News Leadership 3.0

March 12, 2009

The power and reach of social networks

Nielsen reports that social network use is edging out e-mail, and a new report from Susan Mernit underscores the power of social media to engage people and share information

This week, a new study by Nielsen says social networking is edging out e-mail as the most popular Internet activity. According to AdWeek:

“Active reach in what Nielsen defines as “member communities” now exceeds e-mail participation by 67 percent to 65 percent. What’s more, the reach of social networking and blogging venues is growing at twice the rate of other large drivers of Internet use such as portals, e-mail and search.
“Nielsen ... concluded that the shift to social activity online would have profound effects on marketers and publishers. For publishers, social networks are eating into time spent with other online activities, according to Nielsen. For advertisers, the phenomenon at this stage represents mostly unfulfilled promise for a deeper connection with consumers who are more difficult to reach in social environments.”

For an idea of the scale, here are January 2009 stats on social utility usage.

For those who are catching up with social media, consultant Susan Mernit has an instructive white paper that details how people are using social media tools to raise awareness and organize events and communities around specific issues. Mernit also offers a resource guide.

Mernit notes how social media have become a means for people to gather and disperse news of significant events:

“We saw this type of community-casting early in 2004 when thousands of people across the world reacted to the tragedy of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the planet reacted, then saw it again with the London subway bombings in 2005, when the defining photo—sent around the world—was taken not by a professional photojournalist, but by an eyewitness with a cellphone. When the terrorist attacks happened in Mumbai in November 2008, it was the citizen media—blogs, photos, videos—that showed the world what had happened, and the social media tools—Twitter, YouTube that shared the pain. When events happen, they are shared and communicated across multiple platforms, but people reference and link them together.”

But that’s just the beginning, according to Mernit’s report:

“Over the past year, there has been an increasing use of social media not only to react to or cover an event, but as a means to create or promote an event. Even more interestingly, social media communications seem to have the effect of creating a virtuous circle where social media organizes data and then feeds information back out to the community, intensifying the experience both online and offline, building awareness, engagement and impact.”

That development suggests a role for a news organization as an organizer of community information or at least a facilitator of the information. (That seems to be part of the Gazette Company’s experiment in Cedar Rapids.)

Mernit offers a case study of a social media awareness campaign she helped develop for the Knight News Challenge:

“The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation wanted to use social media to reach a wider range of prospective applicants, both in the US and abroad, for the third year of the Knight News Challenge, a program that provides grants to innovative news and information projects. Their goal was to improve both the quality and the diversity of projects. Using social media and transformative tools, the team met and exceeded most of their goals, increasing both the page views by 200% percent and unique visitors to the site by 100% percent while receiving
a stronger pool of applications.”

Mernit goes on to describe how Knight used multiple platforms and services—many of them free or inexpensive—to engage more applicants and get more innovative applications for the news challenge. The efforts included using Twitter for news updates about the challenge, posting videso of past winners, e-mail campaigns, meet-ups in places where Knight staff were visiting anyway, Facebook groups, and Knight Garage, a Web site developed in three weeks that allowed people to post ideas for applications and get feedback.

While the News Challenge competition is not a news organization, it’s easy to see how many of these steps could be taken by news organizations to engage people in community issues and news. I suggest news executives in search of a social media strategy read the report in full as a blueprint for engaging their communities.This will require a fundamental shift in thinking for newsrooms. As Mernit notes:

“These tools that post pictures and share news are now considered “social” because in addition to the core functions they perform they are created in ways that also integrate users sharing and communicating with one another…. this is the opposite of the portal model, where a one-way flow of expert to user was the norm and community was not part of the experience.”

How can established news organizations play a role in the new social architecture of the Web? Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments.

Related: Knight Digital Media Center and News University at Poynter are developing a series of Webinars on Social Media Strategy for News Organizations. I expect to post registration details early next week.

(Disclosure: I do consulting work for the Knight Foundation but not for the News Challenge. I am merely an unpaid fan of that effort.)

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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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