"I posted something but nobody responded. What does it mean?"
It's a question you've probably asked yourself after nobody liked the Facebook status with your big news, or no friends commented on your new Facebook photo album. Maybe you thought that tweet you wrote was hilarious, and you're not sure why it wasn't retweeted—not even once. This innocent little question is just about hurt feelings for you, but for pageview-hungry publishers, it's what keeps them up at night.
The silence all means the same thing: no comments, no links, no traffic, no money. It lands the publisher firmly in a territory labeled "utterly unprofitable." Jonah Peretti, for his part, has his bloggers at BuzzFeed track their failures closely. If news doesn't go viral or get feedback, then the news needs to be changed. If news does go viral, it means the story was a success—whether or not it was accurate, in good taste, or done well.
The breakthrough for blogging as a business was the ability to track what gets read and what doesn't. Bloggers publish constantly in order to hit their pageview goals or quotas, so when you can give them something that gets them even one view closer to that goal, you're serving their interests while serving yours. To ignore these numbers in an era of pageview journalism is business suicide for bloggers and media manipulators. And anything that pervasive presents opportunities for abuse.
Blogs are so afraid of silence that the flimsiest of evidence can confirm they're on the right track. You can provide this by leaving fake comments to articles about you or your company from blocked IP addresses—good and bad to make it clear that there is a hot debate. Send fake e-mails to the reporter, positive and negative. This rare kind of feedback cements the impression that you or your company make for high-valence material, and the blog should be covering you.
Publishers don't care what they say as long as it isn't bland or ignored. But by avoiding the bad kind of silence prompted by poor content, they avoid the good kind that results from the type of writing that makes people think but not say, "Yeah, what he said. I'm glad I read this article."
Professional bloggers understand this dilemma far better than the casual or amateur one, according to an analysis done by Nate Silver of unpaid versus paid articles on the Huffington Post. Over a three-day period, 143 political posts by amateurs received 6,084 comments, or an average of just 43 comments per article (meaning that many got zero). Over that same period, Huffington Post published 161 paid political articles (bought from other sites, written by staff writers, or other copyrighted content) that accumulated more than 133,000 comments combined. That amounts to more than 800 per article, or twenty times what the unpaid bloggers were able to accomplish.
According to Huffington Post's pageview strategy, the paid articles are indisputably better, because they generated more comments and traffic (like a 2009 article about the Iranian protests that got 96,281 comments). In a sane system, a political article that generated thousands of comments would be an indicator that something went wrong. It means the conversation descended into an unproductive debate about abortion or immigration, or devolved into mere complaining. But in the broken world of the web, it is the mark of a professional.
A blog like the Huffington Post is not going to pay for something that is met with silence, even the good kind. They're certainly not going to promote it or display it on the front page, since it would reduce the opportunity to generate pageviews. The Huffington Post does not wish to be the definitive account of a story or inform people—since the reaction to that is simple satisfaction. Blogs deliberately do not want to help.
You're basically asking for favors if you try to get blogs to cover something that isn't going to drive pageviews and isn't going to garner clear responses.
Kill ‘Em with Pageview Kindness
If other blogs have covered something, competitors rush to copy them, because they assume there is traffic in it. As a result, getting coverage on one site can simply be a matter of sending those links to an unoriginal blogger. That those links were scored under false pretenses hardly matters. How could anyone tell? Showing that a story you want written is connected to a popular or search engine–friendly topic (preferably one the site already has posts about) does the same thing. However tenuous the connection, it satisfies the pageview impulse and gives the blogger excuse to send readers to their stories. You've done something that gets them paid.
Remember, some bloggers have to churn out as many as a dozen posts a day. That's not because twelve is some lucky number but because they need to meet serious pageview goals for the site. Not every story is intended to be a home run—collections of singles, doubles, and triples adds up too. Pageview journalism is about scale. Sites have to publish multiple stories every few minutes to make a profit, and why shouldn't your story be one of them?
Once your story has gotten coverage, one of the best ways to turn yourself into a favorite and regular subject is to make it clear your story is a reliable traffic draw. If you're a brand, then post the story to your company Twitter and Facebook accounts and put it on your website. This inflates the stats in your favor and encourages more coverage down the road.
Breaking the News
I don't know if blogs enjoy being tricked. All I know is that they don't care enough to put a stop to it. The response to sketchy anonymous tips, in my experience, is Thanks, a lot more often than Prove it.
Nobody is fooling anyone. That's not the game—because sites don't have any interest in what they post, as long as it delivers pageviews. Samuel Axon, formerly an editor at Mashable and Engadget, complained that the rules by which blogs get "traffic, high impressions, and strong ad revenues betray journalists and the people who need them at every turn." This is only partially true. They betray the ethical journalists and earnest readers. As far as bloggers and publishers looking to get rich or manipulators eager to influence the news are concerned, the system is just fine.
Pageview journalism puffs blogs up and fattens them on a steady diet of guaranteed traffic pullers of a mediocre variety that require little effort to produce. It pulls writers and publishers to the extremes, and only to the extremes—the shocking and the already known. Practicing pageview journalism means that a publisher never has to worry about seeing "(0) Comments" at the bottom of a post. With tight deadlines and tight margins, any understanding of the audience is helpful guidance. For marketers, this is refreshingly predictable.
Adapted from TRUST ME I'M LYING: CONFESSIONS OF A MEDIA MANIPULATOR. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Ryan Holiday, 2012.
[Image: Flickr user Rubén Díaz Alonso]