Aug 22, 20166m read
The Downside of Social Media: How Publishers are Losing their Communities to Social Giants
Social media’s original aim was to connect people. Mark Zuckerberg himself has discussed this many times as his primary reason behind creating “Thefacebook” as it was known back in its public launch in 2006. Exactly ten years later, the social media of today is still connecting people, yet simultaneously doing a lot more which the average user may or may not notice. Social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter have effectively diverted communities away from a diverse array of publishers. This trend has been forecasted by the media for a while now, but we can now say with certainty that it’s actually happened. Let’s explore what is happening and more importantly, how can publishers get their communities back.
Facebook’s juggling act
The social media giant started off offering a platform for for friends to share their status, how they were doing and what’s going on in their lives. It’s evolved to be a media conglomerate. They are juggling a lot: eCommerce, digital marketing, content, even virtual reality. Zuck has his hand everywhere these days, which means that you (the average consumer) are spending more time on Facebook while established publishers and news media outlets are losing their loyal readership and losing profits. The response from publications seem to be divided mostly into two camps: the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” camp like Buzzfeed (with 50% of their desktop traffic coming from Facebook), and the more traditional outlets, such as the New York Times who rely mostly on direct traffic and reader subscriptions for revenue. Other publishers, however, have found a middle ground, and are quietly heading there.
Solution: Invite action and creativity
If you can’t do as much as the social heavyweights, then do what you can and do it well. Encouraging readers to contribute to your site will foster more engagement and thus more loyalty over time. When you inspire your users to get creative, you are in essence saying you trust them. As a result, users will connect to your brand easier. There are many ways they can be creative. Not only can they be clever with the videos, pictures, and designs they send in but they can also contribute articles and stories they have written that promote a new train of thought. Take Thought Catalog, for example, whose content is primarily created by readers. It is extremely easy for readers to submit articles on the website, building high engagement levels. When you allow readers to engage at this level with your publication, you create a sense of loyalty and enthusiasm and making them feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the brand.
Sharing, but not reading
A study done by Columbia University and the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (or Inria) found that 60% of people share a link on social media without actually having read it themselves. This means that a Facebook user may see an interesting link in their newsfeed, not click on the link and not be routed to the publisher’s site but still share it. “People form an opinion based on a summary, or summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper,” said the study’s co-author Arnaud Legout, a research scientist at Inria. The effect is twofold: less traffic to a publisher’s site, and people sharing articles and links with content they are ignorant of. Is there a way to work alongside social media rather than against it?
Solution: Use fun user-generated content campaigns to bring real traffic and interest
If most readers see a social media post, find it interesting and then share it, what can you do to prompt them to actually click the link to be routed to your site? Give them a fun and interactive reason to- to participate in a user-generated content campaign. Some of the most famous UGC campaigns are from big brand names: Starbucks, Audi, Coca-Cola and Lululemon. These campaigns involve working hand-in-hand with social media while promoting their own site’s traffic simultaneously. Many UGC campaigns announce the campaign on social media, then allow users to read about the campaign (rules, prizes, etc.) on the publisher’s site. After that, users are encouraged to upload their own content primarily on social media with specific hashtags.
Coca-Cola started a long-lasting and genius UGC campaign that brought an insane amount of traffic to their website(s). The famous “Ah Effect” Campaign began in 2013 with the company creating 61 branded URLs that look like this: ahh.com, ahhh.com, ahhhh.com and so on. The length of the URL grew as the campaign went on. Users enthusiastically kept logging on to see if Coca-Cola would really create another website, and another. Six months after the start of the campaign, there were 4 million site visitors, and half were organic traffic. When you pique readers’ curiosity like Coca-Cola did, you win big time.
Decline in loyalty
Gone are the days when media consumers were as loyal to a publication as they were to their hometown sports team. A Pew research study found that the majority of people who read an article on a website don’t return to the site that same month. Furthermore, there is a link between the way in which a reader gets to a publisher’s website and how loyal and engaged they are with that site. When a reader types the URL or has the website bookmarked, he or she is significantly more engaged and loyal to that site, than are visitors that are referred through social media channels. The Pew study goes on to say that when a reader goes directly to a publisher’s site, he or she will spend three times the amount of time on their site than from a social media or search engine referral. This stark difference in reader engagement based on method of referral highlights the consequences for publishers with declining return readership.
Solution: Awaken your community
Yes, it’s challenging to build and awaken a community that is screen-to-screen. It is possible however, and it takes a little inspiration. VSP (“Very Smart Brothas”) is an online magazine that is known for the way it engages readers by encouraging important conversations around topics such as current events, race and pop culture. A popular article on VSB can have over 500 comments, with the option to share comments on social media, upvote, downvote and flag. The discourse on VSB is known for being respectful, thoughtful and smart, highlighting this particular community’s need to express themselves. While the community’s needs are being met, so is the publisher’s, as the online conversation is reinvented and their community gets back into their hands and onto their turf.
Social media giants have come a long way from their humble beginnings. Facebook boasts 1.65 billion monthly users, while Twitter has 310 million. With so much of the Internet’s activity concentrated in very few places, there are clear repercussions for many online industries. Publishers need to adapt or risk losing loyal readership. Only by inspiring action, conversation and creativity on the part of your users will you create a strong feeling of engagement and passion that will grow loyalty, ushering in long-term success and viability. Appealing to user’s creativity, natural curiosity and desire for connection is the key to gaining your community back.