APN News & Media’s 12 regional daily newspapers had a combined Facebook audience of more than 120,000 in 2012. Yet two years later one paper, the Sunshine Coast Daily, had built up that number of followers alone.
The paper’s rapid online growth is a result of the decision by APN’s Australian Regional Media to implement a social media strategy across its dailies in 2014. The main goal of the strategy was to boost online and print reader engagement using Facebook. Another was to expand the papers’ social, digital and print audiences, creating a deeper relationship with readers which would encourage them to become part of the newsgathering process.
The strategy led to all daily titles boosting their combined Facebook follower count by almost 200,000 on 2012 figures.
ARM uses its social media accounts to spark conversations which often lead to print stories – many of them front pages. Their daily newspapers have social media followers from all over the country – especially the Sunshine Coast Daily, which even has an overseas following, giving it about half as many ‘likes’ as there are people even living on the Sunshine Coast. It’s able to set the community agenda in a way that few regional newspapers can. This year, the Daily was named a finalist for the International News Media Association (INMA) Awards in the ‘Best Use of Social Media’ category.
ARM’s daily newspapers generate large amounts of content for the print product by sourcing and encouraging readers to share their own stories, and reactions that could become stories, in a process they call “360 journalism”.
The company also recognised that Facebook posts can be written in a specific way that can boost engagement – that a post must contain a “shareable element” – and that the strongest-performing posts often aren’t local at all.
How the strategy was developed
The idea was formulated by ARM management and social media editor Alexia Purcell. Each daily newspaper has a digital producer whose role includes managing social media content generated by the paper, and Ms Purcell worked with these digital producers to ensure they were writing engaging, quality posts. She also worked with the papers to develop regular posts, recurring weekly, that are not news-related or specifically relevant to the local area, but are instead designed purely to drive engagement. These have become set-pieces for that readers have become used to seeing – for example, the post below, calling for readers to send a picture of somebody they love:
As well as calling for user input, a post like that entices readers to contribute because of the novelty value of having their photo printed in the newspaper – itself a result of the authority carried by print media.
That post reached more than 50,000 people, and readers left more than 600 comments. There were very few negative actions taken against the post, like a user hiding it from their feed – perhaps because the post was short, neutral and applicable to anyone.
Resources and staffing
APN did not have to direct any new resources to implementing or managing its social media plan. ARM social media editor Alexia Purcell said that simply as a result of changing the way posts were written, there was a 70 per cent increase in traffic referred from Facebook to the website in the program’s first year.
The digital producer at each local office makes Facebook posts to their masthead’s Facebook page every day. Ms Purcell manages network-wide posts which run across all titles (and which are not necessarily specifically local content). She also also monitors individual pages, schedules campaign posts as well as creating and managing Facebook ads, and searches the web for stories that might go viral on social media.
All newsroom staff can come up with post ideas, but only one or two people in each newsroom have publishing rights. Training was provided for all staff that have publishing rights.
ARM went into the development of its social media strategy with a number of aims in mind. These included:
- Increasing the size of its social, digital and print audience
- Creating a deeper relationship with readers
- Driving traffic from social media to the masthead website
- Encouraging readers to be part of the newsgathering process
- Reflect back into the newspaper what readers are saying online (‘360 journalism’)
- Build useful stories based on readers’ opinions (like the best hairdressers on the Sunshine Coast)
- Generate exposure for commercial partners
- Promote APN’s online pillars like classifieds, property, motoring and employment.
Engagement and audience metrics provided by Facebook are the primary way ARM measures the extent to which its objectives have been met – the social network provides numbers on likes, comments, shares, an engagement metric based on the number of people that view and respond to the post, and the number of people that click through to the website from the post. On the website side, the company uses Google Analytics and Chartbeat to monitor the performance of that story, and how many readers have been referred through social media.
Part of the social media strategy for ARM’s dailies is known as ‘360 journalism.’ It involves making posts on Facebook which generate a reaction, reading through the comments and reverse-publishing noteworthy or newsworthy perspectives on the issue in print and online. An example of that approach is the Sunshine Coast Daily’s story on the best hairdressers in the region, as discussed by the paper’s Facebook audience. The story begins: “As it turns out a lot of you were extremely passionate about where you got your cut and colour. While we had close to 900 responses, we’ve managed to narrow the list to 10. Now meet the top 10 hairdressers on the Coast as voted by you.”
Local, national and international readers
On Facebook, the Sunshine Coast Daily has more than 125,000 followers – but the population of the region is only around 250,000. Behind the huge numbers are thousands of followers from outside the region, and even overseas – either Sunshine Coast expats wanting to keep in touch, or aspirational residents who dream of moving to the area. This unusual mix of readers for a regional paper means that their social media can stray from specifically local content.
Their biggest post of the year was seen by more than 3.7 million people – compared to their previous best of one million.
Posting content that editors believe has the potential to go “viral” – rather than sticking strictly to local news – is a big part of this success. An example of this approach is in the post below, which links to the Sunshine Coast Daily’s write-up of a story that has nothing to do with the local region, but has a capacity to bring a large number of readers to the site.
Drumming up engagement is not limited to posts or events with viral potential – ARM also uses game-like techniques to keep people involved and contributing to their pages. Recurring posts include ‘fill in the blank’ guessing games, photo caption competitions, photo of the week competitions, and ‘Friday Flog It’ posts.
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