What Taylor Swift’s 8 seconds of static tells us about media consumption

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The world collectively snickered when, last week, a Taylor Swift track consisting of 8 seconds of just static was released on Canadian iTunes for $1.29 and subsequently shot to the top of the charts. But while this instigated a number of jokes about Swift going avant garde and Jimmy Kimmel dubbed it her “White Noise” album — a nod to the Beatles’ White Album — there’s a sobering lesson here for any hopeful singer:  That 8 seconds of static represents a mountain every new entrant into the music business, every aspiring star, has to climb before they can get noticed.

There’s this common assumption that the internet is the great democratizer of content that, because it removes nearly all friction between the consumer and content, has shattered all barriers to entry. But that lack of friction has created a paradoxical barrier in which there are now so many content creators in the world that developing a returning audience, the kind that will blindly purchase a music track just because it has your name on it, is increasingly difficult.

This isn’t to say that a new entrant can’t achieve viral spikes, but those bursts are fleeting, and you’ll quickly find your baseline readership returning to its previously unremarkable heights. Those within the advertising industry have long known that it isn’t enough for a commercial or ad to be shown to a consumer just once; depending on its stickiness, a television commercial needs to be seen at least five times before its messaging is absorbed by a consumer. For website banner ads, the picture is even more dire, with it requiring sometimes dozens of impressions of the same ad before any branding is transferred. The same can be said of developing a returning audience for your content, whether it’s music, video, or news.

This lesson was brilliantly demonstrated in a 2013 Pando Daily column from Bryan Goldberg, the founder of the sports news website Bleacher Report. The site has been enormously successful, listed among the top 50 most popular sites on the internet and purchased for $200 million in 2012 by Turner Media. Given Bleacher Report’s meteoric rise, a true David and Goliath story that any future media mogul can find inspiring, one would think that there was some major breakthrough moment when the site shot past its lesser competitors to stand among the ESPNs and SBNations of the world. “Whenever I pitch a VC, one of the most common questions I get is this one: ‘When did Bleacher Report really take off?'” Goldberg wrote. “The answer is never.”

He then posted this chart of Bleacher Report’s traffic:

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Here’s Goldberg again:

Now, I challenge any reader to pull out a pen and put an “X” over the spot in which Bleacher Report achieved escape velocity. What you may find is that it cannot be done. There was never a moment in which we “took off like a rocket.”

It was only through consistent content creation that the site developed momentum, leading to readers eventually bookmarking the site or subscribing to one of its social media profiles. There’s a content funnel for every website that turns casual drive-by readers into subscribers and then into evangelists. And it’s nearly impossible to convert a drive-by reader into a subscriber with one piece of viral content.

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The good news is that once you’ve converted that reader, it becomes easier to carry him or her to your new endeavors. In 2013, Neil Patel wrote a column explaining how he grew three separate blogs to 100,000 monthly visitors. Not only did he find repetition to be key to his growth — he published several new posts a week — but the 100,000 visitor mark was easier to achieve with each subsequent blog he launched: For the first it took him four years and nine months. By the third, he had reduced the time to one year and six months. “Luck has nothing to do with this achievement,” he explained. “I actually have a formula, which works every time. And if I leveraged it again today, I bet I could achieve similar results in less than 12 months.” Not only did Patel carry institutional knowledge with him for each new blog, allowing him to avoid repeating mistakes, he had also built up personal brand recognition within the content and social media marketing industry, hastening each new blog’s rise.

In August, Politico’s Dylan Byers reported that Vox.com, the explainer news site launched by Vox Media, had achieved 9 million monthly uniques after only five months. How could there be such massive traffic growth if there’s no such thing as an overnight success in media? Well that’s because Vox, though new, is not an overnight success. While it certainly creates great content and deserves the attention it has received, it simply wouldn’t have risen that quickly if it had simply been launched by a bunch of unknowns with similar editorial talent.

Vox has the benefit of two marquee names heading the site: Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias. Currently, Klein has 690,000 followers on his personal Twitter account, 219,000 likes on his Facebook page, and 1 million followers on Google+. Vox was also launched by a media company that already heads several other popular web properties, including the Verge and SBNation. Last month, longtime This American Life and Planet Money producer Alex Blumberg launched a brand new podcast that debuted at number three on the iTunes store. But again, this wasn’t an overnight success in the classic sense of the term. Blumberg had been building a brand on TAL and Planet Money for years, and both shows ran promotional excerpts from his early Startup episodes to their massive audiences. Each subsequent project that Blumberg launches — and he plans to produce several new podcast shows in the coming year — will be that much easier to get off the ground.

In essence, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Alex Blumberg are their own miniature Taylor Swifts (I’m sure that’s a first-time comparison for each of them). The three of them could team up and co-release a new podcast that consists of just several seconds of white noise, and many of you would download it. I know I would.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via Taylor Swift Web Community