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Did you notice? There seems to be a paradigm shift going on over at Digg that hearkens to the cries of users and publishers alike longing for the glory of old. It would appear that for the first time in over a year, Digg senior management is not only listening to the users, they’re acting upon what they’re hearing.

Anyone who has followed knows that I’ve been extremely critical of Digg from a few weeks before they launched V4 until very recently. Things have changed. For the first time in over 7 months, I’m strongly encouraged about Digg’s future.

Followers are also aware that I have been acutely critical of Matt Williams, the CEO who came in with a high level of promise but who we haven’t seen much of since taking over. That has changed as well and is likely the cause for the positive updates that we’ll detail below.

Does this sudden shift of opinion mean that I’m backing Digg’s actions 100%? Not yet. The skeptic in me is keeping me from jumping in feet first, but the last 3 weeks have shown clear and distinct changes in mindset, particularly in Digg’s biggest current problem: a lack of buzz.

While they aren’t harnessing their trumpets to cry forth their triumphant return to relevance, they are branching out and attempting to make the news. In the next month, we should be seeing more stories about Digg than we have in the previous three. It isn’t the good ol’ days when Jay Adelson buying a house would make a headline, but there are signs that point to Digg saying, “we’re still here, we’re still relevant, and we’re willing to fight for our user base by listening to their calls to action.”

It’s a great sign.

Changes

Digg has gotten much better at communicating their changes on the blog. We won’t rehash the recent changes too much other than to list most of them here:

  1. New design – more than just a tweak, less than a redesign – that clearly took the opinions of the users gathered since the launch of V4 into account.
  2. Multiple comments per story in the user profile view
  3. Historical number of promoted stories and percentages (plus a minor return of the top 20 users’ list)
  4. Optional on-site and email notifications when stories you submit or Digg are promoted to Top News

The two important changes are the ones that give me hope that Digg’s future is bright…

RSS Submissions are Dead. Thank You.

The biggest controversy surrounding the launch of V4 was also the primary reason that former CEOs Adelson and Kevin Rose made the shift in the first place. RSS submitting by publishers was intended to streamline the process and allow publishers to treat Digg much the same way that most treat Twitter and Facebook, bringing Digg into the crowd as one of the “big 3” must-have social profiles for publications and celebrities.

It ended up having the exact opposite effect. By alienating and neutering their human user base, Digg effectively killed off much of the traffic that it once sent. They made it easier for publishers to submit and impossible for them to get any benefit out of submitting. It turned into a Chinese finger trap for most publishers – the more they would submit thanks to the ease of the new submission process, the less chance they had that any of these automated submissions would ever see the light of day on the Digg front page.

Many of the biggest accounts turned off their feeds and went back to the “power users” who were still able to promote quality content to the front page.

Now, the feeds are gone. Digg heard. More importantly, they listened.

How Much Traffic? This Much…

The biggest reason that Digg rose to relevance was because of the tremendous traffic that the front page sent to sites. Many would fall to the “Digg Effect” as servers would crumble under the weight of thousands accessing a page at any given moment from the Digg front page.

Digg V4 saw a mass exodus from the site as users thought it was buggy, unfair, publisher-owned, ugly… the list could go on. Bottom line was that people left, traffic dropped, and publishers such as Wired and Mashable who loved the traffic they got from Digg in V3 and the early days of V4 suddenly found themselves not getting the clicks. Even when their stories hit the front page, the traffic per story was much lower than before.

They and other sites that were supporters of Digg turned their back on them. Some even wrote negative stories about Digg and declared its demise. When you’re that big, I guess the mentality is, “Thanks for the traffic over the years, but what have you done for me lately?”

The move to publish the story-view counts is a declaration. It is a way of saying, “Hey, we’re still sending massive traffic and it’s getting bigger all the time.”

The numbers I’ve seen would back this up. Digg hit rock bottom a month ago but the traffic numbers have turned recently. While the story-view counts are somewhat inflated, representing clicks as well as views of the story on Digg (which publishers would not register as visits) it’s still a good indication of Digg’s potential prominence as well as a useful tool for users to see how much “play” a story is getting before clicking through to it.

The Future of Digg

Things are looking good, but it’s still a huge hole and they have to keep climbing. The one concern I have is that they seem to be of the mentality that they need to do what they can to get their user base back. This would be a mistake.

The users who are still on Digg want positive changes, and those are being made. The users who have left are gone. Trying to cater to them to win them back will not work. “If you love something, let it go…”

UI changes will not bring them back.

Digg must focus on the higher potential people – new users. There is currently a window open across the Internet because social media is at a tipping point. People who had never heard of Digg before because they weren’t into social media are now looking for sites that appeal to them. If Digg wants to grow, they must go after the next generation of social media users (which includes a good chunk of the entire planet).

Forget those that abandoned you. Keep your current users and go after new ones. You’re doing the right things to keep users. Now get the word out. Create buzz. Do not fall into the trap of recapturing your old base. As enticing as the strategy seems, it’s futile. They have moved on. UI changes will not get new users and won’t bring the old ones back.

Buzz, on the other hand, can go after both. Let people who have no idea what Digg is learn about the site. Let old users know that you’re making the move back to prominence and quality. Recent history has proven that changes, even major ones, do nothing if the basic PR isn’t done properly.

Two prominent examples are Mixx and MySpace. Mixx added new features a couple of years ago that were amazing, including communities, empowered moderators, and Twitter integration. They didn’t generate the buzz and they never got bigger. MySpace made a wholesale change in the way they operated but only after they lost the attention of the publishing world. They’ll be sold off for parts by the end of the year.

Focus on current and new users. Pretend like the old users that left are gone for good. If they return, great. If not, forget them.

This is an extremely delicate time for Digg. By May, they will either be all over the news as the comeback kids or they’ll be sunk. For the first time in 7 months, I’m leaning towards the prior as the likely case. It all depends on what happens next.

Update:

One nice change that is subtle but definitely more present than any time in the past is interaction by the staff. As MrBabyMan has been saying for 4 years, we want to be able to talk through issues directly and publicly, not just via email. While there’s not forum system yet, staff presence in comments is exceptionally encouraging, particularly in cases like this where issues are being worked on in real time:

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And now, a word from the CEO:

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Learn more about Digg on this social media blog.

Written by JD Rucker
+JD Rucker is Editor at Soshable, a Social Media Marketing Blog. He is a Christian, a husband, a father, and founder of Dealer Authority. He drinks a lot of coffee, usually in the form of a 5-shot espresso over ice. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.