The internet is addicted to Donald Trump. With one tweet, our president can send the entire nation into a frenzy felt on all corners of the web. Since 2016 — for a full two years now — Trump and his family have dominated media, and we can’t seem to quit talking about them.
So far, the web seems completely content to keep on feeding the internet’s Trump frenzy … and to, of course, pocket all the cash it’s getting from this golden goose of ad revenue. But we might be at a crossroads. We may possibly have an alternate to our favorite national pastime of hate-watching our president’s Twitter and then yelling at each other about it.
Meghan Markle — the American actress who will marry Britain’s Prince Harry this coming May — is about to be the biggest search term to hit the internet since President Trump. But loosening the Trump family’s iron grip on our media attention isn’t a simple task.
I spent three years as a web writer and editor, directly after college. We were a tech startup focused primarily on celebrity news—not an industry I’d ever want to get back into, but it was an amazing learning experience and taught me a great deal about clickbait, ad revenue, the internet’s fundamental economic structure.
People love celebrities. We follow their lives obsessively. U.S. President Donald Trump and his first family are the ultimate newsworthy celebrities: they’re as unpredictable as the Kardashians, the women look like models, and they have a number of young kids—the internet loves seeing pictures of celebrity kids. Ivanka Trump is also brilliant at PR and crisis management. (And this tweet she posted back in September is wonderful.)
America got to know the Trump family back during their trailblazing days as some of the first celebrities to become household names because of reality TV. We either loved them, or loved to hate them, but we definitely had an opinion either way. And now that the Trumps are the most powerful political family in our county, we can’t seem stop clicking on articles about them.
This is Google Trends. It’s one of the free and simple tools I used to use when figuring out how to title my web article for maximum search impact. It shows you what keywords people are searching for the most on Google. Here’s a look at how the Trump family is doing.
This image shows the number of searches for “Kim Kardashian,” “Trump,” and “Star Wars” over the past five years. When most people think of a celebrity who gets tons of news coverage, and who the internet won’t stop talking about, Kim — or one of her sisters — usually comes to mind.
But this graph covers Kim’s engagement and wedding, the birth of she and Kanye West’s first and second child, and her horrific robbery. None of those little blue bumps come close to the amount of clicks Donald Trump and his family have been getting for the past two years.
Star Wars, in yellow, is on the graph to explain how search interest usually works. Search volume spikes around a news event: it leaps up for a short period of time, but always jets back down once the frenzy of interest is over.
This is how most news — both celebrity gossip and “hard” news — works. I’ve done this a lot. Most of the spikes I saw lasted only a few days. One lasted up to three months, and we all knew it was going to be big, because my articles got 948,000 unique clicks in a week. But regardless of size and reach, news almost always follows a familiar pattern. Once a news story breaks, say, that the star of The Apprentice says he’s running for president (lol like that could ever happen), or that Hurricane Maria has hit Puerto Rico, news outlets jump on the story. They rush to cover it as quickly, and from as many angles as the public will be interested in, until public interest stops, and we’re on to the next big thing…like Kim Kardashian being pregnant or The Force Awakens premiering.
When you look at Star Wars’ spike for the 2015 Force Awakens premiere, you see a pretty impressive spike (bigger than anything Kim Kardashian has achieved). But Star Wars’ spike went back down once the initial excitement over the film faded. We’re still searching for our favorite reality star politicians at unprecedented rates.
The Trump family has turned what usually would have been a temporary traffic spike into almost two years of consistent media saturation. We need to stop freaking out every time they sneeze. Or get in an argument with someone. Or post another tweet.
Looking at the graph, it’s easy to assume that the Trump’s declining search interest means they’re almost back to their pre-campaign level of pseudo-fame.
Not really. Here’s another chart, this time focused only on U.S. web traffic for the past 90 days.
Donald Trump and his family currently have eight times the search volume of other big-name celebrities (the Kardashians, Taylor Swifts, Beyoncés, or Kylie Jenners of the world.) Star Wars, though currently passing them in search volume, is following a clear spike pattern. We’re not searching for it like we did in 2015, and even then, its spike was fairly short-lived. Once hype for The Last Jedi fades, the internet will go back to feverishly cranking out content around whatever our president tweets about next — rushing to fact check, react to, or interpret whatever he’s given to us in 280 characters or less.
When the U.S. president tweets, it’s news. Reporters can’t not report on his tweets —especially if extremists charged with hate crimes are being retweeted or if the tweet is presenting information in a misleading light.
When you’re a content creator for the web, it’s your job to write about things that have the best chance of getting clicked on. That’s how you make money and stay in business. You don’t have a choice.
But after three years of writing about celebrities, media, and pop culture — and having taken high-potential topics from very little traffic to huge success — I know that you don’t have to spend all your time writing about the wildly popular topics everyone else is writing about. I mean, you can if you prefer to take the easy route. But it serves you better in the long run to search out multiple areas of interest, and to find unique and high-value areas of investment that everyone else is too busy being reactionary to care about.
Here’s how breaking the cycle has worked before
In my time as a web editor, my favorite beat (by a landslide) was the TV show Glee. I loved getting paid to write about a show they celebrated the underdog, encouraged (its mostly teen audience) to see people’s differences as valuable, and to learn to see the world through another’s lens. Storylines focused on bullying, friendship, and learning to value people different from you, whether they were from different ethnicities, identified as LGBTQ, had a disability, or were being discriminated against for other reasons.
But I quickly learned that the internet’s hunger for quality, in-depth, and thought-provoking content around those topics is fairly limited. To stay relevant enough to be noticed, you have to give the internet what it wants. And the internet wants:
- Celebrity relationships: cute couples, dramatic fights, breakups, weddings, and divorces
- Celebrity feuds
- Any sort of controversy
- Celebrities reacting (to controversy, a big events, etc) on Twitter
- Cute animals
- Rapid weight loss
- Rapid weight gain
- Adorable kids
- …and combinations of any of the above
It’s part of the reason why the Trump family has such appeal: they’re celebrities & powerful government leaders. They live on social media, engage in regular controversy on social media, and they approach their visibility and PR with savvy cultivated over years of media and branding success.
But back to Glee. This is Lea Michele. She was the star of the show, already famous on Broadway (where she’d starred alongside Frozen’s Jonathan Groff in the hit coming of age tale Spring Awakening).
Of any actor on Glee, Lea had the most screentime, storylines, and musical solos of any character—and articles about her were, week after week, my top performing content. But I didn’t want to write about her all day. If I built my content strategy around writing as much as I could around what people were already consuming in mass quantities, I could get a lot of traffic. But writing about one person all the time gets boring. So instead of trying to spin her every tweet into a story, I looked for the less-obvious alternatives.
This is the person who ended up being my favorite alternative. His name is Grant Gustin.
Grant came to Glee in 2011 with no real TV history—but a background of touring in a number of musical productions. But he played a character that was announced as a threat to one of the show’s most popular couples, and readers wanted to know everything possible about him. His character ended up being a huge success — one everyone loved to hate — and by all accounts Grant seemed like a really great, funny, and likable guy. I needed someone other than Lea to write about, so when traffic around Grant started spiking, I had a blast getting to write about his tweets, spoilers, and Instagram photos with the same frequency I did Lea’s.
I covered every guest appearance on other shows, every TV and indie movie role, every cute photo with his dogs. Lea Michele was already famous. Grant Gustin had potential, but was just at the beginning of his career.
Today, he’s on his fourth year of starring as The Flash — the most-watched of the CW’s four Arrow-verse sister shows. He’s the first TV superhero leading man to not be the traditional consistently shirtless bro with 8-pack abs who looks like he spends most of his free time at the gym. The Flash is the first superhero franchise I’ve seen that refuses to objectify its lead, which I respect immensely, and it’s representation of strong and successful people of color and women is well ahead of many other shows on TV.
In the past year, their search interest has been about equal. He’s currently more popular, though she’s experienced much more overall search interest throughout her career.
But even if Grant Gustin’s career hadn’t taken off after I left the industry, his articles still ended up being one of my more consistent sources of traffic (and, more importantly, ad revenue…the number one goal of almost everything you see on the web). His traffic spikes were much smaller, but he was an interesting actor with great interest and potential. Investing in him was harder than writing a new story for every Lea Michele tweet, but it paid off.
What that means for Markle and Trump right now
Right now, the Trump-dominated internet needs someone like that: a person with potential, whose search volume isn’t anywhere close to Trump level, but who has all the markers of a successful celebrity presence.
Looking back at the second chart, it seems to me that Meghan Markle, with all the excitement over her in light of her upcoming marriage to Prince Harry in May, had very strong potential of being able to pull focus from our nationwide Trump obsession. Markle’s search volume definitely spiked when she and Prince Harry announced their engagement, but like most news stories, it quickly dropped. But the internet loves weddings even more then engagements, and there are so many story possibilities around the planning, preparation, ceremony, etc. And if they have kids? So. Much. Search. Volume.
Meghan Markle is about to become one of the most popular search topics, not just in America, but in most of the Western world and and perhaps also the former British colonies. But most media outlets are only going to go for the most simple and obvious angles: wedding, honeymoon, fashion, relationship details, pregnancy, babies. The key to finally turning the tide on the Trump family’s iron grip on our nation’s feverish and emotion-driven media consumption is to give the world something else to freak out about.
Realistically, I don’t think we’ll ever curb our appetite for celebrity news, pop culture clickbait, or powerful and rich people doing powerful rich people things, but we can re-direct it, at least partially.
If anyone can disrupt our obsession with the Trump family Twitter circus, its Markle. She’s practically a real-life princess, plus, she’s intelligent and involved in meaningful nonprofit work. And she has the romance angle, and the potential for long-term search interest, because #weddings and #monarchy. And she’s an entry point for meaningful conversations about race, which it would be great for us to start having.
What’s likely to happen, of course — unless those in the media commit to being strategic instead of just jumping on the easy money/low hanging fruit — is that most of her media coverage, royal wedding and beyond, will be spent talking about her outfits, objectifying her, writing lowkey racist articles, or fastidiously documenting ever public appearance of any potential royal baby bump she might decide to start growing.
But there’s a way to cover huge news events in a way that feeds public interest but doesn’t objectify, insult, or commodify it’s subject. It’s harder. It takes more effort and intentionality. But it’s completely possible, and in my experience, it causes people to respect you more in the long run — which might taper your ad revenue in the short term but ultimately leads to more long-term success.
A new, and more strategic, approach to web traffic/ad revenue
For this to happen, the media will need a specific and data-backed strategy that engages in the internet’s areas of interest but refuses to engage in the cheap and degrading content that is much easier to produce quickly (at the same rate that one may, say, write an article about a factually-misleading tweet on a controversial political issue). Potential high-return areas in which to focus include:
- Her relationship with Harry
- Her adorable pet dogs
- Markle hugging adorable pandas (I mean, it worked for Justin Trudeau)
- Childhood photos
- Her fashion evolution
- Her range of nonprofit and advocacy work
- The variety of ways in which she weighs in on meaningful world issues
- Engagement and wedding planning details
- Monarchy/princess tie-ins
- Potential pregnancy/baby photos
One of the stories of Markle and her fiancé’s relationship that most caught my attention is the fact that their relationship grew serious after a trip camping in Botswana. The country was a part of the British Empire until about 50 years ago. With nearly a quarter of the world’s population under the empire just a century ago — what does it mean for a biracial woman with African heritage to now be joining the Royal Family? He didn’t choose to have ancestors who spent centuries colonialisng much of the world. But as a figurehead in a country that is in the process of leaving the European Union over a highly contentious push of anti-immigrant sentiment and nationalistic pride, Prince Harry’s personal life — whether he wants it to or not — plays into a greater narrative of who Britain is and what she values. His unprecedented public condemnation of the flurry of (both subtle and explicitly) racist coverage of Markle in the British press shows that voices of power and influence can speak against racism. Whether Harry and his fiancé want it or not, they’re now incredibly prominent voices in our world’s understanding of race and power. How they act, and any way they choose to speak into issues of race, holds an incredible amount of weight: in all of the former British colonies and beyond.
Who is setting our narrative? Which voices are being given that power?
After ten years in writing and communications, I’m well aware of what a predominately white industry I’m in. People of color are significantly underrepresented in news rooms, in media creator roles, and in marketing. When we tell stories of people of color, it’s quite likely that a white person is the one retelling their words and setting the narrative.
For their official engagement interview, the royal couple specifically requested to be interviewed by BBC’s Mishal Husain, a woman of color. This likely isn’t the reason they chose her, of course, but it’s a choice that communicates a preference for choosing to work with individuals who understand a variety of perspectives and experiences, instead of defaulting to the way things have always been done.
From a strategic perspective, media outlets would do well to work with journalists and writers of color — particularly women of African heritage — if they hope to avoid common pitfalls and misunderstandings that white writers and editors often encounter when writing about people of color or writing about issues that involve race.
I’m not even close to the best choice to write about Meghan Markle and her impact on our global understanding and perceptions of race, but there are many, many women of color who would have unique and valuable insight that could lead to exciting and meaningful conversations. They just have not, historically, been in our newsrooms, so it might take large media outlets a bit more effort to recruit the best writers and journalists for this job. (But not doing so could lead to the creation of some pretty embarrassing content, as often happens when writers and storytellers are hired to cover what is out of their element and don’t take steps or focus on building the relationships and partnerships that will help them learn how to do their job well.)
But if media are willing to spent the time to invest in writing about Markle well, the possibilities for powerful, relevant, and meaningful content are vast. Markle has an Ivy-level education and history of nonprofit and advocacy work with numerous high-visibility organizations. If the internet doesn’t want to objectify and minimize her, it doesn’t have to. From a content and storytelling perspective, she is an ideal celebrity to cover: one with both celebrity appeal and deep substance.
As we enter into 2018, we don’t have to be complicit with our new normal. We don’t have to continue our two-year pattern of freaking out about Trump tweets and yelling at each other. We also don’t have to talk about Meghan Markle as a royal Barbie who stole the love of our lives, Prince Harry. We can do better.
It will take effort. It will take investment from media outlets, from VPs to writers, around the world. It will take a public that learns to think before we consume web content, and is well to engage with something more than the lowest common denominator.
There is a way to game this system, we’re just not trying hard enough yet.