NewsWhip tracks the spread of all content on social media. This is a frothy space, with dramatic increases in the volume of content being shared, and the corresponding traffic coming to publishers and brands from that content. Here, we try and explore where we are in the “social distribution hype cycle.”

You may have heard of the Hype Cycle, a view developed by Gartner to give context to the stages in adoption of a new technology or process by business.

Image: Wikipedia

Let’s run through it quickly. First, a new technology is developed – thetechnology trigger. The hot new thing is heralded by early adopters – leading to inflated expectations, irrational exuberance, over-investment, and a peak in the “hype cycle” – the great big mountain on the left.

But – the technology fails to match the expectations, leading to a steep trough of disillusionment. It didn’t deliver, we overpaid. Darn snake oil. Early adopters are burned.

But meanwhile, quietly, processes are improving, underlying technology is being iterated by wily startups, and tangible benefits start to accrue. We recognize and better value the true benefits of the technology and finally climb the slope of enlightenment.

Finally, the more conservative early majority come aboard, and we achieve aplateau of productivity – and for stakeholders in the new technology – perhaps some profit.

Here’s a much more detailed version that breaks out events, financing and other possible events along the way:

So where on the hype cycle is social distribution today?

By social distribution, I mean the “many to many” distribution of content (videos, articles, news, other media) by people to people, usually via social networks, email and other peer-to-peer technologies. This is contrasted with the old pipelines of the last media era –  TV towers, newspaper agents, and radios, that delivered content directly from mass media providers.

Social distribution is not a single technology – it’s a change enabled by a bunch of technologies. But it’s fast displacing other distribution methods. More people arrive at many news sites today via Facebook than via the site’s front page. In the US, we estimate more people are probably catching nuggets of news on Facebook than from the major TV networks each day. For many big online publishers, 30% to 50% of traffic is now coming from social networks. Meanwhile “dark social” traffic – from emails and instant messages – makes up another huge chunk of visitors.

Some believe that social distribution is the natural way for information to be shared – and mass media was only a temporary phenomenon that lasted from the first mass produced papers (1700s) ’til right about now. At NewsWhip, we partially agree. We think social distribution will overtake many other forms of media discovery and distribution over the next few years.

But that’s a hypey statement right? The idea that the pipelines of content distribution are being torn up and replaced by a sharing and subscribing on social networks? I agree – but I do believe that it’s happening, and we have the data to back it up. So let’s see where we are in this hype cycle.

Here’s Theory One. We begin in 2009 as share buttons are introduced and quickly become ubiquitous. Publishers notice that they are getting a bump in traffic, especially to some stories. Social networks give new prominence to new sites and personalities.

In the graph below, that puts us on the steep climb up the start of the hype cycle.

As hype builds, we see new technology and service providers appear – like NewsWhip (content monitoring and discovery), Storyful (UGC verification and licensing), or Social Flow (distribution timing optimisation). Welcome to 2011 – 2012.

In the same period, new socially optimized publishers gain prominence – BuzzFeed, and new tearaway right and left wing outlets (The Blaze, Think Progress). Then we see the second wave, of curators turning up shareable nuggets (Upworthy, ViralNova). They get big in 2013.

Then comes late 2013 – and the rest of the media industry is starting to get sick of competing with cats. The numbers on Upworthy and ViralNova are too staggering, and the content so basic, that people lose faith in Facebook. It’s for the dogs. (Or the cats.) While publishers have learned the value of some formats – lists, emotional calls to action, writing for intense advocate groups – they don’t want to give over completely to them. Some writers get exhausted. By December 2013, Luke O’Neil in Esquire writes an article deploring the rise of the second wave viral publishers, the phenomenon of viral newsiness trumping truth, and calls 2013 “The Year We Broke the Internet“.

But. The revolution is still happening, quietly. Publishers can’t ignore the fact that each month, more and more of their traffic comes from Facebook and Twitter, including to their stodgy or worthy content. That their teams are adjusting their headlines for the social web, and starting to win traffic to core content, not just listicles. That new specialist publishers are building big audience quick – see Elite Daily, or MindBodyGreen.

Even for many classic publishers, social traffic is exceeding traffic from their front pages. They start to respond: putting up their periscope to watch what other publishers are doing, buying access to the best technology for mastering the social web, deepening social network connections with their audiences, and putting in place new editorial processes focused on winning the war for attention each day.

That interpretation would put us right through the hype cycle and coming out the other side already:

Thing is, I don’t know that we’re quite there yet. The scale of disruption that social distribution will bring hasn’t quite been recognized by anyone except the bleeding edge of new (and fastest adapting) publishers.

For many of the rest, social is still seen as a sideshow, or a nice way to boost numbers, but they are not yet planning around it.

We recently looked at growth in interaction with content for English language publishers from September 2012 to now.

With interaction with the top 10 publishers growing sevenfold, you can see the new world steamrollering in. And the growth is not limited to the publishers at the top of the charts. The number of English language publishers getting over 2 million Facebook interactions per month has ballooned from five in September 2012 to 46 in April 2014.

So it might be we’re still here:

If so, we have an interesting few years ahead.

To help improve your content’s social performance, try Spike today.

NewsWhip tracks the stories that matter to hundreds of millions of people each day. NewsWhip’s pro dashboard - Spike - is used everyday by the BBC, BuzzFeed, NBC, and Digitas. Try it out for free here: