How Community News Sites Can Get the Most Out of Facebook

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facebooklikebuttonIt’s not news that social media can make a huge impact on what happens to content that enters its force field. But still I gulped when I saw the chart (image below) in Neustar’s “Global Media Intelligence Report,” subtitled, cleverly, “Where the math men meet the Mad Men.”

In their quest for new customers — and when they want to deliver a branding message that will resonate long after their ad campaigns are over —businesses and their marketers want to get into the tight red circle of the bull’s-eye, or at least very close to it. As the Neustar chart shows, social media outperforms all other marketing channels in connecting with the small but so important segment of audience that’s in the bull’s-eye — “quality users.” These users are converted into buyers nearly six times greater than the return from conventional ad campaigns that aim at big numbers (all the concentric circles extending from the bull’s-eye), the study says. Social is first by other performance measures, the study also found.

Social Media swamps other channels in User Quality Index, Neustar, Q3, 2013

We know, from another report, the marketing consultant Winterberry Group’s “Programmatic Everywhere: Data, Technology and the Future of Audience Engagement,” done about the same time, that marketers now want to go after those small-but-powerful segments of audience, right down to that granular piece of geography called the census tract.

But if you’re the publisher of a community news site, how can you benefit from what Neustar and Winterberry have discovered? To get specific, how can you maximize your presence on the biggest social media platform — Facebook?

I went to the expert who is writing, literally, the book on audience engagement, Jake Batsell, author the forthcoming “Engaged News: Rethinking Journalism in an Era of Digitally Empowered Audiences,” and whom I interviewed two weeks ago on why every community site should be going after multiples streams of revenue. Batsell also authors the blog NewsBiz.

Here’s what he told me, based on more than a hundred interviews and visits to many old and new media community news operations, plus his current fellowship at the very social-savvy Texas Tribune:

With the caveat that Facebook is famously secretive about its algorithm and often changes it, here are a few of the best practices I’ve encountered:

•    Whenever possible, include a photo. It’s clear that Facebook posts with photos draw more likes, comments and shares than those with text alone. The Texas Tribune almost always adds pictures to its Facebook posts — even an archival shot adds visual context and increases the visibility of the post.

•    Be personable and conversational. At The Morning Sun in Mount Pleasant, Mich., community engagement editor Lisa Yanick-Jonaitis increased the paper’s Facebook reach by making a number of subtle changes in the way she phrased status updates. For example, instead of hurriedly posting weather bulletins with sentence fragments and ellipses, Yanick-Jonaitis began to take a little extra time to craft weather updates with active verbs and a more localized touch. [The Morning Sun has 9,433 Likes on Facebook, which is impressive for a site serving a central Michigan city that has a population of 26,183.]

•    Have a deliberate strategy for timing your posts. Use Facebook Insights and Google Analytics to identify patterns and peak readership times that help inform your posting strategy. Yanick-Jonaitis found that weather-related status updates reached more people prior to 7 a.m. than at any time later in the day. And if you’re not an early riser, there’s good news: Facebook recently made it easier for page administrators to schedule posts.

•    Pay attention to the types of stories your readers tend to share. An NPR experiment in 2012 identified nine categories of local stories that were most likely to spur engagement, ranging from “place explainers” to “topical buzzers” to “awe-inspiring visuals” (there’s that photo appeal again).

If you want to dig deeper into how to exploit the potential Facebook offers to community news publishers, regardless of the size of their sites, go to John Loomer’s blog for “advanced Facebook marketers,” starting with his “The Digital Entrepreneur’s Resolutions for 2014.”

While Loomer writes primarily for marketers, community publishers should know what those advertising decision makers are thinking, especially when it comes to where they’re leaning on buying placement — and remember, those marketers are now looking at publications regardless of their size for message placement.

Loomer’s blog is also packed with videos, webinars and slides that are useful explainers of the ever-changing intricacies of Facebook.

There are no silver bullets in anything that Batsell or Loomer, or Neustar or Winterberry says. But community publishers, overall, are getting only crumbs of the billions of message dollars spent in the local-hyperlocal digital space. Who wants to live on crumbs falling from the table. Who can?

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that will rate communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability. He will present the site’s new demo on Charleston, S.C., at the DIG SOUTH 2014 interactive festival in Charleston on April 9-13, 2014.