The digital landscape no longer resembles the exciting, rocket-fueled playground defined by startup media groups desperate for clicks.
One company that showed promise, an outfit called Mic that was targeted to millennial readers, is defunct, largely due to the algorithm changes from Facebook that limited the reach of so many online publishers. The company, once thought to be worth more than $90 million, was eventually sold to Bustle Media Group for $5 million.
The company’s fall had many hallmarks of the media bubbles faced by online content producers of the last decade. They were hamstrung by their dependence on Facebook. They were bamboozled by the “pivot to video.” They prioritized clicks and short-term gains over long-term investment.
However, the biggest lesson the company might teach content creators involves the nature of the content itself.
As many organizations have turned to brand journalism and self-publishing in response to the hollowing out of U.S. newsrooms and media companies, they have struggled to define success.
How should we measure the success of online storytelling?
The story of Mic is the cautionary tale of what happens when you prioritize vanity metrics like impressions and clicks and fail to evaluate your greater impact.
Mic was one of the media organizations that bet their very existence on shareability generally and specifically on Facebook. That business model would eventually steer content in specific ways.
It didn’t take long before it became clear that what resonated at Mic was left-leaning “social justice clickbait,” a former senior editor said. In 2013, Mic launched an Identities vertical, which was “dedicated to examining the intersections of sexuality, gender, class and race in politics and culture for the millennial generation.” Just writing about a topic of interest to readers wasn’t enough, however. Mic posts had to be packaged in tight, engaging manners meant to maximize shares on Facebook. A listing for the Identities section in 2013 said Mic was looking for unpaid writers who would be open to “incorporating multimedia (video, GIFs, photos, memes, etc.)” in posts.
In meetings, Horowitz was known to ask “who’s sharing this?”; new employees received a 45-minute training focused on “Shareability.” When a headline construction shared well on Facebook, Mic relentlessly published stories that fit the blueprint. In 2015, the phrase “One Tweet” (i.e., “In One Tweet, This Man Took Down a Group of Incredibly Sexist Internet Trolls”) appeared in the headline of stories about “sexist internet trolls,” Ricky Gervais, “the racist hypocrisy of American police violence,” “Game of Thrones,” J.K. Rowling (more than once), Elizabeth Warren and “the racist double standard of the media’s shooting coverage.” The next year, the phrase “brutal truth” (i.e., “The Brutal Truth Every White Feminist Needs to Hear”) made its way into headlines about viral Instagram posts, masculinity, white gay men, white allies and prom.
Is repeating a headline style a bad thing? Content creators know that listicles and other kinds of online content perform well—but Mic’s headlines also undermined authenticity and reader trust.
Hooked on clickbait
The desire for clicks also started to stifle creativity and passion for many of the site’s writers.
Another former employee said it felt like “the analytics team ran the newsroom.” “A lot of us couldn’t write about things because it wouldn’t click well,” said a third, who added that it could feel like Mic cared “about these issues so long as we think other people will care about it or we can use a splashy headline on it.”
Then, Facebook changed its algorithm.
Facebook has become a pain point for many communicators who have seen their organic reach drop off the cliff. As we reported on PR Daily:
[Caddy Marketing’s Keith Pillow] says the answer to Facebook’s new algorithm is to pony up the cash.
“I advise clients they need to add paid social to the mix, even on a limited basis, to ensure their more important content garners the attention it deserves,” he says.
However, organizations can still get free wins with stellar content that fills an audience’s needs.
“In certain instances, some of our clients with robust social media audiences are able to secure very high levels of organic reach and engagement simply by knowing their customers extremely well and regularly serving up compelling content which goes viral,” Pillow adds.
Other marketers advocate for looking at other social media channels.
“Twitter rules for our community and produces the best results in terms of Cisco Live registrations,” says [Kathleen Mudge, a social media manager with the Cisco Live Social Team]. “Instagram provides the highest engagements, but it’s a smaller slice of our social community pie currently, but it’s growing faster than any other group. Our Facebook community continues to grow, but the growth has declined significantly in the past year.”
For companies like Mic that relied heavily on Facebook, the change was catastrophic.
Soon, leadership came to realize that the August traffic dip was not the result of a distracted workforce, according to one of the former executives. Instead, they realized a tweak to the Facebook algorithm had dramatically limited the reach of media outlets’ posts. Many of the site’s competitors faced the same issue, but Mic got hit especially hard because of its particular dependence on Facebook, the former executive said.
“It was like this all-hands-on-deck, holy-fucking-shit, what-are-we-going-to-do kind of thing,” said one employee who was there at the time.
Then Mic did the pivot to video, which was later proven to be a house of cards for many content creators.
Finally, the company’s partnership with Facebook Watch was canceled, and the company could no longer operate independently. It sold its remaining assets to Bustle.
What have we learned?
For PR pros and content creators, the story of Mic yields several key lessons:
1. Make sure you measure the quality of your engagement.
Even if you are sitting on lots of clicks, that doesn’t mean you have built a dedicated following. You want to know how your content affects a reader, and that means getting creative.
Don’t expect the same metrics to be enough for each campaign. Identify what you are trying to accomplish, and target KPIs that match your goals.
2. Don’t rely on one channel.
Facebook could change its algorithms again tomorrow. So could Twitter or LinkedIn, or any number of platforms that are essential for your distribution.
Make sure that whatever content you create has an omnichannel digital strategy behind it.
3. Make sure your content is valuable.
The fact that a post gets shared is great—and it can be an indicator of its value—but it isn’t necessarily a guarantee of your writing’s popularity. Just think of all the social media memes that make you groan every time your cousin shares another one.
Going viral and being valuable to readers aren’t the same thing. Make sure your writing focuses on your audience and provides valuable takeaways. Otherwise, your content will be just another flash in the pan.