advertiser’s new product and becomes aware that the other audience members are aware of the product, the Super Bowl is viewed by some advertisers as ideal venue for creating ‘common knowledge’ and creating a new standard; Chwe argues that advertisers pay a premium to advertise during the Super Bowl because the communal knowledge it generates can give consumers confidence that their peers will use a product and that they too can adopt the standard.
To achieve cost-effective success, marketers like Silicon Valley author Geoffrey Moore argue that companies should concentrate on a group of buyers who are at once finite, conscious of themselves as peers and densely woven ‘ so that a message can achieve a critical mass (and common knowledge) ‘ and sufficiently influential in the broader market that the message can percolate outward.
Target a market that is too diffuse and lacks common-knowledge-ability and the marketer risks trying to ‘boil the ocean;’ pick a niche that is too insular and the message will never survive. ‘The success of an innovation appears to require a trade-off between local reinforcement and global connectivity,’ says physicist turned sociologist Duncan J. Watts. Indeed, Watts argues that only goods which luck onto the magical path through the network that balances these two qualities can tip and go viral.
With all this in mind, blog hubness should be a uniquely effective tool for promoting common knowledge within self-conscious communities of influential opinion makers. An ad served to a group of bloggers — a group of peers who influence each other and who know as a group that they have each seen the same ad ‘ will be far more effective than an ad regurgitated from some database into the giant ocean of anonymous eyeballs. At the least, a viewer will be more likely to click on ad that she knows 10 peers have seen than an ad presented to 1000 random people. At best, a well-placed blog advertisement could set off a chain reaction of references and referrals.
Blogs offer the magic mix of ‘word of mouth’ intimacy and global reach. And blog advertising will cost far less than a 15 second spot on TV during the Super Bowl. Excelling at hubness in an information market which is increasingly bloated and chaotic, relevant blogs should be ideal advertising venues for buzz-seeking, network-dependent companies — software vendors, media producers, fashion peddlers, auctioneers, artists, and other providers of ‘social’ goods. Advertising on the right blog or set of blogs will be like buying an ad during a Super Bowl game played and watched predominantly by the players in your target niche ‘ a unbeatable tool signaling to an influential sphere of trend-setting customers, business partners and competitors that “our company/service/product set the standard in this niche.”
4) Possible measures of passion and hubness
Of course, passion and/or hubness will be little more than empty marketing jargon unless we can find a way to quantify and track the value of blogs to advertisers. Without a thermometer, there is no temperature.
Even six months ago, qualities like passion and hubness would have seemed intractably intangible. But as automated sorting and ranking algorithms for blogs become increasingly common and robust, we have reason for optimism. Measures for passion and hubness are daily being refined and articulated. Early sorting strategies include:
· the Myelin ecosystem measures the number of links pointing into a blog, offers one proxie for hubness.
· the Blogstreet neighborhood maps different communities of interest.
· the Technocrati ‘newcomers’ list identifies ‘rising’ blogs
· Blogshares , a phantom stock market in blogs, allows participants to bet on the future popularity of other blogs, and then adjusts rankings to reflect this demand
· Blogosphere.us, which focuses on the rising and falling popularity of blogs.
· Google, which evaluates a site by how many other sites link to it.
Of these, I think that Blogshares is the most intriguing, since it not only evaluates current link status, but further filters this data against participants’ weighted predictions. So-called ‘opinion markets,’ in which participants stake notional sums on their predictions, have been proven to outperform other forecasting methodologies, so it seems a safe bet that such an approach will help to quantify the potential impact and influence of individual blogs.
Looking forward, if hubness and passion are to become new advertising standards, we’ll need to see further refinements of popularity, market-measuring (either through linking or investing) and community segmentation.
Even as advertisers struggle to fill the two dimensional media that is steadily inflating with bigger screens, more page impressions, more titles and more audiences, they must also learn to cope with the emergence of a new, third media dimension — the networks of relationships that manufacture our opinions. Thanks to blogs and Google, the apocryphal ‘six degrees of separation’ has shrunk to two degrees (at least among blogs), and one million of us are united in a tightly woven network of text links.
With these global and niche intersubjectivities come a new sensibility. We’ve moved from an age of ‘bcc’ to ‘cc.’ Each audience can now watch itself consume, evaluate and communicate, and our knowledge of each other’s reactions to an event or product will inevitably influence our own reaction.
The ‘old’ media, (even when it is online) trades in volume ‘ how many people, how many minutes, how many pages — agglomerating individual units and selling their attention to advertisers. The new media will trade in the network connections among those individuals.
While marketers have always known that messages are most powerfully passed from person to person, this path was impossible to trace or quantify much less affect. Until the blogospheres emerged, that is. If we can begin to construct ways to measure hubness and passion, bloggers stand a good chance of leading an advertising revolution that matches their publishing revolution. Against the paradox of infinite free advertising, blog hubness and passion should be cultivated and articulated.
Thank you to Ben Sullivan ( www.scienceblog.com ), Greg Beato ( www.soundbitten.com ), Doug Arellanes (www.dougarellanes.com), Heiko Hebig ( www.hebig.com ), Olivier Travers ( http://webvoice.blogspot.com/ ), Stefan Smalla ( www.smalla.net ), and Rick Bruner ( www.executivesummary.com ) for their comments on drafts of this paper.