Newsrooms can buy Facebook friends, but user engagement is not for sale

The WFSB-TV Eyewitness News Team really wants to be liked. So much so that the Hartford, Connecticut television station is offering a generous reward for its newfound friends.

The CBS affiliate is running a contest this month on its Facebook page. Visitors who click the page’s “like” button can enter a drawing to win a new Nissan Maxima. So far, the station says about 20,000 people have responded, driving up the total number of likes on the WFSB Facebook page to more than 75,000.

“Facebook in general is a promotion tool to get people to watch us and go to our website,” said WFSB’s Executive Producer of Digital Content, Shannon Kane. “You want as many people to like you on Facebook, just like you want as many people to watch you on TV.”

While WFSB’s giveaway features an unusually extravagant prize, many TV stations are using contests and rewards to attract likes. This month (a “sweeps” month for Nielsen TV ratings), an Oklahoma City station is offering free DVDs to new Facebook likers, Baltimore’s ABC affiliate is handing out gasoline gift cards, while a Fort Myers, Florida station is giving away iPads each day through November 18.

There’s little doubt that the contests succeed in attracting likes. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the local NBC station doubled its Facebook likes with an iPad promotion this month. And a Cleveland station last year attracted 44,000 likes by providing a different kind of incentive: It offered to donate money to the Animal Protective League and give pets “a second chance at life” if 100,000 viewers friended the station on Facebook.  (Though the station fell short of its Facebook goal, it donated $2,500 anyway.)

But less clear is whether the contests and incentives increase stations’ television ratings, website traffic, or level of engagement with their viewers.

“Just because you have a million likes, that doesn’t necessarily equal real results,” said Eric Kuhn, a social media agent for United Talent Agency and a former Audience Interaction Producer at CNN.

Contests may bring short-lived gains

Jennifer Dahl is a big believer in Facebook’s ability to drive TV ratings. The news director at Salt Lake City’s KUTV largely credits the social network for sparking a dramatic increase in her station’s newscast viewership.

“ 'I think social media helped KUTV 2News win every newscast during February sweeps,' Dahl told Cory Bergman of The station gave away an iPad, held a fundraising campaign for a local food bank, and held a “Facebook Faceoff,” in which on-air staff competed to attract the most likes.

“If you have a vibrant page with 100,000 people in your local market who are engaging with your brand and liking things and sharing stuff that you’re publishing, of course it’s going to accrue positively to your brand -- and potentially to ratings as well,” said Bergman, a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board.

On the other hand, users who like a page to enter a contest aren’t necessarily interested in “engaging” with the brand. Sweepstakes have become so common on Facebook that you could enter dozens of them every day by liking the pages of hotels, tattoo parlors, cake shops, and other businesses. Once a visitor enters a contest, there’s no guarantee he or she ever will return to a contest sponsor’s page or interact with material the sponsor posts to the user’s news feed.

“Running promotions that bought ‘likes’ through incentivized campaigns offered short-lived gains,” said Noah Echols of the Kennesaw State University Center for Sustainable Journalism. The Center experimented with a Facebook contest this summer for its website, which covers juvenile justice issues.

“It may have increased our page's fan base, but a month after the contest, engagement levels were down again,” Echols said in an email. “And that is what matters - the active users, not just the fan count.”

Indeed, the number of likes generated by a Facebook page is becoming increasingly meaningless. Facebook’s algorithm customizes the news feed each user sees when he or she visits the site. The feed prominently features status updates from contacts with whom users interact frequently, while contacts they ignore may drop off the feed entirely.

“You can still have a lot a likes and not be seeing a lot of impressions,” Bergman said in a phone interview. “Even though your page shows 100,000 likes, only 10,000 or 20,000 people may be seeing it.”

More than a numbers game

So to the extent that Facebook helped stations such as KUTV increase their television ratings or page views, contests and giveaways likely played only a supporting role. In KUTV’s case, the station also uses its Facebook page to blast out breaking news headlines, solicit story ideas, and take comments that it later reads on the air. (“How is the bad economy going to affect the upcoming holidays?” or “How involved do you think the government should be when it comes to parents punishing their kids?”)

“The real value for a news organization of social media is in not just talking, but in listening, seeing what the conversations are, and using it as a news gathering tool,” said Kuhn, the social media agent. “At the end of the day, it depends on the type of community that’s built around any social media account.”

And in spite of TV station promotions that set a goal for a certain number of likes, Kuhn and other social media experts downplay the significance of the numbers.

“What matters most is how engaged an audience one can build,” said Echols of the Center for Sustainable Journalism. “A thousand highly engaged people online can accomplish much more for a brand than a million loose ties that were bought with an iPad giveaway.”


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