Why Every Publisher Needs An Engagement Server
This post originally appeared on the iMedia Connection Blog.
It’s been almost 20 years since the first newspapers, magazines, television stations, radio stations and other traditional publications started producing digital versions of their offline properties. Those media properties that launched in the early to mid-90’s had it made: while the total online audience was only a fraction of what it is today, there weren’t many places on the web for early internet adopters to visit, so when a visitor found the rare site that actually had some decent content, they tended to stick around.
Clearly, a lot has changed since those days. The sheer growth of the internet is staggering; according to NetCraft, there are now more than half a billion websites on the internet 1, 300 million more were added in 2011, and their studies suggest upwards of 20 million are launched every month. Facebook has close to 1B members spending hours a day sharing and commenting, and emerging social media properties like Pinterest, Pair and Path are capturing a fast-growing share of attention 2. And then there’s the proliferation of mobile platforms, where consumers have already downloaded a mind-blowing 30 billion apps 3 in the relatively short period of time that the platforms have existed.
What hasn’t changed is that there are still two primary workhorses pulling the modern digital publication: the content server and the ad server. A publisher wouldn’t dream of setting up a site without these two mainstays. The content server makes sure the right people see the right content, and the ad server allows a publisher to monetize that content.
Content and ads are obviously critical to every publisher model, but neither matters if the publisher doesn’t have an engaged audience. Without engagement, content never gets consumed and ads never get served. In most cases, content is tasked with driving engagement, but that’s a tall order given the sheer amount of it available across the web. It’s the same dilemma that retailers and airlines face: they can’t rely solely on the goods in their stores or the destinations they fly to in order to get people to buy from them because their competitive fields are so vast, so they create loyalty programs to engage their audiences.
Unfortunately, publishers haven’t had many tools to drive engagement. Most have been forced to resort to tactics that may drive short term page views that help serve their advertiser’s messages, but are less than elegant solutions - like splitting an article into five pages when it easily could have been viewed on a single page, or producing unwieldy “slideshows” to increase page views. These don’t make for great user experiences, but it’s hard to blame the publisher who has financial goals to meet in order to keep their site running.
But what if publishers had a third server alongside the other two: one that “served” engagement, and allowed them to optimize and manage that engagement just as they manage the ads and optimize inventory in their ad servers?
This server would be tasked with delivering engagement mechanics that would not only motivate users to consume more content and generate more page views, but would also recognize their loyalty and incent repeat visits. It would give publishers complete control over the type of engagement they wanted to drive by awarding points for particular behaviors like watching videos, sharing articles with their network, visiting more frequently, commenting on articles and creating content. Users would earn status on the site, just like a traveler does with a hotel or airline, that would give them access to exclusive content or merchandise. The server would manage all of this, and provide deep analytics to understand what’s working and where improvements can be made. Like the content and ad servers, it would be based in the cloud, so the publisher wouldn’t have to worry about maintenance or upgrading - it would just be there, running 24 X 7, driving high-value engagement that would translate into a better experience for users and more ad dollars for the publisher.
Sounds amazing, right? Wouldn’t it be great if this third server existed, a veritable DART for Engagement?
The good news is that it does, though it’s not coming from the traditional ad or publisher technology companies. It’s coming from a new and fast-growing category of companies called gamification solution providers. Not to be confused with game designers or game developers, gamification companies like Bunchball have isolated the techniques that game designers, social networks and the travel industry use regularly to drive massive levels of engagement - measures of progress, status and reward - and have created cloud-based technology platforms to allow any company to easily apply those techniques to their own digital experiences.
Media companies like NBC, ABC, Scripps and Meredith have been regularly using these “third server” solutions for the past few years because they realize one thing: as more sites launch every month, as more social media properties continue to soak up even more attention, and as mobile apps further fragment an already fragmented audience, it’s critical to act now to build a loyal audience and keep them engaged, lest fickle users quickly find another site or property to spend their time and attention.
URLs in this post:
1 more than half a billion websites on the internet: http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2011/12/09/december-2011-web-server-survey.html
2 capturing a fast-growing share of attention: http://articles.businessinsider.com/2012-02-07/tech/31033021_1_site-techcrunch-reports-unique-monthly-visitors
3 have already downloaded a mind-blowing 30 billion apps: http://gigaom.com/2011/12/30/by-the-numbers-mobile-apps-in-2011/