Is the Party Over for Social Media?

by: Gretchen A. Peck

Is the Party Over for Social Media?

The two most dynamic topics in news publishing today have to be social media and mobile publishing (comprising mobile Web and mobile-apps). They’re dynamic for different reasons and in different ways. Mobile usage is on a brilliant ascent, and at just the start of it, while social-media sites vary in popularity and engagement. As this very article came together, the tech media announced the final coffin nail for Google+.

And like MySpace before it, Facebook has become joke fodder, reduced to a pop-culture punchline among teens and newly-minted adults who see it as a cyber space overrun with over-sharing parental and grand-parental types. On the Web-series-turned-TV-show Broad City, when Ilana Glazer’s character tries to talk a young friend out of getting married too young, she implores of him, “Government-mandated monogamy is for old people—like Facebook invites or network TV.”

It’s true that Facebook is becoming increasingly popular with the 65-plus crowd.

But that’s only a small part of the story. In January 2015, Pew Research Center published its Social Media Update 2014 report, which crowned Facebook as “by far the most popular social media site.” Though the report acknowledges that the fan favorite is seeing its membership numbers slow since the previous year, “the level of user engagement with the platform has increased.” Facebook is maturing with its audience.

The Pew report also revealed that 52 percent of online adults are now active in two or more social-media sites—up from 42 percent the previous year.

What’s it all mean for how people will get their news in the future, or where publishers will have to follow their audiences next is uncertain.

“I’m not sure that Facebook is shedding younger users as much as younger users are shedding Facebook,” Stan Huskey said. Huskey is regional content director for Digital First Media, and editor of The Times Herald, Norristown, Pa.

But Facebook and Twitter continues to be vital to Huskey’s newspaper and its sister publications in the region.

“A couple of years ago, we used to publish to Facebook maybe twice a day. We post to Facebook about once an hour now, so we’ve definitely stepped that up. Twitter? Same thing,” Huskey said.

He sees Twitter’s greatest challenge as its pace. “A Twitter feed goes by pretty fast. How often are people seeing what we’re posting?…With Facebook, people sit down with their iPads at the end of the day, go through their Facebook feed, and they’ll see us. Hopefully, we’re publishing content that they’re interested in, and that drives a click back to our website.”

Huskey also noted that tools like TweetDeck, HootSuite, and Buffer—one he’s currently testing out—can streamline the workflow between a newspaper’s publishing system and the social-media platform. Populating the social sites are purely an editorial function (online editors see to that), but Huskey revealed that a collaborative, shared digital desk is in the works. “We’ll have it (staffed) from 6 a.m. to midnight, editors who will populate the social media and websites, while paying attention to the digital world.”

Though social media falls under the domain of editorial, Huskey said that advertising and circulation often take part in social media planning, too. “We bring them into conversations for a lot of things—contests being one of them and advertising. We’ll often come up with something that they can sell advertising around. We might create a contest on the editorial side and then promote that through social media.”

Naturally, big news brands are still banking on social media’s future. The New York Times alone runs as many as nine social communities, with presences on Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Google+, and YouTube.


Selling Social as a Core Competency

While publishing to social sites is often thought of as purely a function of editorial and all about content, there has to be a measurable return on the investment—whether it’s measured with click-thrus to the .com site, where advertisers are anxiously awaiting them; or renewed subscriptions because fans already saw a post on Facebook; or even new readers who live beyond a newspaper’s typically geographic reach, who subscribe after they see a link a friend posted. Those gains are all easily measured, but not always enough to justify the staffing, technology, and other resources required that make social-media work as effectively as it should.

It’s an apt criticism to say that the newspaper industry dragged its feet a little before buying into the digital proposition, but it was way ahead of the game when it came to social media, because it was so easy and so affordable to drive people to their websites this way. News publishers are the experts in distributing content across social spaces. And people want to get their curated and aggregated news from them.

It turns out, a newspaper’s social media acumen isn’t only beneficial to building the newspaper’s brand; it’s a sales opportunity, too. Last year, The Anniston (Ala.) Star hired a social media and online marketing sales representative to take what the paper knows about social media strategy, and share it with advertisers and local businesses that may become advertisers.

David Bragg, the paper’s director of advertising, said that the local community was “hungry” for social media training and expertise, and many needed a partner to help them maintain their social media properties. The newspaper’s team could help with this, so it became a sales opportunity.

One of the first clients to leverage the newspaper’s social savvy was a local auto dealership. After the publisher presented to the client, the company not only signed up for social media consultation and administration, but also bought Internet ads and nearly $8,000 in new print advertising.

“Mom-and-Pop businesses loved it, and it took off from there,” Bragg said. “Our goal was to do $40,000 in revenue from July to the end of last year, and we far exceeded that. When we prepared the budget for January to the end of this year, we were shooting for $120,000, but we are on track to do far better than that.”

Today, the newspaper is helping mid-sized local businesses strategize and deploy social media campaigns as part of a comprehensive marketing program that often includes a print-ad commitment. A second staffer joined the team to help manage the growing social media admin duties.

“We have been adding new clients ever since we started this program,” Bragg said.

The key to growing business in this way is not only offering an array of marketing and ad services that cover the cross-media/cross-platform spectrum, but educating clients about how all of these marketing initiatives work in tandem to build their own brands.


News on the Go

Tablets and e-readers started out big but have since gone “mini.” Mobile displays, once valued for their compact configurations, are morphing into “phablets,” with the introduction of smartphones like the iPhone 6+ and Samsung Galaxy Note. And now the bite-sized smartwatch is being thrown into the mix.

Tech giants like Apple, Sony, Motorola, Microsoft, LG, and Kronoz have all introduced smartwatches. And even fashion brands like Tag Heuer and Guess are selling them now.

These variations on a screen-size theme aren’t just happening because developers are whimsical; rather, it’s reflective of the many ways and preferences that people have for accessing, viewing, interacting with, and sharing all kinds of content—from long-form copy- heavy journalism to snappy six-second Vines and everything in between.

Alice Dubois, director of editorial products at BuzzFeed, spoke on a panel presentation titled “We’re 50% Mobile. Now What?” at the ONA14 Chicago conference last September. She reminded the audience that social media drives a lot of mobile usage. “About 75 percent of usage on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest is on mobile…mobile equals social, and social equals mobile. They’ve just converged.”

Alex Hardiman, executive director, mobile products, The New York Times, shared that panel discussion with Dubois and CNN’s senior mobile editor Etan Horowitz, and spoke about the growth of the paper’s mobile readership. “On smartphone, most of the growth actually came through browser, which makes sense. But on tablet, a lot of it came through our iPad app, and followed by our Android app, which also makes sense given the fact that we see increasingly long and deep sessions taking place on tablet and via app. And browser has been hugely important in terms of side-door traffic on smartphone.”

Though publishers may wish for a crystal ball that reveals how all of this will shake out in the future—what devices will reign, where and how and how long people will want to use them to access information—the future may still look a lot like the present, when newspapers simply have to be everywhere, ubiquitously available on any platform or medium.

Hardiman explained, “The question we posed to ourselves was: If it’s a mobile-only world in two to three years, where do we need to be best positioned to grow our audiences and revenues on phone and on tablet?”

In the end, it was the wrong question to ask, she surmised. “We found that there were deeply entrenched and growing cross-platform behaviors among our readers…What does the world look like where cross-platform is the new normal, with mobile taking the lead?” Hardiman noted that the twice-daily “Page-One meetings” now features mobile prominently.

“We do know that if a digital or print subscriber accesses us on more than one platform, they retain (for) twice as long. (It’s) a fun and interesting cross-platform future,” she said.

Cofounder and chairman emeritus of comScore, Inc., Gian Fulgoni, summarized “The State of Mobile,” in his same-titled presentation from September 2014. As of June 14, 2014, he cited 172 million smartphone owners in the U.S. alone, and 93 million in the U.S. who own tablets now. While those ranks ascended, their adoption hasn’t obliterated desktop access to the Internet, as some had predicted. In fact, since 2010 desktop usage (measured in minutes) has also increased by a noteworthy 15 percent.

What this means for news publishers is that they still have to continue to invest in their desktop and mobile Web properties as they develop new apps for specific mobile devices.

According to Fulgoni, those apps are proving important. He noted in his presentation that during from June 2013 to June 2014, time spent on the mobile Web had increased by 17 percent, but mobile app use grew as much as 52 percent. The most popular mobile apps continue to be those that allow people to socially network and communicate, to play games, or to listen to digital audio.

Though mobile apps are on the upswing, only one-third of smartphone users are found to download a new app (or new apps) in an average month, Fulgoni pointed out. This is also a significant comScore stat for publishers who need not only to create useful, can’t-live-without-them apps, but also to find an effective way to market them alongside all their digital and print publications.

“The leading media properties now see 30 percent or more of their monthly audiences coming exclusively from mobile platforms,” Fulgoni noted.

Delivering ads by way of mobile devices isn’t quite as compelling. Fulgoni reported that this is now “surging,” but mobile still only represents 16 percent of all digital ad dollars spent.

“We’re doing an awful lot in the mobile realm,” said DFM’s Huskey. “Mobile, as a whole, is extremely impressive. We probably get 35 percent of our traffic from mobile. Some properties are getting up to 40 to 50 percent of their traffic from mobile. So mobile as a whole is extremely impressive, and it’s our future.”

The “whole” of mobile includes not only content viewed via the mobile Web, but also through mobile apps. Most of the traffic that Huskey cited comes by way of mobile Web, but the group of newspapers is also beginning to see some great promise with niche mobile apps, like GameTimePA, a high school sports app with a companion website that Huskey described as “extremely successful and growing really, really well.”

Selling advertising on mobile apps isn’t strange or new, he said. “It’s the new circulation. It comes down to how many downloads you have, and how many times people are visiting it. You base your ad rates off of that.”

GameTimePA is a free mobile app, and still rather fledgling, but niche mobile apps of this kind are compelling from a content and revenue perspective, he noted. “We have to continue to evolve, and we can’t just take stories from newspapers’ dot-com sites, throw it up on an app, and expect that people are going to like it.”

With mobile publishing is garnering a lot of attention—and rightfully so—the fear is that it will further diminish the newspaper’s core print offering, but Huskey disagreed. “I don’t think they’re detracting from print at all. It’s growing our brand. We have a much larger audience than we ever have.”

There are two mindsets about social media and mobile publishing for newspapers: Lean back and see how things shake out—where social audiences will relocate or spread to next, whether mobile Web proves more popular than mobile apps; or newspapers can dive right in, be everywhere, and create a plan, a purpose, and a reasonable ROI expectation. The cover charge into both of these communities is low, but once inside, will the party be in full-swing or will it already be last call?

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