News Leadership 3.0

January 22, 2009

Social networks: Reaching for readers

Pew study indicates American adults are embracing social networks more quickly than news organizations and that’s troubling

It appears that American adults are moving into social networks more quickly than top 100 news organizations.

A new study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project says one third of all Americans now have a profile on at least online social network, four times as many as three years ago. (That’s about half the percentage of teens who use social networks but since there are more adults out there than teens the actual number of adult users is higher, Pew notes).  Among all network users, eight in 10 have profiles on more than one site. MySpace and Facebook are the most popular, Pew says.

Those rates contrast with recent Bivings Group findings that only one in 10 major news organizations have social networking features such as the ability to create profiles and “friend” others. This suggests news organizations are limiting their reach to being familiar destinations or findable on search, both of which are valuable but not enough.

This evokes a sense of déjà vu.  Until the mid-2000s, we saw many newspapers focusing on making their print news project more engaging to loyal or part-time readers (good) while failing to act on the fact that significant numbers of their future readers were moving online. Today, we see many news organizations focused heavily on perfecting their “destination” Web sites (good) and search optimization (better) while missing opportunities to push out their content to more people.

Social networks offer a powerful way to put content in front of people and to create a multiplier effect as users share good stories and recommend them to friends, who may share them in turn with more friends.

The technical barriers to being part of a network are falling. While it’s ideal to enable users to add profiles, friend and share on your news site (especially around local news coverage and blogs), you don’t need to blow up your content management system to get started. Witness how The New York Times used Facebook to engage users around the November election and the inauguration this week. Or take a look at the growing list of news organizations that feed content to Twitter.

So I fear the problem is cultural, and perhaps less tractable than technical constraints.

Print is fading and it won’t be replaced by a single medium or distribution mode. It’s important to think more broadly: One channel is no longer enough. One strategy is not enough. If your organization is not poised to jump on new channels as they become available (and off as start ups fail), you may be destined to lag behind. That seems to be a point to which traditional news organizations are moving more slowly than the general public.

The old, still powerful culture of the newsroom may suggest that there is one way to get readers just waiting to be discovered, a quick fix that will build audiences and create revenue. Now.
That fix used to be home delivery. Now it’s the Web site, if only we can figure it out. That’s a fallacy. It’s not the site. It’s the links, the connections and the network. It’s trial and error and trial again.

Are you using social networks to push out content? What’s working? What’s not? Please share your experience in the comments.

Related:
Ideas for ‘09: Expand your site as a network connecting people and information

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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