Why Platform Optimization (PO) is The Next SEO For Brands

This is the twelfth edition of my weekly newsletter, Augment Intelligence. Subscribe here for weekly instalments.

In a recent report, comScore listed ten Internet trends for 2016. One of them caught my eye: “the next big digital cottage industry will be built around publisher platform optimization.” comScore sees this as the natural successor to search engine optimization (SEO) and social marketing optimization (SMO), both familiar acronyms to marketers and indeed anyone who works in digital. I agree with comScore, although I think we should use the acronym PO: Platform Optimization. Because it won’t just be publishers that need to optimize for the big Internet platforms, it’ll be brands too.

[I was going to suggest the acronym IPO, Internet Platform Optimization. Of course that’s already taken, although tech companies aren’t using it this year! ;)]

Here is the dilemma that publishers and brands currently face: the game has shifted from driving people to your website (which is what SEO and then SMO focused on) to getting your content onto the dominant platforms. Because where do most people discuss your content and share it these days? If anywhere, it’ll be on Facebook and other leading social media platforms. A lot of that same discussion and interaction used to happen on your website, but not anymore.

Why Brands Need Facebook Instant Articles

Publishers, from newspapers to professional blogs, have already begun to publish their stories direct to social media. The comScore report listed three bigco initiatives that publishers are in the midst of adopting: Facebook Instant Articles, Snapchat Discover and Apple News. All of those products do much the same thing: enable publishers to post their stories directly onto a platform with huge reach (Facebook, Snapchat or Apple). They also enable better functionality than publishers can attain on their own apps — for instance, faster load times on Facebook.

Currently Facebook’s Instant Articles program is geared towards publishers. The New York Times is posting entire articles onto Facebook, which means readers no longer need to click through to the NYT website or its app. But there’s no reason why Instant Articles can’t be used by brands too. Well, other than the fact that Facebook hasn’t opened it to brands yet; although there are hints that will change. It certainly makes sense for brands to have Instant Articles, or something like it, because any brand that wants to communicate with its customers will get value from it.

To illustrate this, I’m going to use two large food businesses as examples: Whole Foods and McDonald’s. The future of digital publishing for those two is directly tied to large Internet platforms, like Facebook and Snapchat. Although let me be clear: I’m not suggesting their websites will become redundant. The home pages of Whole Foods and McDonald’s will continue to be a central base for information (and in the case of Whole Foods, for online grocery shopping). What I am suggesting is that more and more of their information will be consumed inside social media channels.

Let’s take the latest Whole Foods post on Facebook as an example. As at time of writing, it’s a post that says “‪#‎1GreenThing‬: Refresh Your Home with Essential Oils.” It points to this blog post on the Whole Foods website. The blog post is quite long and the Facebook post is very short. Here’s the thing though: only a small percentage of people who see the Facebook post will click on the link. An even smaller percentage will bother to read the blog post if they click through. So two things are crying out to happen, from the point of view of Whole Foods:

  1. Publish the original post direct onto Facebook, instead of the blog. That removes one barrier to it being read: no click-through is needed now.
  2. Make the post shorter and easier to consume on Facebook. The reality is, your customers have short attention spans in the era of smartphones. So make your content simpler to scan and give people action options — preferably within that channel. In the blog post, Whole Foods encourages people to “show us your favorite green tips and tricks on Instagram and Twitter by tagging #1GreenThing.” That’s all well and good, but they ought to add a Facebook sharing action too, since that’s where the customer is already at.

Next Step: Messaging Bots

This future of platform optimization goes beyond content. Soon brands will be able to process customer transactions on social media platforms too. Because if that’s where everybody is, it makes sense to serve them there. A growing trend in 2016 is messaging bots, which plays right into this need for transactional functionality in social media.

Just this week, Facebook announced a major new initiative along these lines: Messenger Platform with bots. While Facebook’s platform doesn’t include payments, it opens up the possibility of brands like Whole Foods and McDonald’s interacting with customers from within Messenger.

As I wrote in my newsletter about WeChat, the Chinese messaging app, Asian countries have more advanced messaging apps than the rest of us. Indeed, McDonald’s is already using WeChat to not only interact, but transact, with its customers in China. If you follow the official McDonald’s account on WeChat, it will send you coupons (in the form of QR codes). So when you’re out late with friends in Shanghai, you can stagger drunkenly into the nearest McDonald’s, take out your phone and buy your meal using the WeChat app. This is the kind of functionality that will eventually make its way into Facebook.

The Post-App World

It’s worth noting another big trend that is relevant to this discussion of platform optimization: the slow trend away from apps. Or at least, apps for publishers and brands. The large platforms, like Facebook and Snapchat, will continue to have their apps (indeed Facebook, as the biggest platform of all, has multiple heavily used apps: the Facebook app, Messenger, Instagram, and others). Whole Foods and McDonald’s will probably continue to get value out of their apps for a while too, since they are large companies with millions of customers. But the trend for smaller brands is definitely moving away from the standalone app. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. It’s more cost efficient and easier to maintain a mobile website.
  2. Mobile websites are increasingly interactive, so there is no longer a big difference in functionality when compared to apps.
  3. Regardless of 1) and 2), your content is much more likely to be consumed on platform apps anyway.

So it’s not so much that the future will be without apps, as a well-read Medium post recently prophesied. It’s that you’ll only use the apps of the big players: Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and some others. So if you want to find out tips on spring cleaning your house, you’ll read it on the Whole Foods Facebook or Twitter account. Or if you want a late-night McDonald’s burger (honestly I can’t think of any other time you’d want one), then you’re likely to buy it via Facebook Messenger.

Conclusion

In conclusion, will “platform optimization” (PO) become as big as SEO? Yes, because it’ll be increasingly important, for both publishers and brands, to integrate your content into the big platforms. For brands, it’ll be the only way to get your messages — and increasingly, transactional functionality — to a mass audience. Or even to the right audience, if your brand targets a specific demographic.

This trend towards PO also shows the immense power over consumer society that Facebook, in particular, holds today. Although the opportunity for platforms that cater to other demographics — such as Snapchat and even Pinterest — is great too. So my advice for brands: start thinking of ways to utilise the power of these Internet platforms. I’m available for consulting, should you wish to investigate your options: richard AT ricm.ac.