It’s no secret that news publishers are becoming increasingly reliant on social media channels to drive their readership numbers. The newsfeed has in many ways become akin to the modern frontpage, providing a continuous stream of access to the news stories most relevant to the user.
Nowhere is this trend more prominent than on mobile phones. With users logging into their social accounts on mobile multiple times a day and scanning the newsfeed for anything that might interest them, the smartphone has become a key battleground for the publishers vying for consumer eyeballs.
Data from NZME’s general manager of social media Lauren Hopwood shows that 50-58 percent of all the traffic to the Herald’s mobile site came from social media channels over the last few months. And when compared to other local and international publications, the Herald seems particularly good at generating social media engagement.
Off its relatively small base of around 355,000 Facebook fans, the Herald social media team has generated over 3.3 million interactions, surpassing even the Washington Post, which has over 3.6 million fans.
“These results weren’t achieved overnight,” Hopwood says. “We’ve been figuring out what makes our audiences tick and fine-tuning our content so that it gets shared more frequently.”
She says that driving engagement sometimes comes down to the presentation of a story that is being covered across all mainstream media outlets.
“The content that works best is that which connects and resonates on an emotional level. When a story breaks, every media outlet will jump on it, so the challenge is standing out among the sea of sameness. Part of the secret sauce here is looking for the emotionally resonant angles in every big breaking or planned news event. Part of it is innovating with the format the content is delivered in.”
In the local context, Stuff’s 293,000 fans generated 891,000 social interactions while One News sat further behind with 760,000 interactions generated by around 218,000 fans.
Asked whether Fairfax was concerned by the fact that Stuff was lagging behind the Herald in this regard, communications manager Emma Carter said: “Stuff is still the number one New Zealand-based digital brand – by a long way.”
Hopwood says the high levels of engagement at the Herald are directly attributable to the strategic thinking that goes into content published daily.
“Our focus is on creating contagious content – the type that when you see it you can’t help but pass it on,” she says.
“It’s a shift in thinking from more traditional media because you need to appeal to your audience’s motivation to connect with each other, not just with your brand.”
Read without context, comments like these would no doubt provoke a gag reflex in veteran journalists (ahem), but Hopwood explains this isn’t about abandoning the culture established at the Herald over the years.
“The New Zealand Herald has a 150-year-old legacy that’s built on quality journalism and so there is always a delicate balance in crafting the right mix of content and stories that are both appealing to changing media consumption habits while staying true to the values we have around quality and journalistic integrity.”
She points to a range of recent examples indicating that grunty news stories often also result in high levels of social media engagement.
“What has been encouraging to see is how we are able to own the conversation around major news events such as the Rugby World Cup, the tragic passing of Jonah Lomu, the Paris attacks and the California shootings which illustrates how important providing depth and richness to content becomes even in fast-paced social media environments. You can be impactful, interesting, sharable and hard hitting, there doesn’t need to be a trade-off.”
In an era of excessive communication and media fragmentation, no-one can claim to own the conversation—not even communist dictators. And Facebook's business model is based on paying to promote content. Organic reach still exists, however, and Hopwood says the only paid amplification or advertising that ran throughout November was on November 1st which wrapped up its Rugby World Cup campaign activity.
"The rest was down to the network effect driven by social sharing."
Facebook has a vested interest in being at the centre of the news cycle. As indicated by its 'Year in Review' video, most of the key moments on the social media channel are linked directly to the major news stories over the last year.
The interdependence of Facebook and publishers is part of the reason why the social media company is rolling out its Instant Articles initiative locally and abroad (it was announced earlier today that Instant Articles is now also available on Android).
Stuff is the first local brand to be using Instant Articles, and Carter says this is an important move for the news publisher.
“This strategic partnership underlines the tremendous mobile innovation happening at Fairfax and our unrelenting commitment to putting audiences at the centre of our publishing model. With rapidly growing audiences on mobile, we’re excited to be able to bring Stuff’s stories to life in new ways using the mobile-driven suite of Instant Articles interactive features.”
NZME is yet to get any of its brands onto Instant Articles, but it only seems a matter of time before the Herald is also published in the way and Facebook says it aims to have all publishers on the platform.
“We are currently working with Facebook to launch Instant Articles across NZME brands,” Hopwood says. “We want to continue to make this experience faster and richer for our mobile audiences.”
But this enhanced user experience comes at a price.
“The fact that publishers have to share their ad revenue in exchange for better user experience is part of a major shift in publishing so it will be interesting to see how that plays out. There are also considerations around what this means in terms of how the industry consistently reports on success metrics to advertising partners.”
By signing deals like this with Facebook, mainstream publishers are increasing their dependence on the social media channel. And there's no doubt it is an addictive drug, although this increasing reliance does put it at the mercy of the social network, as some of its major publishers found recently.
“There is probably a certain degree of co-dependence,” admits Hopwood. “Publishers rely on them to achieve audience reach at scale and mass amplification but then the platforms are only as good as the content that’s on them and that’s the benefit we can bring.”
The biggest problem with working alongside—and to some degree relying on—Facebook doesn't relate to revenue at this stage, but rather to the role of the editor. Whereas the newspaper editor previously challenged our perceptions on the world, social media can creates security bubbles from which we can exclude that which we do not agree with.
If a disagreeable post appears in our feed, we can request to not see it any more. We can unfollow friends who post their support for Donald Trump and we can just as easily hide articles that don't fit with our worldview. What this does is create circumstances in which people are left shocked when Red Peak is eliminated or, as Bernard Hickey earlier noted, when the other political party wins. And the more dependent news outlets become on social media channels, the more common such disappointments will become.