GlobalPost, the online-only foreign news outlet, has over 100,000 fans on Facebook. (As of this writing: 104,180.) While, sure, that’s far fewer fans than some of the bigger, more established publications out there — The New York Times has, at the moment, nearly 900,000 fans; The New Yorker, more than 162,000 — it’s also far more than, say, The New Republic (under 7,000) or, for that matter, the Washington Post (nearly 90,000.) And within GlobalPost’s more direct peer group, both Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs fall in the 20,000-follower range. For a startup that, given its age (young), its size (small), and its ambition (huge), can fairly be called “scrappy”…a six-figure fan club is a pretty big deal.
So, then: How’d they do it? The size of the young outlet’s Facebook fan base is to some extent a matter of simple serendipity — it’s “more than we’d ever imagined,” notes Phil Balboni, GlobalPost’s CEO and president — but it’s also one of strategy. “It goes without saying: Facebook is a tremendously important part of the web and people’s consumption of information,” Balboni told me. “And we really wanted to grow our Facebook engagement as much as we could.”
The growth came, in the end, from a concerted effort to take GlobalPost’s content and turn it into a campaign. In late May, the outlet began an overhaul of its website — giving GlobalPost.com not only an image-heavy aesthetic that reflects web design’s current trend toward timeless magazine-iness, but also baked-in social plug-ins from Facebook. Now, Balboni notes, in addition to the outlet’s brand-building efforts on Facebook.com, “we’ve completely integrated GlobalPost with Facebook for commenting, liking, and sharing stories.”
Starting in early July, Balboni and GlobalPost’s marketing director, Rick Byrne, built on the site’s social integration with an aggressive, Facebook-based marketing campaign, creating ads to capture the interest of the site’s members. When they began those efforts, GlobalPost had 5,000 or so followers, Balboni estimates; by late October, they’d reached the six-figure mark. (For the statisticians out there, that’s about a 2,000-percent increase.) The ads that fueled all the liking focused on some of the broad narratives that are, for better or for worse, evergreens in the sphere of foreign reporting — among them human rights issues, green technology, and the war in Afghanistan. (The latter of those, “the Forever War,” has drawn particular engagement and interest on Facebook, Balboni notes.) The how’d they do that here, then, comes down not to a strict formula so much as a loose recipe. As Balboni puts it: “There’s some kind of magic between the content, the brand, and the types of issues we cover.”
You might think that the explosion of followers would be tied to particular events that occurred between July and now — I seem to recall something happening in Chile at one point — but, no: The fan-base increase “was a pretty steady rise,” Byrne told me. You could argue, in fact, that the evergreen nature of the stories the site’s ads focused on — the environment, the war — allowed for the kind of steady, month-over-month engagement that builds name recognition iteratively…rather than via the momentary surges that come from event-based traffic, which spike suddenly and tend to plummet just as quickly.
You could also add that the narrative- and context-heavy journalism GlobalPost specializes in — “a look at the world that is quite different and richer and varied than you’d get from any other news organization,” Balboni puts it — is precisely the type of journalism that people like to, well, like: It’s political in the kind of broad way that allows users to demonstrate engagement with foreign news without having to act on that engagement. (It’s also often supra-partisan in a way that much of our national journalism is not.) There’s also the more hopeful view that people actually want more foreign coverage than most of us assume. And liking, of course, is an extremely low-barrier form of brand affiliation: see the invite, click the button, and move on. The transaction cost involved is basically zero.
Which begs, then, another question: For a site that has bills to pay and investors to please, does a Facebook-based marketing campaign offer enough in the way of return? Does GlobalPost’s fan base on the closed world of Facebook translate to traffic for a site that lives in the the open web?
The short answer: probably. While the direct correlation between GlobalPost’s Facebook likes and its site’s traffic is impossible to measure in concrete terms, “we’ve seen a significant increase in direct traffic since we started the Facebook campaign,” Balboni notes. (Of all visitors — GlobalPost.com recently surpassed the one-million mark for uniques — 21 percent are direct-to-homepage users. And 44 percent are returning visitors.) Even if direct causation can’t be determined in that, the correlation is clear: The Facebook fan base helps GlobalPost build its brand, and brand recognition, in turn, creates a halo effect — the kind of broad brand engagement that radiates back to the site itself. “It’s important to not only maintain, but also to increase the number of direct visits,” Balboni notes, “because those are arguably the people who are most committed to your brand: your loyalists, your most enthusiastic readers.”
That loyalty-focused approach is increasingly common in outlets’ traffic strategies. Slate, it’s worth noting — along with Gawker and several other online brands — employs a similar logic based on branded traffic: A small group of loyal readers, the thinking goes, is worth more to publishers than a large group of casual ones.
For GlobalPost, that thinking is particularly relevant given that it sells subscriptions to users as well as space to advertisers. (The outlet, which has partnered with Journalism Online to help facilitate its e-commerce activities, reduced its fees this summer. Membership now costs $2.95 a month, or $29.95 a year.) “I think you can make a logical connection between people who are very interested in what GlobalPost does and those who are becoming members,” Balboni says. “The more people who care about what we do, the greater the chances that they’re going to click on that big red arrow at the top of our site and consider becoming a GlobalPost member.”
Which comes back to the idea that “engagement,” as notoriously difficult as it is both to inspire and to measure, is a business proposition as much as an editorial one. And it requires strategy to achieve. “You have to take deliberative steps,” Balboni says. “It doesn’t happen just by putting up a Facebook icon on your site. It takes more than that. You have to get people’s attention, in the Facebook community and everywhere else.”