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Social networks: news organizations ignore them at their peril

On the heels of my post the other day on building social networks around news (in which I mentioned that more than 90 percent of newspapers still have no social networking in their business model) here’s some information from the Pew Internet and American Life Project that that makes it clear why, in largely ignoring social networking, the newspaper industry is missing the boat:

The share of adult internet users who have a profile on an online social network site has more than quadrupled in the past four years — from 8% in 2005 to 35% now, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s December 2008 tracking survey.

By age group, the survey found that in 2008:

  • 75% of online adults 18-24 have a profile on a social network site
  • 57% of online adults 25-34 have a profile on a social network
  • 30% of online adults 35-44 have one
  • 19% of online 45 to 54 year olds have a profile
  • 10% of online 55 to 64 year olds have a profile
  • 7% of online adults 65 and older have a profile

View those levels in the context of the four-year quadrupling  rate, it’s clear that in another few years, virtually everyone under 45, and perhaps a majority of those older, will be active on social networks.  (It’s the newspaper readership curve, upside-down.)  What will they be doing and  looking for on these networks, besides banter with friends?

Well, add this forecast to Pew’s findings: “10 Ways Social Media Will Change in 2009″ at ReadWriteWeb, including this (italics added):

Social media will no longer be about features and applications. These have become a dime a dozen. People will be looking to get tangible and relevant value out of their social experience; they’ll be looking for meaning and for order. “Social media online is no different from social media offline,” said Brent Csutoras at a recent Social Media Club event. People will be looking for ways to keep their networks going regardless of device or platform. They will connect around meaningful topics and have live and simultaneous conversations within parameters they themselves define, which will bring relevance back to their interaction with others.

In an earlier Pew finding, 46 percent of Americans sought to connect online with the “meaningful topic” of the 2008 election — something the Obama campaign organization understood masterfully.  People used to read newspapers to make that connection, but that’s ancient history.

The moral of the story is, if you’re in the news business (I’m trying hard not to call it the newspaper business anymore), you need to be where your customers are and interact with them as they prefer to interact.  I’m getting mighty tired of trudging down my driveway every morning to retrieve a flimsy newspaper that takes me 10 minutes to read.  I’m of the geezerly persuasion, but I spend more time than that on Facebook.  American publishers: build a social network, a community, around the news and you’ll reconnect with your audience. For now, it can be local; eventually, these networks will want to be interconnected.

To give them credit, a few, a very small handful of newspapers, are active in real social networking experiments.  In my several prior posts on this subject, here and back at News After Newspapers, I’ve been asking for examples, and here’s what my list looks like now:

  • The Bakersfield Californian has a social network with profiles, friend connections, blogs, commenting and more.  The whole thing needs an update, but it attracts quite a local following.
  • YourHub (Denver, associated with the Post, and elsewhere) allows profiles, posting of blogs, stories and classified, friend messaging.  It needs a bit of an overhaul, as well, I’d say.
  • SavannahNow, an online community operated by the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News: profiles, user content, groups, blogs, forums.  And a nice, up-to-date look (even if it’s a little busier than older folks might like).
  • The Wall Street Journal, behind the paywall, has The Journal Community, where subscribers can post profiles, make connections, share news items, and form groups around their interests.
  • The New York Times offers TimesPeople, which is so far in a very featureless beta mode.
  • And one reader pointed me to the history of CoolerCrew, an online community around the St. Paul Winter Carnival Medallion Hunt, which began in the 1990s on the Pioneer Press forum site but migrated to its own website when the PiPress changed their board system — an illustration of the demand, and an opportunity lost, obviously.

For any additions to the list, I’d be much obliged.

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  • Tim D’Avis

    We have Quadsville here in the Quad-Cities, attached to our main news site,

  • Martin Langeveld

    Thanks Tim, that’s a nice-looking entry page giving a good overview of what people can do: join, profile, blog, post stories, photos, videos, events, invite friends, announce weddings, become “guests” at same, start/join groups (motorcyclists, Marines, barbershop quartet fans, etc. are showing). There is a nice explanation of the whole deal under “What is this place” next to “Sign up.”

  • Melinda Gipson

    I was with you until the conclusion — except in rare cases, I think the implication that individual online newspaper sites necessarily benefit from trying to set up yet another social network is now completely passe.

    The problem with this thinking is two-fold, and you can take this from the flip side of your own stats — one in three people already have a social network they enjoy, and in my case it’s already three. I’m invested now, and it’s just too much work, absent a strong affinity hook, to make me monitor yet another site where I’ve established my connectivity. Second, on the subject of affinity, online newspapers are so general that, in an ocean of Internet niches, the only thing they have to offer users as affinity is their locale.

    I’m not saying it isn’t possible for online newspapers to succeed in this space, but I’m more impressed by efforts like Gannett’s to circle the wagons around working mothers, or even a That’s Racin community around NASCAR. Otherwise, I think the better strategy would be to leverage and engage Facebook and other already existing social nets in a kind of two-way conversation. Facebook’s open API makes it incredibly simple to develop applications and widgets that can be shared and become viral within a MUCH larger community. There are even smart scenarios where newspapers could employ such scripts to take their customers’ campaigns viral just by making them shareable on the other big social networks.

    If newspapers had bought this line 15 years ago, Koz could have been Facebook, but I think it’s already a different game. Having seen many failed community building efforts from newspapers, I think it’s really time to think about how publishers can leverage the existing networks in smarter ways.

    Realize that users, just by becoming a “fan” of something on Facebook, broadcast to their entire network. Watch the Facebook newsfeed at work. Give people something to share, because the average Facebook profile has 150 friends and that’s a massive multiplier effect.

    Being Digital means being everywhere your user can find you and using your true leverage — as the stuff that people are talking ABOUT, to get out there in little viral snippets, widgets, or half a dozen other great applications that can make you part of your users’ lives.

    As a final note, i think it’s amazing in a story like this that you didn’t use the word Twitter in the body of your story. To your credit, you clearly know it well, since you’re calling in relevant posts in the right rail. But just for the record, Twitter is a social network, even though it looks nothing like the ones you’re building.

    Great piece, important topic, huge imperative for action; I’d just draw a different conclusion. (Blog about this at too.)

  • Martin Langeveld

    Very good points, Melinda, and thanks. Ironically, for a while I used the handle NewsMaven at my old blog News After Newspapers, before coming out of the closet. In any case, I have subscribed!

    I agree that news organizations should interact with readers on Facebook, Twitter, wherever they can find them. No question. And as I’ve mentioned, the N. Y. Times has more going on its Facebook fan page than at Times People, so that supports your contention. But I do think that people think of their various social networks as different groups for different purposes — one for actual “social” interactions (Facebook, MySpace), one for professional interactions (LinkedIn), perhaps one at the enterprise level for interacting with co-workers, etc. Usually these are referred to as silos. So the question is, is there room for another silo based on news, and will people want to interact as part of another group, for this other purpose of sharing and digesting news. My feeling is that they will. The moderate success of the individual newspaper web sites I list seems to support that. Another example: I’ve been part of a small network called Metafilter for years — its a social network built not so much around news as around “the best of the web” — links to interesting content of all kinds. Most people there, I’m sure, are also on various other networks.

  • stephen quinn

    The Pew report of 14 December 2009 (which I assume is the report quoted in this post) makes the point on page 3 that it is NOT based on a random survey, and therefore does NOT represent a “representative sample”. To make predictions based on a non-representative sample is dangerous. It appears the sample comes from only one language, English, so to extrapolate to the rest of the world is also suspect. But I agree with the gist of the post: A good question to ask is why so few media organisations have embraced social media. Cheers from Australia.

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