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Social Media

The rise and rise of Facebook et al poses many questions for publishers about how they disseminate content and interact with their users. Will publishers be clear headed enough to rise to the challenge or will they find themselves in a Web 3.0 world before they’ve even come to terms with 2.0? Andrea Kirkby looks at the choices publishers face.

By Andrea Kirkby

Social networks have been one of the big internet success stories of the past couple of years. Microsoft recently acquired a stake in Facebook valuing the company at $15 billion – making Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of MySpace for $580m look positively cheap. Meanwhile, there are rumours of a bid for business network LinkedIn.

Why have social networks become so prominent? Igor Smirnoff at NewspaperDirect says that it’s their relevance to the individual that has made them popular. That relevance is user-defined – whether it’s friends, adverts, or groups they belong to, they make their own decisions about what they want to see.

We’re all doing it

The AOP surveyed users of social networking sites and found that in the UK, the average visitor spends 5-8 hours a month on these sites. According to the European Interactive Advertising Association, 23% of Europeans use social networking websites at least once a month.

It’s not surprising then that Meg Pickard, head of communities and user experience at the Guardian, says "Communities have been identified as one of the three big areas for the Guardian over the next few years."

But how should publishers approach social networks? Should they be setting up their own social media – for instance blogging and comments – or should they be, as Devin Holmes suggests, leveraging social networks "to reach out to folks, and from a syndication perspective"?

Igor Smirnoff believes publishers need to enable their content to be used within social networks and other social media. NewspaperDirect, for instance, is using widgets to integrate digital edition content on to Facebook, so that friends can share it with each other. This publicises the main website – though of course the publisher no longer has control of where and how the content can be seen.

Igor is also keen on the ‘adget’ - widget advertising which NewspaperDirect has developed to allow users to interact with advertising content on the publisher’s own site. Instead of clicking through to an advertiser’s site, the reader can request brochures or a callback while remaining inside the digital edition.

No plugs please

But promotion on social networks is not easy. Devin Holmes points out that social networks have historically been "quite unfriendly to blatant advertising pushes. Social networks are made of personal relationships, and if you don't have a personal relationship with your readers, it’s difficult to use them."

So, publishers may need to rethink how to promote their content. Widgets, which allow individuals to make their own decisions on whether to forward, copy, or comment on content, are more network-friendly than ‘push’ media or advertising. Many of the applications currently on Facebook are rather trivial – film quizzes or scrabble – but it should be possible for publishers to create genuinely interesting content widgets.

Individual writers may find it easier to use social networks than media brands do. Many bands have been able to build relationships with their fans on MySpace – why shouldn’t columnists or feature writers be able to do the same? Of course, that runs the risk of the best journalists seceding to become bloggers – like former EDP sports writer Rick Waghorn who founded last year.

Devin Holmes points out that the question of syndicating content doesn't have a simple yes / no answer. He suggests publishers should split their content into premium and non-premium, only syndicating the non-premium content, and corralling the value-added behind a paywall or registration requirement. That’s an editorial decision as well as a commercial one.

Content monetisation

There is of course a big commercial issue here, about how content is monetised. If a publisher’s content appears on Facebook, it’s Facebook and not the publisher that will get the advertising revenue. So there are issues there that need to be resolved.

But Igor Smirnoff says, "There are models to support the content provider getting a slice of the action of Facebook. You can't afford to build walls and exclude yourself." He believes that as social networks develop, new types of advertising deal will be created to recognise the value of content. Still, at the moment, publishers have to take that largely on trust.

Some publishers are moving determinedly forward nonetheless. Meg Pickard says that, "We’re already working with the editorial department to determine when, where and how to open up" - which puts the Guardian ahead of the game. She has a robustly positive view of social networks. "If people are so passionate about parts of our product that they want to create a presence for it on social sites," she says, "we need to engage with that."

Some publishers might not agree with this desire for openness. But they should remember that the social networks are getting incredible stickiness out of some of their users. And, says Devin Holmes, people trust their network contacts in a way they don't trust regular media. "If a message comes from one of my Facebook friends, it’s much more trustworthy than just a New York Times advert."

Getting social

Besides using social networks to promote their content, publishers also need to consider how they can introduce social media aspects to their own websites. The Telegraph has been successful in introducing blogging; for example – 4,500 readers had signed up for blogs on MyTelegraph within eight weeks of the May 2007 launch.

But while many publishers have added a few comment facilities, or tried to put together wikis, few have taken the social media aspect of their sites much further. Igor Smirnoff says, "Putting a comments box on a traditional page, or a few blogs behind the website, is just like adding go faster stripes to an old car." He says users do not value a single, one-off interaction such as commenting the way they do continuing conversations on a social network.

He believes many of the older managers in print media don't really want things to change. And the internal champions are often using ‘loopholes’ to get their ideas implemented – they are not receiving real support internally. That may be why only some aspects of social media are being implemented.

Meg Pickard agrees that adding comments boxes is not enough. "You’ve got to have a genuine two-way conversation," she says. That means opening up the publisher’s own site to the community – both within the site and outside. Bloggers, she believes, have a much greater role to play than commenters. "Bloggers will copy your article with multiple people contributing," she says; "so you need to make sure people can interact with your content – that they can comment, copy, and interact."

Some early attempts to open up publishers’ sites were fiascos. The LA Times introduced a wiki, for instance, allowing readers to contribute to its editorial, but had to take it offline after flame wars erupted.

Infrastructure requirements

Devin Holmes blames such failures on a lack of sophistication. Social networks and media have developed key infrastructure. On some, members can rate the comments that other users have made, as well as rating the quoted piece itself. Wikipedia, aware of the contentious nature of some articles, has created a structure for taking debates off line where partiality is disputed, and has also introduced standards for referencing in factual articles. The LA Times wiki appears to have had none of these safety valves – hence the fiasco.

Devin Holmes says publishers need to get properly acquainted with social media rather than just trying to add a few functions to their sites. "If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to jump in with both feet," he warns. "If you only do it a little bit, it will backfire on you, as you won't have all the tools to handle the relationship."

Meg Pickard also believes the infrastructure behind social media is as important as the editorial content. "How does the organisation flex in order to prioritise communities," she asks, "for instance, developing moderation functions?" It’s not a simple matter of putting content online; processes for handling and moderating user generated content have to be created and it’s quite likely many publications will need to create new jobs that didn't exist under Web 1.0.

Demise of the domain

Ivan Pope, chair of Widgety Goodness, believes publishers need to be revolutionaries – they need to "blow up their websites and scatter the content to the four winds." Having been a major player in the first generation internet, he now believes the website and the domain name have passed their sell by date. Syndication and widgetisation will fragment content, distributing it throughout the internet, instead of keeping it within the publisher’s fenced off website.

The domain name was originally a beacon for navigation on the internet. Now, though, internet users tend to use search engines as their navigation engines – not bookmarks or URLs. Ian Davies, director of development at Archant, says that while two or three years ago, 80% of readers came to the EDP home page, now half of them come through Google. Making sure your content can be found is now more important than having a catchy domain name.

So you need to distribute your content across the whole internet, to make it easy for people to find it. Search engine optimisation is no longer enough. Ivan Pope says, for instance, "You’ve got to be in Wikipedia"; content needs to be widely disseminated so that users are more likely to find it. There may even be new employees, he suggests, whose task is not to create content but "to knit the social web together."

Meg Pickard says, "The way that we think about content has changed quite significantly – it’s not about destination any more." She refers to "putting content out in the wild". But this creates new demands on journalists and other content creators – the content has to belong recognisably to the brand. That’s where the Guardian’s mission statement of becoming the world’s leading liberal voice is important.


Publishers need to start thinking about their content as a gathering of different subsets and fragments, rather than thinking about a monolithic, single publication. Devin Holmes says this involves "the death of the newspaper’s ego" - it’s users, not the editor, who are going to decide what they want to see, where and in what order. He believes that increasingly, publishers will "cross-pollinate" with social networks rather than channelling content to their users. And he advises them to concentrate on what is really crucial; "The product is words. Not paper, not website - words."

The music sector has already gone through this kind of fragmentation, as the sale of single tracks replaces the sale of linearly structured albums. The iTunes user will take individual tracks and put them together in his own playlist, rather than taking a complete package.

Local papers have always defined their own local areas. The EDP does Norfolk, the East Anglian Daily Times does Suffolk, and if you live on the border you have a tricky choice to make every morning. But Archant’s geotagging project will allow users to select stories relating to their own preferred locality – whether that’s the eastern counties as a whole, or a five mile area around Beccles. Ian Davies says, "Traditionally we’ve given people content that relates to a brand, but now we can provide them information at a geographical level." That’s another form of content fragmentation – perhaps the EDP should attach a news widget to some of the Norwich related Facebook networks?

The B2B space, too, has opportunities to leverage social networks. Elsevier has created collaborative tools for research and librarians, such as Scirus, which has a wiki-like topic page structure. Trade journals often occupy a privileged position in business networks – that’s one reason why events associated with them have done so well.

Should publishers create their own social networks though? Meg Pickard says no; "there’s a clear difference between social networking and social media," she states. "It would be ridiculous if we tried to build another network." Ian Davies agrees; "Social networks are not editorial products," he says. He believes that while social network functionality can help publishers make their content more relevant to readers, publishers should concentrate on editorial functions where they can add value.

The challenges posed by social networks and media are similar to those posed by RSS and search engines – and the right answer needs to consider both dimensions. In fact, RSS can even be seen as "a widget in itself", says Ivan Pope. But he believes even those publishers who have gone furthest towards the social media have not wholly committed themselves to the future. He says to the Guardian, "I love your site and I love your paper, but you’ve got to go further and faster." And he points to the way the Guardian has ringfenced its social media as evidence that "they’ve created something they’re a bit afraid of."

Web 3.0?

Social media are no longer bleeding edge. Igor Smirnoff says that in many of his recent conversations with other new media opinion formers, "people have said Web 2.0 is so yesterday, we need to be talking about a different kind of internet completely." If the development of the first phase of the web is a good guide, that probably means publishers will spend the next five years getting Web 2.0 working for them, while the real visionaries are doing something else.

However, publishers should be careful. The fragmentation of content has allowed new entrants to the market to sneak up almost unnoticed. Glam Media, for instance, has taken the ‘old’ web idea of the advertising network, and created a content network using the same model. It presents fashion and glamour content from numerous independent bloggers, structuring the content and helping users navigate it, and sharing out advertising revenue with its contributors. And it doesn't have to pay a single journalist.

Ivan Pope believes this is the new style of ‘big media company’ replacing ‘the Emap idea’ of media company. "You can build these things out of nothing," he says, making new entrants a real threat. He believes every publisher needs to undertake a revolutionary reassessment - "Can you structure your company itself as a social network?"

But, he believes it will be difficult. Many publishers are still run by what could be called the paper generation. While new media execs ‘get’ social media, they are not in the most powerful positions. And journalists often feel threatened by the concept of valuing users’ input – Meg Pickard says many of them are asking whether they will still have jobs in a Web 2.0 world.

CNET has probably gone furthest in thinking through user contributions – and it’s a long way from crowdsourcing or comments. Suzie Daniels, head of business media at CNET Networks, spoke at an AOP conference in January 2007 about "architected participation". Rather than passively accepting user generated content, CNET is trying to encourage "thought leaders" – and members’ blogs already accounted for 10% of the CNET site’s content.

It’s certain, whatever the features that are adopted in the short term, that social media will change the form of the publishing industry. Igor Smirnoff throws down the gauntlet to the ‘old’ web and ‘traditional’ media when he claims that, "If we were able to look at the newspapers of the future, we’d see they are nothing but social networks." And although they are rather specialised networks – nothing like Facebook or Bebo – he may well be right.