The Spread Offense and the State of Digital Media

An overextended metaphor to ponder.
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Texas Tech during the Leach 'Air Raid' era (Reuters).

College football season officially ended this week, and the window is rapidly closing during which one can opine on the year that was. 

So, let me get this idea provisionally out of my head, and apologies in advance for the sports metaphor. Also, full disclaimer: If you don't watch college football, everything I'm about to say will be gibberish. I'm sorry. 

Anyway, there was a time when publishers knew exactly what an audience was. It was the number of people who bought their products, either as subscribers or on the newsstand. 

LIFE Magazine was probably the most popular U.S. magazine ever, read by 13.5 million people, or 10 percent of the country's population. The New York Times' average daily circulation was around 1.2 million in 1994, when there were just 13.5 million Internet users in the world. My own publication has had a circulation of around half a million for many, many years. 

These numbers were large, but not like radio in the '40s or broadcast TV at its peak. 

Nowadays, however, dozens and dozens of websites (including this one) claim more visitors than LIFE Magazine had readers. The site Upworthy claimed 50 million uniques in November of last year. A year ago, Business Insider was doing 23 million unique monthly visitors. The New York Times says 31 million people visit its site each month.

Audiences have grown, right? Upworthy has more than 3.5 times as many "readers" as LIFE in its heyday.

But... The measurement numbers have gotten larger, but I don't think the audiences have changed nearly as much as it might first appear. Many, many visitors come one time. Many others come two to five times. The same is true of all sites. Even among those who come multiple times, the engagement that readers had with a brand like LIFE was qualitatively different, especially in a less crowded media environment. On the web, people tend to visit sites via social media or Google — and while I think they're great at reading individual stories, it is the few who pay a lot of attention to the name at the top of the page. 

Closer to home, The Atlantic's real audience is almost certainly larger than when we had only a print magazine, but is it really 20 or 25 times larger? Perhaps more crucially: Are we 25 times more influential than in 1960? The metrics can't be proxies in the same way that they used to. 

And that brings me to my college football analogy. 

In 1997, a guy named Mike Leach arrived in college football, running the offense at the University of Kentucky. He perfected what has become known as the spread offense, though he certainly wasn't the only one who ran it. Here are some stats from a wonderful 2005 New York Times magazine article about him:

The year before he arrived, Kentucky's quarterback passed for 967 yards. In Leach's first year, his quarterback, Tim Couch, threw for 3,884 yards; the year after that, Couch, who lasted for only a few disappointing years in the N.F.L., threw for 4,275 yards. After Kentucky, Leach moved to Oklahoma for a single season, 1999. That year Oklahoma went from 101st to 8th in the country in offensive scoring. Its quarterback, Josh Heupel, passed for 3,850 yards that season, which was 1,700 more than any quarterback in Oklahoma football history had thrown for in a season.

Leach's Air Raid offense overturned some of the tenets of football offenses. It's still a bromide that you have to "establish the run" and "control the clock" by keeping possession of the ball.

Other variants of what is known at the spread offense are run-heavy, like Oregon, but they are still fundamentally different from the offenses of yore. There are often no tight-ends and only a single running back; instead, four or five receivers run routes instead. 

Because of those variations and in how the linemen spaced themselves, the "offense was, in effect, an argument for changing the geometry of the game,as the Times Magazine article astutely notes.

And the coaches of these teams emphasize tempo, or simply running a lot of plays.

And so the numbers can get truly gaudy. More than twice as many teams pass for over 400 yards a game than did 10 years ago. More than twice as many teams ran more than 80 offensive plays than a decade ago. Almost twice as many teams score 30 points a game or more (50 versus 28). 

And yet, few believe that the teams that run the spread and play super fast are better than the teams that don't run the spread and play super fast. Just look at national champion Florida State, who averaged less than 70 plays a game. Auburn runs the spread, but in a slowed-down, far from Oregon kind of way. 

The Oregon offense or the Leach offense are understood to be strategies that put up a lot of yards. That might translate into wins, but it might not, too. Leach's teams never seriously competed for a national championship. Oregon has been in national championship consideration, but has gotten beat by Stanford — and its old-school offense — three of the past five years, including the last two matchups.

Now let's return to media. The kind of Facebook optimization that sites are doing is like running the spread offense. You pump out a lot of content, tuned for the precise geometries of sharing inside Facebook and hope. Because of the physics of Facebook—it adds positive feedback to stories that are already doing well, like anti-friction—a big hit can become a HUUUGE hit. 

As they do this tuning, these writers are breaking lots of the traditional rules, which they say are outdated. For example, here is all of the text of an Upworthy post that was shared 88 thousand times on Facebook.

Hed: 9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact

Body Text: This pretty much speaks for itself. At 1:05, I get a rude awakening. At 1:41, he starts talking about you. At 2:24, he says a "bad" word. At 3:50, he kind of breaks my brain. At 4:50, he lets you know how broke you really are. At 5:20, he rubs it in. And at 5:50, he points out that reality isn't close to what we think it is.

That is to say, this post, which contains an embedded video does not tell the reader a single thing about the content of the video, but merely the set of emotions that one might feel watching the video. Not even the headline contains usable information. 

Upworthy, as my colleague Derek would point out in its defense, tests all of its headlines relentlessly. So, perhaps we want to be told how we'll feel and not what a story is about. That, in and of itself, would be a massive shift in the geometry (to borrow the word) of writing headlines and stories. 

And look at that, the post killed on Facebook. Can't argue with that. Millions of people probably read, "9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact."

Or take a site like twentytwowords.com, which by some measures, is the second-most viral media brand on Facebook (at least last November). It's run by one guy, and all that traffic came from six posts that went huge on Facebook. Six! Out of hundreds of posts on the site. 

Here's how he described his success to Esquire (emphasis added):

The recent surge was quick, as surges are by definition, but I’ve been blogging with moderate success at 22 Words for years, so it doesn’t feel sudden. But to answer your question, in November especially the Facebook gods smiled upon us... 

What happens when the Facebook algorithm changes?

It already has. If another chart like the one The Atlantic recently shared comes out in the new year, we might not be on it. And even though Upworthy will, they won’t have nearly the same numbers, I imagine.

So what do I do? Same as before… Get up early and find as much awesome content as I can. When 22 Words first became successful enough to make me a living, StumbleUpon was the main traffic source. Now it’s Facebook. Who knows what it will be next.

I’m just going to keep doing what I have been, and hopefully do it more and better. In November, traffic doubled and 12 million people enjoyed content from 22 Words. If it can happen once, it can happen again. But it won’t happen in the same way. 

Another way of putting this: As any beneficiary of Facebook's algorithm knows, traffic is only mildly related to the quality of the content. It's like the players in a Mike Leach or Oregon offense: Sure, they're good, but the same quality receiver who puts up 1000 yards playing for Leach would not reach those numbers at Alabama or Stanford. 

Traffic records keep falling (Leach broke 150 different records while at Texas Tech), but is it all just a scheme?

In football, I don't think it matters. 

In media,  I'd say it does for two reasons:

1) Advertisers can sometimes take the magnitude of a site's traffic to be indicative of its quality, notoriety, or influence. If that's an inaccurate perception, then they are putting their money in the wrong places.

2) What about defense? To overextend my football analogy even more than I already have, I'd argue that the "defense" in media is the creation and sustaining of a brand identity. 

In football, teams that play very fast don't control the time of possession. This means their defenses are out on the field a lot, and when that happens, they get tired. 

Playing the Facebook offense requires a lot of quick hits targeted at certain types of content that fit well with the type of sharing people do there. 

Unfortunately, not all editorial missions, not all brands, are going to be able to play Facebook offense while continuing to play good defense. Upworthy's brand is to do precisely these things. Is that the New York Times brand? Or Rolling Stone

This is not a call to return to three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust newspaper headlines or double-tight-end magazine treatments of all stories. It's merely a call to recognize that the metrics don't contain all of the information that editors, readers, advertisers, and financial backers need to make decisions about publications. 

And don't forget: Defense wins championships, or so the cliche goes.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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