For most of us, being "Liked" is a social affirmation. For many news organizations, it's a growth plan.
News organizations around the country are campaigning for Facebook fans like status-obsessed teenagers. Local TV stations in particular are attacking the challenge with zeal. Some do it with giveaway contests, awarding gas cards and iPads to lucky Facebook fans. Many appeal to vanity, featuring a Facebook "Fan of the Day" in their news shows. Some instigate tongue-in-cheek popularity contests among on-air talent. Early this year, KUTV in Salt Lake City pitted anchors and reporters against one another in a "Facebook Faceoff" to attract the most fans to their individual pages. As part of the effort, each competing staffer posted a goofy campaign video on YouTube.
Others appeal to social conscience. Between May 30 and June 16, KTVK in Phoenix promised that for each new Facebook fan, the station would donate a bottle of water to a Salvation Army program serving the elderly and homeless. With over 12,000 new fans in two weeks, the station fell short of its 20,000 goal — but made up the difference with the help of a sponsor. In the fall of 2010, WJW in Cleveland offered to donate $2,500 to a local animal shelter if the station's Facebook page reached 100,000 fans in one week, from a starting point of over 50,000. With 44,000 new fans the goal was just missed — but the station donated the money anyway.
Good deeds and wacky antics aside, news organizations — including TV stations, newspapers and other forms of media — are serious about Facebook. At industry conferences, news and marketing managers fill rooms to learn how they can use Facebook and Twitter to grow and engage with audiences. They anxiously monitor their competitors' fan bases as they invest time and money in growing their own.
Is all of this cost and effort worth it? The short answer is yes, probably. The better answer is that social media play an unquestionable and increasingly important role in news consumption; however, there's more to learn about how news organizations can maximize their influence in this process.
Starting with what we do know, a lot of people are getting news on Facebook. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, 42 percent of people on social sites like Facebook got news there on a regular or occasional basis. Six percent of Americans — 14 percent of those aged 18-34 — first learned of Osama bin Laden's death via social networks, according to Pew.
In May, Pew released another study in which it used data from Nielsen to analyze Web audience trends for the top 25 most popular news Web sites in the U.S. For sites with the highest volume of Facebook-driven traffic, such as NYTimes.com, CNN.com, ABCNews.com and HuffingtonPost.com, Facebook links contributed 6 percent to 8 percent of the sites' unique visitors in 2010. Given the rapid growth of these sites' Facebook fan bases, the percentages may be even higher today.
Further, Facebook provides traditional media companies with access to younger audiences. According to Facebook's data, the median age of people who click the "Like" button on articles on news Web sites is 34. Nearly half the people who "Like" articles on news Web sites are between the ages of 18 and 34. And people who "Like" articles on news sites have, on average, more than 300 friends on Facebook — which means exponentially more exposure for each article they share.
Now, here are some of the things we don't know: First, it's unclear how much of news sites' Facebook referral traffic is due to the news organizations' social networking efforts, versus the "Like" (or "Share," or "Recommend") button appended to articles on news Web sites that allows users to share stories on their own. Slapping a "Like" button on one's Web site articles doesn't constitute a Facebook strategy, but it's probably the single most effective thing a site can do. If the content is interesting, people will share it.
We also don't know how much time and effort a site needs to invest to make its Facebook page an effective catalyst for social sharing. Having a full-time social media manager on staff will enable more interaction with users, and more community cultivation on one's Facebook page. However, if the primary goal is to distribute content — and if resources are scarce — it may be enough to periodically post interesting stories and let users take it from there. Full and total engagement on Facebook is a valid strategy, but not the only effective option.
Finally, we don't yet understand the ROI of users who "Like" a news organization on Facebook in order to win an iPad or save a shelter dog. Common sense and anecdotal evidence suggests that these people are more likely to ignore news posts than someone who signed up to get news — but if even a modest percent click links and share stories, they can still produce meaningful growth for the Web site. And who can fault a growth strategy that helps puppies?
Facebook is the newest arena in the competition for online news audience. News organizations are still sorting out which specific tactics will help them win, but there's no question about getting into the game.