I “like” a lot of news organizations on Facebook, meaning I’ve clicked that little thumbs-up button on their pages and become a fan. Whether I become a fan in the true sense of the word, though, depends on the quality of the news organization’s posts and the conversations they generate.
Any news organization can set up a Facebook page and post links to their content, but the key is figuring out how to turn that Facebook page into a reporting and sharing tool that doesn’t just push content in front of readers, but actively engages them.
I spoke with Andy Carvin, senior strategist on NPR’s Social Media Desk, to learn more about NPR’s Facebook page, which generates a lot of discussion. Less than a half-hour after posting a story about Daniel Schorr’s death, for instance, more than 500 people had already commented on it.
NPR also uses its Facebook page to find sources. Last week, one of its updates said: “NPR is seeking to interview people who have planned a funeral, to discuss whether they felt they were overcharged by a funeral home. If you would like to share your story with us, please let us know in the comments.” The post generated more than 700 comments.
It’s not surprising that a major media outlet like NPR would get such a large response because of its size, but strategy is also a factor. In the edited e-mail interview below, Carvin offers tips that other news outlets — small and large — can use when developing their own Facebook strategies.
Mallary Jean Tenore: NPR recently announced that its Facebook page now has 1 million fans. The news made me wonder, what’s the value of a “fan”?
Andy Carvin: At NPR, we see our fans as a community of smart, funny, Internet-savvy people who love what we do and want to support us. For some people, this support translates into sharing our stories and introducing new people to our content. For others, it’s about helping us with our reporting, including finding sources. So it’s more than just being able to have that badge on your Facebook wall saying you “like” NPR.
What has NPR done to grow its Facebook fan base, and what might smaller news orgs with fewer resources do?
Carvin: When Facebook changed its system in 2009, so that any link you posted would also appear in your fans’ feeds, we decided that it was time to treat Facebook as its own publishing platform. So a small group of us began posting stories on a regular basis.
It’s not unusual for us to post eight to 10 stories a day, and we’ve also started to post occasionally during the overnight shift, thanks to help from our colleagues at “Morning Edition.”
This has led to many Facebook users seeing us as a way to find interesting news to share with their friends. And the more they share and comment on our stories, the more they appear in their friends’ feeds as well, bringing even more people our way.
It took us more than 18 months to reach our first 500,000 fans, but less than nine months to reach the next 500,000 — and about 250,000 of them came on board in just the last two months. So with a lot of hard work, we’ve been able to grow our Facebook community — and it’s really beginning to pay off dividends now.
How much traffic does Facebook drive to NPR.org, and how does this compare to the traffic the site gets from Twitter?
Carvin: In June, for example, we received over 2.5 million page views from Facebook, accounting for around 7 percent of our traffic. In most months, it’s our no. 2 source of referral traffic behind Google. In contrast, Twitter is typically in the mid-six figures, give or take.
What does NPR do, and what can other news orgs do, to let people know about their Facebook page?
Carvin: You’d be surprised how little we’ve done to promote our Facebook page. Until now, we haven’t made a concerted effort to promote it on the radio, and there’s almost no mention of it on our website. So most of our growth has been word-of-mouth via Facebook.
We’re planning to increase the presence of Facebook on our website, though, making it easy for people to “like” our main Facebook page, as well as our show pages. This will roll out later this summer. I’m also hoping we’ll begin plugging it more on-air.
We’ve been also asking our Facebook fans for suggestions on how we should program our page; we just completed a week-long survey on our Facebook page and received more than 40,000 responses, which is quite extraordinary. Our research team is now crunching the numbers.
How do you decide which stories to post on Facebook? Related to that, is there value in posting every story, or do you think it’s better to just post some stories?
Carvin: We definitely don’t post every story. NPR publishes dozens of stories per day, and we typically post 8-10 items on Facebook each day. If you look at our Facebook page, it won’t necessarily reflect what’s above the fold on our homepage or in our top-of-the-hour newscast. For one thing, the NPR Facebook page represents all of NPR, including our culture, arts and music coverage, so the range of stories we post goes beyond the day’s headlines. We also try to select stories that are likely to be conversation starters.
Each morning, I review a daily note from our editors regarding what stories we’re posting online, and make a note of which ones seem like good candidates. Meanwhile, our shows, blogs and news desks regularly pitch stories to me. I then space them out by around an hour at a time; posting more frequently than that can annoy some users.
Facebook also provides us with some demographic insights about our users. For example, we know that they’re mostly Gen X and Gen Y, and nearly 60 percent of them are women. So over time, you get a sense of what stories will be of interest to them and which ones just fizzle out.
It seems that most of the stories posted on NPR’s Facebook page are just links. And yet, many of the stories generate dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of comments. Why do you think NPR’s fans are so engaged?
Carvin: To us, they’re more than just links — they’re invitations to a conversation. When you post a link to Facebook, it displays the headline, a teaser and a thumbnail, so it’s not that different than what you might display on your own website.
And if you pick good content, people are going to talk about it. Meanwhile, people who’ve liked us on Facebook have grown accustomed to us posting frequently, so it’s not unusual to see familiar names among those who are commenting on any given story.
How often does NPR enter the conversation?
Carvin: It really depends. Sometimes we’ll chime in to offer additional details or answer questions. For better or worse, a number of Facebook users will comment on a story before reading it, so occasionally we have to jump in to dispel or correct something.
Other times we’ll just jump in to stir a conversation. Not all of our users expect us to comment, so when we do, we usually get great feedback because of it. Occasionally I’ll jump in just to surprise users who assume we’d never take part in a conversation.
How do the comments on the Facebook page differ from comments on NPR.org?
Carvin: For one thing, we get a lot more comments on Facebook for any given story than the same story typically would on NPR.org. Even though you can comment on NPR.org, a lot of users still regard our website as a place to consume news rather than discuss it. Facebook, on the other hand, is all about conversation, so there’s no shortage of it there. Facebook users can get snarky at times, and some of them swear like sailors, but they’re more civil than you might expect.
We tend to have more partisan flame wars on NPR.org than on Facebook, for example. And the rules of engagement are different — while we enforce our own discussion rules on NPR.org, we generally don’t interfere with the conversation on Facebook except in cases of spam, hate speech, trolls and the like. From our perspective, Facebook is their community, not ours — we’re guests there, rather than the other way around.
I noticed there are some, but not many, photos on NPR’s Facebook page. Is there value in posting photos of your newsroom/staffers, or adding personality to your Facebook page in other ways?
Carvin: I think photos and videos can really help a Facebook page, and it’s not unusual to see our shows do it on their Facebook pages. Since we have so much content on any given day, and don’t want to bombard people with too many posts, we’re just more selective about it.
Any more thoughts on how you think news orgs can use Facebook to their advantage?
Carvin: Perhaps the most powerful use of Facebook is as a sourcing tool. After the Haiti quake, we asked people if they or their family were in Haiti, and we got so many responses, it generated source leads for several days’ worth of coverage on “Morning Edition.” We also routinely ask Facebook users to help our reporters find sources or flesh out a reporting idea.
It’s not unusual for us to get hundreds, or even thousands, of replies to a reporter query. For example, on July 14 we asked our Facebook fans if any of them were considering giving up their cable TV subscriptions and rely on other platforms for home entertainment. We received over 4,000 replies. Even in cases where we’ve asked people for very specific responses — families facing a specific financial situation, soldiers who’ve been treated for a particular war injury, etc., we’ve always gotten productive replies.
I’d also like to tell a quick story. In late 2007, we began debating the possibility of having a presence on Facebook, but we couldn’t make up our minds. Would it be an editorial platform or a PR one? Who would own it? Etc, etc. Then one day in January 2008 I got a tweet from a colleague at PBS NewsHour congratulating us for our new Facebook page — and I had no idea what she was talking about. It turns out a student in the UK had created the page, using official “About Us” information from our website. It’d been around for less than a week but already had more than 5,000 fans.
Not surprisingly, this led to a new conversation at NPR — what should we do about the page and this guy. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and they let me simply introduce myself to him and say hello. I soon learned what had happened.
The prior month, he had contacted NPR through the “Contact Us” link on our website, encouraging us to create a Facebook page, given how many NPR fans were there. He also volunteered to do it, noting that we’re a nonprofit and might not have the resources to do it ourselves. He waited two weeks for a reply and then got a form letter from us, thanking him for his support. So he took that as a yes and created the page — and assumed that I was merely following up with him. With that, he made me administrator of the page.
There are two lessons to take away from this. First, it’s not worth wasting time arguing over whether or not you’ll lose control of your brand when you start using social networks, because you never had control in the first place.
There are literally millions of people out there who love NPR and are willing to help us succeed — and on Facebook there just happen to be a million of them who have our back.