For Media Co’s, Facebook Is About Community, Not Ads

It’s not just iPad apps and paywalls that are confounding traditional media — there’s plenty of evidence that many don’t really get Facebook or Twitter much either, despite the fact that both have been around for years now, and there are plenty of examples of how to use them well. One of those examples is National Public Radio, which has over 1.4 million Facebook fans and recently talked about how it uses the social network to build its community of listeners as well as to do reporting.

NPR’s digital strategist, Andy Carvin, told an Online News Association event that the organization doesn’t look at its Facebook page as a place where it can push the news, but more as a place where listeners (and potential listeners) can talk with each other about things that interest them. The pieces that the broadcaster posts aren’t usually breaking news or even the top story; instead, Carvin says they are items that get picked based on the question: “Will our friends want to talk about this?” And they don’t just talk — the Facebook page also drives 4.5 million pageviews a month to the NPR website. And as the Nieman Journalism Lab notes, according to survey of its listeners that the broadcaster did last year:

Facebook fans are also some of NPR’s most devoted listeners, with 70 percent of them tuning into their local NPR station — and averaging 2 hours of NPR consumption a day. Fifty-five percent also visit NPR’s website on a regular basis.

Of course, NPR doesn’t have to rely on advertising, so you could argue that how it approaches Facebook is different from the way other traditional ad-supported media might, or should. But I don’t think that’s the case. What NPR is doing is building a community around its content — and not just by posting links that people can comment on or click “like” on, but by asking people to help shape stories as well. In other words, using social media as a tool for real interaction, not just for broadcasting a message (pun intended). And the result is more engaged readers/listeners, and more traffic to the broadcaster’s website — which matters just as much to NPR as a traditional media outlet, because the broadcaster relies on public donations and awareness.

It’s also worth noting that the public broadcaster doesn’t keep too tight a rein on its community, which some media outlets try to do. “We feel like it’s as much theirs as it is ours,” Carvin said at the ONA event. “If they want to swear like sailors, [they can]. We don’t block comments just because there’s swearing, or even if they’re being snarky.” NPR staffers delete offensive comments or hate speech, but criticism is fine. And here’s the best part: their Facebook fans often take care of the moderation themselves, by reporting obvious fake accounts or offensive comments. That’s one sign of a strong community (NPR also makes great use of its Tumblr blog and of YouTube).

One issue for media companies is that approaching things the way that NPR has means giving up the community aspect to Facebook, or at least some of it. Many readers will click through to NPR’s site, but others will not — they will click “like” or comment, but that’s all. For a media entity, this is going to feel like giving away the store. There are other issues as well: the social network is still a fairly walled garden in many ways, and it can change its terms of use quickly and with little warning. That could put a media company in a difficult spot, since Facebook is ultimately the one that controls what happens to that community and the interaction that takes place there.

That said, however, the reality is that media in the web era is a distributed thing, and that includes the community aspect. Conversations about your content are going to occur on Facebook because 600 million people use it, and they are going to occur on Twitter because 200 million people or so use that. If you want to build a relationship with your users — which is about the only thing you have left, since scarcity of information and control over the distribution channel is no longer working — then you have to be there too. And not just shoving ads or content at them, but talking to them.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Florian Boyd