Is social media a threat or an opportunity?

Research carried out for TheMediaBriefing’s ‘State of the Media 2017’ report, showed senior media people are conflicted about the role social networks can play in their business. Many welcome the scale social traffic gives them, some have hopes for future revenues, but all worry that they are losing control of their audience interactions.

“Almost all deep audience engagement is happening on social networks,” says Ravi Mittal, Founder and CEO of audience engagement platform Vuukle. “Social media appears friendly, but it’s really a Trojan Horse.”

He explains that ceding audience attention to networks like Facebook costs online publishers long-term control of their reader relationships, access to crucial metrics and ultimately, revenue.

Mittal believes the single most important metric is time spent on the page, explaining that the more time a user spends on a page, the more likely they are to buy something, subscribe to something, or to click on another article.

All social media platforms draw audience attention away from publisher platforms, but Mittal says he finds himself talking most often about Facebook because its numbers are higher than any other network.

The real pain point for publishers is the increasing amount of time users are spending inside the Facebook environment. Last year the New York Times reported that the average user was spending almost an hour every day on Facebook. This is in stark contrast with the short amount of time users coming from Facebook spend on publisher sites.

“One of our American partners, an NBC affiliate, gets more than half of its traffic from Facebook: 26% comes from mobile, but those sessions last just 1 minute, five seconds,” says Mittal. “How much activity can you expect from a session time of only one minute and five seconds?”

To help publishers extend user sessions, Vuukle has developed a series of widgets that publisher can use to embed ‘social’ experiences on their own pages.

The average Vuukle session duration for NBC-2 is 54% higher than average referral traffic, excluding Facebook and Google. And while Vuukle represents just over 9% of referral traffic, it contributes almost 15% to overall average session duration because of its elevated session times.

Developing engagement

Vuukle, founded in Silicon Valley in 2011 – 201, was initially focused on using credibility scoring to engage users in conversations, but Mittal quickly realised that most interaction was happening on social media platforms. “Social media created this really cool, immersive experience; publishers lagged behind because they never had the technology or the money to spend developing it.”

Mittal saw this as an opportunity and pivoted away from social scoring to develop the sort of functionality that became so effective on Facebook. Vuukle now provides a range of widgets that can be embedded into publisher’s pages to keep audiences engaged.

The aim is to ‘lockdown’ the user in the publisher’s environment, just as Facebook does inside their walled garden. “Our whole idea is to widgetize everything that Facebook has done and bring it to the publisher,” explains Mittal.

Vuukle’s most popular widget is its commenting system. A difficult area for publishers, the first challenge is to get people commenting. Facebook’s comments plug-in is the largest in the market, says Mittal, but it has drawbacks.

“People don’t always want to publicly share their opinions. We have lowered the barrier to entry by de-linking the user’s social profile from their comments.”

Once the audience starts to comment, the next challenge can be the resource required for effective moderation. Vuukle has made it easier to moderate unwelcome comments with the integration of Google technology that provides customisable toxicity scoring.

“We are always trying to figure out how to weed out the trolls and the spammers; we integrated Google’s Perspective API within seven days of its launch.”

A more recent feature is a sentiment indicator; a strip of emoticons that allows user to express how they feel about a piece of content. Clicking will generate content recommendations from within the site against a spectrum running from the most positive to the most negative. “Whenever anyone clicks on ‘Angry’, for example, we show a mix of more angry articles,” says Mittal.

Vuukle’s other widgets include a social sharing toolbar that shows engagement scoring by adding up reactions, shares and comments; a ‘Talk of the Town’ box that highlights the site’s most popular content and a newsletter subscription facility to help publishers build and deepen their audience relationships.

Bringing audience interactions back to the publisher site also helps to mitigate data leakage to social media networks and re-establish the publisher’s understanding of their audience. “The opportunity to build first-party data is a real benefit,” says Mittal, “many publishers are honing in on building rich audience databases as a key part of their strategy.”

Behind the scenes, Vuukle’s analytics dashboard makes it easier for publishers to understand and act upon audience preferences. “We’ve built a holistic solution that not only engages the user, but also shows the results”.

Regaining revenue

Mittal says the bottom line for publishers is that taking back control of user engagement and increasing session times will have a positive impact on revenue generation across their properties.

“Where Vuukle widgets are embedded, visitors are spending up to three times longer on publisher platforms –  a 300 percent average increase in engagement helps the bottom line. More time means more page views, which means more revenue.”

Vuukle also offers clients additional revenue opportunities, by monetising real estate around its widgets, at the bottom of the page. “Advertisers don’t generally want to touch the bottom of the page, but we work very closely with them to help them understand that the ads we show there are on the most engaged part of the page. “

Ad units are sold programmatically into Vuukle’s own network, with a reach of 250 million users generating two billion page views a month.

Working on a 50-50 revenue-share basis, Vuukle now provides audience engagement and commenting functionality to more than 1,500 different websites, including International Business Times in India, NBC-2 owner Waterman Broadcasting, Brisbane Times in Australia and the Middle East’s Khaleej Times.

The company’s initial focus has been the Indian Market where Mittal says it had a market share of 80 percent, as of September 2016. “Now we’re looking to expand internationally,” says Mittal.

The pitch is simple – provide the same engagement-driving experiences on the publisher’s properties that audiences get on social media platforms. “Our goal is to help keep visitors on UK and US publisher properties forever,” says Mittal.

Ravi Mittal will be leading a webinar on the topic Bringing user engagement back to publishers’ platforms on Thursday June 15th, from 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM BST. Click here to learn more and to register.