It says something about the phenomenal rise of social media that Facebook is now competing with Google in terms of site traffic. Publishers have long had Google-orientated strategies; now, says Carolyn Morgan, they need to devise social media strategies too.
It’s easy to think of social media simply as a competitor for traditional publishers, providing free content and connecting readers and advertisers directly, bypassing print and publisher websites. But many publishers are now realising that they can use the same social media tools to drive value for their own business, using the expertise of their editorial and publishing teams, and their existing community of readers. In this article, I summarise some of the ways that pioneering consumer and B2B publishers are doing just that – and include some tips on how to create a social media strategy.
Social media is creating a parallel web universe, distinct from the traditional route of company website and email. Consumers and business people are increasingly using social media as a search tool, and a source of relevant content, as well as a way to communicate directly with their contacts, and people with similar interests. Publishers need to concentrate on creating an ecosystem of content and contacts around their core website, and develop new ways to communicate with customers beyond their on-site forum and email newsletters.
I’ll assume you know the basics, and may already be using social media in your personal and professional life. I have focused on three core types of social media tools:
* social networks, which connect like-minded people across personal and professional relationships in much the way that print publications used to – with the most useful being LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. These can help publishers tap into the word of mouth among their customers’ networks, host discussion groups on their specialist topic, or post and share their niche content.
* Forums, Q&As, reviews, commenting on articles and blogs, where editorial or publishing teams comment on relevant articles or answer questions and provide links back to the main website – eg Yahoo Answers or LinkedIn Answers, or review relevant books on Amazon.
* social content services, where extracts of relevant content can be posted and tagged to be discovered by new audiences – such as YouTube, Issuu, SlideShare, Flickr. Also bookmarking services, such as Delicious, Digg or StumbleUpon.
How can social media drive value for publishing businesses?
Without a clear plan or hard measures, social media can soak up editorial and publishing team time out of all proportion to its business value. So it pays to start by thinking through exactly why you are doing it. Here are some activities that have proved valuable to a range of publishers:
1. Sourcing content
Editorial teams can use Twitter or related forums to gather a wide range of views on a relevant topic, or even ask specific questions. This casts the net wider than the usual sources. Newspaper journalists are tapping into the power of bloggers and citizen journalists to source new stories. Publishers can also enlist their own community to provide content for online and offline products, using social media tools.
* Sift Media uses its community of small business owners to help set the agenda for its businesszone website, by asking questions on Twitter. It then runs a Twitter stream and also offers live blogging during its offline events, creating more content for the site following the event.
* Photo Answers makes it easy for its users to upload images from their Flickr photostream for comment and rating by other enthusiast photographers.
2. Driving traffic to main site
Many large publisher websites are uncomfortable about the high proportion of their traffic coming from Google. An alternative approach is to place valuable content on a wide range of social media sites, and provide links back to the main site. Imagine multiple packages of content placed around the web for new customers to discover, all directing people back to the main hub. Twitter can also be used to draw attention to articles on the main site.
* Rock Sound, a niche music magazine, has developed over 20,000 Twitter followers, and is now finding that the traffic driven to its core site by Twitter and Facebook is close to matching its traffic from Google.
* Econsultancy, whose entire business model is based on free content, ran a test on using social media to drive traffic – including posting answers on Yahoo and LinkedIn, commenting on blogs and forums and other articles, using bookmarking sites and posting content on YouTube, SlideShare and elsewhere. This drove a significant volume of traffic, and also appeared to benefit their Google rankings through increased links. The social media traffic generated a lower level of sales than other sources, but it was incremental revenue, plus there were other dividends in terms of raising the profiles of the staff creating the posts.
3. Building relationships and growing commitment
Social media can also be used as an alternative to email to build relationships with casual visitors and gradually build their commitment to the core brand, by providing a regular stream of useful content.
* Eye magazine, the international journal of graphic design, has built a Twitter following of over 55,000, and the editor posts snippets linking back to the online archive or referring to upcoming magazine articles, enticing designers into trying out the core product.
4. Researching new markets and finding new customers
In B2B publishing, LinkedIn is a great resource for testing interest in new markets and products. Creating discussion groups can help establish a media brand as an expert provider of great content. In consumer markets, specialist forums and blogs can similarly help test out new markets, and build a database of interested prospects.
* Melcrum, a provider of events, content and networking for internal communications professionals, has used LinkedIn to build networks and establish the business in Scandinavia and South Africa.
5. Building community and connecting readers
Using the groups and forums facility on social networking services such as LinkedIn and Facebook can be a low-cost way to connect readers and encourage them to swap ideas. Providing easy tools for site visitors to share content they like with their contacts via bookmarking sites, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter helps spread the word and drive more traffic back to the core site.
* Melcrum runs free discussion groups on LinkedIn to build a community, and then markets its paid-for content and networking services.
* Heat magazine’s Facebook page has up-to-date gossip, competitions and offers, and promotes sign-up to its e-newsletter. They now have over 18,000 fans and an active level of commenting.
6. Providing customer service to subscribers / members
Large services and FMCG companies are increasingly using Twitter to resolve customer service issues instantly. It’s then easy for a happy customer to share their story with their network. This would be a great service for subs houses, but the larger ones don’t offer it yet.
* Gadget Show has used its Facebook page to answer visitors’ queries about tickets and opening times.
* Bike Magic uses its Twitter feed to answer reader questions.
7. Creating commercial opportunities
Placing your content on social media sites can provide new commercial opportunities, as you are reaching a wider audience and that can be very attractive to existing advertisers.
* Rock Sound have successfully sold campaigns to advertisers such as Nokia based entirely around their Twitter feed.
* MCN have long used a YouTube channel to post their editorial videos every few days. Since launch, this has generated 42 million views and has 18,000 subscribers. And, as well as driving traffic back to the site, this now provides a lucrative ad opportunity, as Bauer have an agreement with YouTube to share in the revenue from advertising around the videos.
8. Marketing events
For niche B2B events where many of the prospective attendees may already know each other, LinkedIn is a natural way to accelerate word of mouth; if your peers are going, you’re more likely to sign up. Before the event, engage prospective attendees by giving them the chance to influence the content or ask questions. Produce teaser content from speakers and post on social sources. At the event, use a Twitter hashtag to collect reactions on the day and help remote observers participate. Then, after the event, spread the show content as widely as possible on social sources to promote the next event.
* Incisive and SIPA have both found LinkedIn and Twitter effective ways to market very niche conferences and workshops.
* More ideas and real-life examples from US event organisers on this blog by Jay Baer.
* Gadget Show live at NEC has an active Facebook group with over 4,000 fans. They started six months before the show with news, and then answered visitor questions and had exhibitors posting items. Once the show was live, visitors posted photos and comments on the show.
Practical tips on how to create a social media campaign
So how can publishers go about creating a social media campaign? Here are some practical tips to help you create a successful plan:
* Decide how social media can add value to your business, using the examples above as inspiration
* Find out where your audience are – prioritise the networks, social tools and forums to participate in
* Review your competitors’ strategies and note any particularly strong presence
* Determine who from your team should get involved with each section of your social media campaign
* Create company profiles and post content on third party social platforms and link back to your own site
* Promote your social network pages using all your media channels
* Participate in discussions on relevant forums or start your own group on LinkedIn or Facebook
* Publish selected content from social platforms on your main site – Econsultancy includes a Twitter feed on its main site; Sift Media publishes questions and comments from its members.
* Monitor traffic driven from social media – and also try to quantify its value to your business
* Learn... and develop your campaign
And finally, accept that this is unlikely to be a quick win – many of the publishers quoted above have been experimenting with social media for a few years. However, with a steady investment in researching the opportunities, allocating staff time, and learning from successes and mistakes alike, I believe social media can prove a fertile approach for specialist and independent publishers with strong, relevant content and limited marketing budgets.