A little over 100 days ago, a community news blog in Rockville, Md., took a big leap. Founder and Publisher Brad Rourke and Editor Cindy Cotte Griffiths moved the entire operation of Rockville Central to a Facebook page.

“Facebook is where people, by and large, have decided to go for their first-stop online community activities,” Rourke wrote in the announcement post. “Which begs the question: Why have a separate site, and try to drag people away from Facebook? Why not go where they are?”

Rockville Central uses Facebook’s notes application to post news stories, which resemble blog posts with headlines, body text and comments. The site also uses simple wall posts and status updates to post short items and to share links to other news and photos. The goal is engagement and conversation, not just publication.

Most news organizations would never consider following the Facebook-only path of Rockville Central (though a few small ones have). They can’t sell ads on Facebook, and the lack of control and independence would be a deal-breaker. But even so, they can learn from what Rockville Central is doing.

After more than three months immersed in Facebook-native publishing, Rockville Central’s authors have learned some things about the strengths, weaknesses and best practices of publishing on the world’s largest social network.

Here are eight lessons Rourke shared with me. (Disclosure: Rockville Central was one of the early blogs to join the TBD Community Network in 2010 when I worked for TBD.)

Your work may reach more people. Each post on the Rockville Central Facebook page gets about 2,000 impressions on average, and most get “likes” and comments. The website used to get about 1,000 page views a day from about 700 unique visitors. “Traffic is way up,” Rourke said, “because… instead of a page for people to go to, the content is going out into people’s streams.”

You can reach new people. The Rockville Central Facebook page attracts “new names and different people than were the normal commenters on our standalone site,” he said. That’s important, he said, because the site’s mission is to bring new people into public life. “We don’t need new and easier ways for the people who already go to City Council meetings to argue.”

You can build relationships more quickly. On Facebook, it takes just a second to “like” a reader’s comment or wall post. That sends the user a notification from your page and helps build rapport. “Because it’s so easy to interact back on Facebook, we’re actually finding that we have a pretty good feeling of relationship with the folks in the community,” Rourke said. Many websites, on the other hand, struggle with user registration systems and finding tools to build communities.

You should use personal voices. “We’ve learned that it’s important to work [in] both the institutional voice of Rockville Central but also our personal voices,” Rourke said. He or Griffiths write notes or share news links as “Rockville Central,” but they often comment using their personal profiles. Facebook enables page administrators to toggle their active identity between their page name and their personal profile.

Timing matters. Facebook activity peaks a few times a day: before work (about 7 a.m.), midday (11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and around dinner, Rourke said. “What you really want is to share when they’re on, not before they’re on,” he said.

There are a couple Facebook flaws that have hindered Rockville Central’s publishing.

The notes app “is a really poor tool for publication,” Rourke said. “There’s no categorizing function or tagging function, so you can’t really organize notes very well.” Because of this, something as simple as collecting all of this year’s local election coverage has to be done manually by creating a separate page tab and linking to notes as they’re written.

Archiving and search functions are weak.
Facebook is optimized to spread things as they’re posted, but if you are seeking something weeks or days old, you must scroll through page after page. “The thing that it lacks is history,” Rourke said.

Even as a publisher, finding a note written weeks ago can be near-impossible, Rourke said. There’s no good way to search your notes on Facebook. And notes aren’t indexed by search engines, so your content is invisible to Google.

The biggest lesson from existing entirely within Facebook is to see it as more than a traffic referral source.

Facebook is “its own place,” Rourke said. “I think it’s worthwhile to have a Facebook strategy that goes beyond, ‘How can we get these people from Facebook over to where we live?’”

One you look at Facebook as its own community, he said, “you start to ask, ‘What can we provide Facebook people that we don’t provide other people?’”

So while a major news website shouldn’t go Facebook-only, it also shouldn’t see Facebook solely as a means of promoting its site.

That means you should post some notes, external links, status messages or photos that are exclusive to Facebook and not repurposed from your website. Think first about developing a community within Facebook, which is what the platform is best at, rather than trying to pull users away to your site with every post.

How would Rourke handle Facebook strategy if he worked for a mainstream news organization? “I would look at it as a place rather than a source of eyeballs,” he said, with journalists covering the issues, discussions and news in relevant Facebook communities just as they would cover a local town.

“I would have a Facebook bureau.”