Hyperlocals: ‘Use Facebook Like the Rest of the Planet’

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Eugene Driscoll is a guest author. To submit a guest post, click here.

I run a non-profit, three-person news site called the Valley Independent Sentinel. We cover five small towns in Connecticut’s lower Naugatuck Valley. We’re the sister site of the New Haven Independent, an pioneering news site operated by Paul Bass, the Yoda of online journalism.

The Valley Indy launched in June 2009, thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation. Before we were live, I was on Twitter — like a Justin Bieber bot — furiously searching for Twitter people living in our area. My Lord, everyone’s on Twitter, right? They get a billion new users every hour, right? We have no real budget for marketing, so Twitter is our lifeblood, right? Wrong.

For us, Facebook, with its semi-walled set-up, is where it’s at. We have about 2,500 followers on Facebook. None of them are members of my immediate family.

We’re in a market with two of the three largest newspapers in Connecticut. The two dailies are in no way ignoring the Web. It’s their top priority, from what they keep saying. Yet we have more followers on Facebook then one of the big fellas — and we’re not too far off from the other heavy hitter.

So here are a few Facebook tips that can help independent publishers rack up the “likes”:

Spend a Little Money
I spent something like $300 last year on a Facebook ad. Nothing crazy. Our limit per day was $5 or $10. Within two months of our first ad, our number of Facebook followers doubled.

That was nice, but I stopped the ad because we hired a third full-time staffer. We don’t even have a printer. Heck, we didn’t even have AC in the office for most of June. We try to spend money on newsgathering and only newsgathering. Despite the ad dropping off, we’ve continued to pick up new Facebook fans each week.

Our Facebook page is a talking Rolodex. We don’t just dump our stories on Facebook. Our priority is to talk to people on Facebook — not to just hawk stories on our home page. The traditional wall separating the public from the publication is gone.

Loosen Your Tie
To effectively launch our Facebook strategy, we went on a sojourn to the Berkshire mountains where, after a team-building exercise involving waterboarding and paintballs, we developed a pro-actively robust, enthusiastically satisfying Facebook mission statement. It reads: “Use Facebook like the rest of the planet.”

Everything on our Facebook page is posted by a human being. We include info with each post. You know, info such as “Why this story may be of interest.” When people ask a question on Facebook, we answer it. When another publication does good journalism pertaining to our coverage area, we link to it. When someone posts information on our wall, we repost the information so more people can read it. When someone uses foul language (rare) we remind them the editor’s 76-year-old mother reads the page. When our air conditioning wasn’t working, we complain to our readers. Heck, sometimes we even fight with readers. What’s Facebook without a few public meltdowns?

The result: genuine, two-way communication with people, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week.

Sometimes You Must Ignore Your Homepage
Our Facebook page is a talking Rolodex. We don’t just dump our stories on Facebook. Our priority is to talk to people on Facebook — not to just hawk stories on our home page. The traditional wall separating the public from the publication is gone.

Example: On Friday, July 8, a freakish summer storm battered the Town of Seymour, causing flash floods. In about two hours, several roads were washed out. Two cell towers went out of service, making cell phones useless. Cars were submerged in water on the town’s single major highway. Side roads were gridlocked.

Our Facebook page, according to posts from our readers, became a vital source of information. We posted a link to a police and fire online scanner, so people could hear what was happening — and which roads to avoid. We used that as our main post, in an effort to avoid flooding people’s news streams with a billion posts (a lesson learned from Conan O’Brien’s Facebook feed). When we had updates, we posted them in the comment section under that main post. Readers caught on and did the same. We had live reports from readers who watched what was happening.

This was hugely important to our reporting — because our reporter was stuck in the massive gridlock trying to get into town. And she couldn’t use her cell phone thanks to the damage to the cell tower. Eventually the reporter was able to feed me info, which I continued to post on Facebook. An in-depth story for the home page went up about three hours after the storm started, complete with video and eyewitness accounts.

The way people responded to a major event by posting their own info on Facebook proved to me using Facebook like a human being pays off for journalists.

Eugene Driscoll is the editor of the Valley Independent Sentinel.