Social Media ROI: Connecting to Readers on Facebook
[By Beth Lawton] The social network that started in a college dorm room now has 200 million members worldwide and enormous potential for newspapers. Publications are following their audience onto the increasingly popular Facebook social network with the goal of extending the newspaper’s brand reach and driving traffic back to the newspaper’s Web site.
|This article is part of a series on social media ROI. In this series:
«What we’re really doing is making sure that two years from now, when Facebook is bigger than Google, we’ll be there,” said The Charlotte Observer’s Editor for New Products and Innovations Steve Gunn.
Unlike MySpace, Facebook is growing by leaps and bounds: Facebook’s share of U.S. traffic to social networking sites is up substantially in the past year, with a 58.6 percent share of social networking usage (up from 19.9 percent in 2008), according to data from Hitwise.
Comment and Connect
One of the most important moments for newspapers on Facebook was the release of Facebook Connect last year.
Newspaper sites that enable Facebook Connect can let readers sign into their newspaper.com account with their Facebook login. Then, when that newspaper reader comments on an article or other newspaper.com content, their activity shows up on their Facebook wall, where their friends can see it.
Several newspapers have reported that enabling Facebook connect has given their Web site a boost in traffic, and it also helps build the newspaper’s brand. Facebook reports, “Sites that have implemented comments with Facebook Connect have seen as much as 15-20 percent increase in users who register to comment and even more in total comment activity.”
One of the first was the San Diego Union-Tribune, but since then the Washington Post and several other newspapers have implemented Facebook Connect as well.
In a MediaPost blog entry, Powered CMO Aaron Strout explained the power of Facebook Connect:
Rather than just reading/commenting on an article, I can now let my friends on Facebook see that I commented on the article, because Facebook allows that event to flow into my news feed – with my consent, of course. Then, if some of my friends decide to click on that link and perhaps comment – voila! That goes in their news feeds as well. …With 200 million-plus members, the viral effect can be fast and powerful.
Other Facebook Connect services include the Live Stream Box service, which newspapers can put on their own sites to effectively stream comments as they come in through Facebook. Users can sign in with Facebook Connect and their status updates appear in the Live Stream Box. They also appear on their profiles and on their friends’ Facebook news feeds. CNN did this alongside live video during the presidential elections in 2008.
Brand Building and Outreach
Even without Facebook Connect, many newspapers are building traffic and brand awareness through the massive social network.
Facebook membership has ballooned to more than 200 million people worldwide. Its fastest growing demographic is with people 35 and older – not the undergraduate college students who originally embraced the social network.
The Charlotte Observer has witnessed that first hand. The newspaper, with more than 1,600 fans and growing, overall has more female than male fans. The largest age group of fans is ages 35 to 44.
The New York Times is having a different experience. Martin Niesenholtz, senior vice president, digital operations, said the social network is helping that newspaper broaden its demographic reach. Unlike NYTimes.com, the newspaper’s Facebook following skews female and a strong majority of fans are under the age of 35.
The New York Times has been building out its Facebook presence since 2007 and now has more than half a million fans on its main newspaper Facebook page.
The Times’ Soraya Darabi, manager of partnership and buzzmarketing for The New York Times, said the newspaper posts about six articles per day to Facebook and that many readers go to the newspaper’s Web site to read the full article, though the newspaper has not implemented Facebook Connect.
In addition the newspaper’s Facebook presence includes Facebook pages for features such as 1 in 8 million, which Darabi says also is helping introduce new people to the brand.
The New York Times gained a substantial number of followers on Facebook during Election Night in 2008 and the presidential inauguration in 2009. The newspaper asked readers to answer the question, “How will you remember this day?” and received more than 30,000 comments in a matter of hours. Election day brought the newspaper 120,000 new fans, and Inauguration Day brought 130,000 new fans.
The newspaper also had the most passed-around “gift” on Facebook in connection with the events. The newspaper’s Nov. 5 virtual gift, the “Obama Wins” newspaper, was passed around more than 463,000 times. The January 20 virtual gift was passed around more than 673, 300 times.
Gunn said he also sees the Observer’s Facebook efforts as a way to help the brand image of the newspaper.
The stories the Observer posts to its Facebook fan page tend to be the “holy moly” stories that newspaper editors think people on Facebook will want to read, or hard news stories. The hard news stories often get more comments.
“It may well be that people really do see this as a way to get news,” Gunn said.
For news outlets, it can be a saving grace when other technology fails, as it did with KING5.com, one of Belo’s television news Web sites this summer. A server outage took down the television station’s Web site, but editors there were able to continue publishing news through Facebook and Twitter. The newspaper had a very high level of interaction.
Charlotte Observer’s Zip
This month, The (Charlotte, N.C.) Observer newspaper launched Zip, a Facebook application designed to drive engagement with the newspaper.
Zip is based on an open-source project called NewsCloud. (One of NewsCloud’s early projects was mndaily, which started at the University of Minnesota with a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation grant.)
The Observer’s application allows people to interact with the newspaper by inviting friends to install the Facebook application, comment on stories, post stories or complete tasks such as signing up to receive e-mails from the newspaper. Users receive points for each action.
The Observer hasn’t quite decided what to do with the points, but one idea is to allow readers to turn in points and receive free items or discounts from advertisers. The application has space available for advertising, which the newspaper is working on selling.
The application is designed to reach Facebook users ages 18 to 24, and a college student intern will be responsible for promoting Zip through college groups on the social network.
The newspaper plans to promote Zip primarily through Facebook, later putting promotions in the newspaper and elsewhere. “We’re not expecting people will come to this if they aren’t already on Facebook,” Gunn said.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel this quarter is test marketing a program that essentially combines public relations and guaranteed-return advertising for local businesses. The newspaper is offering to manage social networking-based content and/or consult on social networking strategies for local businesses that may not have the time or resources to do this themselves, said Digital Media Manager Jay Horton.
The News-Sentinel has already lined up a car dealership and a credit union to test the program. A local restaurant may also participate. The newspaper’s services will include social media strategy guidance or content management for a year, social network monitoring and decision tree building.
Social networks have become an important place to sell online display advertising, and the Knoxville newspaper is considering booking Facebook ads on behalf of clients for a service fee. One out of five online display ads that people see are on social networking sites – primarily Facebook and MySpace, according to research this year from comScore.
Research from earlier this year from Anderson Analytics showed people who belong to social networks are four times more vocal about products and services than those who don’t belong.
Many newspapers are struggling to sell ads on the giant social network, in part because local businesses don’t fully understand the benefits.
Despite uncertain revenue opportunities, newspapers are quickly building up a Facebook presence.
“We’re kind of hedging our bets a little bit. Facebook, especially, has the potential to be gigantic, and you don’t want to be locked out of it if it gets gigantic,” Gunn said.