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Oct. 8, 2010, noon

Twitter data lets NPR glimpse a future of app-loving news junkies

Conventional wisdom tells us that if you hook up your website to Twitter and/or Facebook you should see some increase in online traffic.

But beyond more eyeballs and pageviews, what’s the value of all those followers and “likes” to a media organization? Particularly if you’re a giant like NPR?

In surveying their Twitter followers (and previously Facebook fans), NPR got more than just handy metrics to let them know they’ve got a good grasp on social media: They got a glimpse at their future, a population of news junkies who live in a world of apps that allow them to consume, share and interact with information.

“Gadgets and news consumption are a major part of Twitter in general, so it makes sense we’re a subset of those activities,” said Andy Carvin, NPR’s senior strategist for social media.

It also makes sense that NPR wants to monitor its emerging platforms as they try to transform into a digital media company. Facebook and Twitter combined now account for 7-8 percent of traffic to NPR.org, an amount that has doubled in the last year. The survey provides a measure of context to those traffic numbers. Carvin said Twitter links on average account for 500,000 pageviews per month, while Facebook averages closer to 3 million.

Here’s what we know from the numbers: People who follow NPR are bullish on social media (they follow more than one account connected to the company); they want live or breaking news delivered to them; they primarily get their news online. Anecdotally all of this may seem unsurprising — if you’re on Twitter there’s a strong likelihood you know your way around an iPhone and/or the Internet.

But the value here is that NPR now knows what its audience of the future looks like. While average public radio listeners are well into their 50s and tune in to NPR four hours a week, NPR’s typical Twitter and Facebook fans are in their 30s and listen on average two hours a day, Carvin said. “This gives us a great opportunity to reach out to audiences that are younger than our radio audience and hopefully retain them over the next several decades,” Carvin said.

By breaking down the data, they’ll be able to fine tune how they use Twitter and Facebook — from choosing which types of stories to post (breaking or topical news for Twitter vs. features and conversations starters on Facebook), to when to post content, to how much to encourage the staff to keep at it.

This all comes at a time when some say NPR is awakening the sleeping giant by becoming a cross-platform company that reaches from radio, to mobile devices and online media. In 2008 NPR received grant funding from the Knight Foundation for the specific purpose of bringing the staff up to speed on new media, including blogging, multimedia storytelling, and social networking. “Having data like this along with encouragement from peers who use social media will help us move forward and expand social media literacy in our reporting capacity,” he said.

Though NPR has been prolific in its creation of Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, Carvin said the reporters, producers and hosts behind the scenes need some confirmation that what they’re doing is paying off. “It certainly didn’t hurt that Scott Simon zoomed to have 1 million fans on Twitter,” he said.

And don’t expect the number crunching to stop here. Thanks to NPR’s Audience Insight and Research team, the company studies everything from the wants of mobile users to comparing hour-by-hour visitors to NPR.org and radio listeners. Though it may not be unusual for a media organization to do research on news coverage or design factors, fielding responses on how you and your audience use Twitter is fairly new.

“I feel that being open represents the mission and values of NPR,” Carvin said. “Literally, if you look at our mission statement, it says we exist to create a more informed public.”

POSTED     Oct. 8, 2010, noon
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