There are a bewildering number of digital platforms and services available with which you can communicate to potentially millions of customers, readers and audiences. The pressure of having to ‘join the conversation’ means that many businesses often spread themselves too thinly across multiple channels, thus diluting any meaningful conversation and preventing it from having any real impact at all. And what does impact really amount to? How does a busy, small business with few hands derive and measure real value from building an online community?
As a comms professional, I’ve been briefed by many businesses – large and small – to “do an online campaign” with little detail or understanding of what an “online campaign” entails or should deliver. Having run my own business too, coded websites, built newsletters and used various social media tools to engage fans, I know first-hand how confusing the whole social media space is – and one that is increasingly crowded with more services and more choice.
Nonetheless, social media is a brilliantly effective, free and easy way to talk to your audiences directly. And with running a blog or online publication, and the increasingly digital habits and behaviours of the UK, these platforms will also help drive people to your website and boost your readership.
The editor of a popular East London news and lifestyle go-to, Mark Wilding, says, “Dalstonist would never have been possible without the reach created by social media. The site first began gaining exposure through stories that went viral on Facebook and Twitter around three months after launching and readership has snowballed from there…reaching 100,000 at it’s peak.”
So how do you choose the right social media outlet for your business? The key is understanding your customers. What are their interests, their age group, where do they live, are they tech savvy, and most importantly, what do you want to say to them? Director of Hackney Citizen Keith Magnum concurs, “Decide on your tone of voice and make sure everyone using your social media uses it.”
Facebook is the (grand)daddy of all social media sites. When first starting out in the music industry, I relied heavily on Facebook to promote events and sell tickets - which we shifted in abundance, growing one festival attendance in less than three years from 1,000 to 8,000 almost entirely by using social media. However, Facebook has been around for more than ten years now. Along with upgraded algorithms to the newsfeed, that prioritise content from friends over pages, users have become wise to blatant promotions and advertising.
As time has evolved, the Facebook demographic has got older and the platform has become less about ‘selling’ a business or idea and more about connecting with friends and family. It did, after all, borrow a lot from ‘Friends United’ – and largely remains a huge photo album. Still, with some one billion users, Facebook is a viable place to promote your café, music, event or magazine. Wilding says, “Facebook has been far the biggest driver of traffic since the very beginning. It's also the most problematic. Changes to the news feed algorithm have the potential to drastically reduce your site's exposure on the platform and have a devastating impact on traffic. This happened to Dalstonist around a year ago, although the site is still our biggest source of readers. I would recommend seeing Facebook as a valuable tool but bearing in mind that it's never wise to rely too much on one platform that is outside your control.”
Setting up a page for your business couldn’t be simpler and Facebook’s layout means it works especially well for sharing news items. Its focus on local, close-knit communities too, means that it’s a great tool for posting hyperlocal content targeted to people in your area. With 30,000 online readers, Magnum agrees, “Facebook is currently the best social for us for reaching a local audience”.
With regards to paying for Facebook advertising, many people are convinced that this is the only way to get a good reach for their content. But great headlines, colourful photos and charts, such as Timeout’s “Bloggers’ picks: 22 things to do in London this winter”, and particularly video, can do the work for you. Not sure if you should try Facebook Adverts? Why not trial one month creating posts with great video etc without advertising, then one month with Facebook Adverts to see what difference it makes to audience reach and engagement.
As highly curious characters, we seek and want to be surprised by new experiences. The pace of technology means that publishers need to produce constant, new, exciting content to keep readers interested. As an editor or journalist you will be used to doing this anyway and Twitter is the best place to push that content and break news. Twitter is so widely used by writers that people interact with Twitter to source credible, targeted news – as it happens – which makes it the perfect tool for hyperlocal media. I love Twitter and use it to follow journalists and bloggers covering a whole spectrum of items that affect me, from the BBC and the Guardian to Hackney Citizen and Dalstonist. "Twitter is great for finding and researching stories”, states Magnum.
By hash-tagging key words e.g. #Hackney or #E8 and including relevant Twitter ‘handles’ as displayed in Hackney Citizen’s tweet: “Packed house for the Bishopsgate Goodsyard debate organised by #morelightmorepower and @hackneysociety”, users are aggregated in one place to share your content, chat and debate. Couple this with using dashboard tools such as Hootsuite’s geo-located search to find customers in your area and thus begins the creation of your online community.
If you publish a lot of quality visual content, such as pictures of fashion, food or live events, then Instagram and Pinterest can really help boost your online status. Instagram is the epitome of the current social phenomena, harnessing our indelible desire to take photos and share them with our peers. Wilding also suggests that hyperlocal publishers shouldn’t “...rely too much on one platform. Cultivate audiences on other social platforms from the beginning and consider other drivers of traffic such as an email newsletter."
Of course, it’s crucial that the platforms are the right ones for your customer base and that you’re producing regular, quality content. It’s counterproductive hosting a Facebook, Twitter, Instgram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Snapchat account unless you’re a massive brand that can sustain audiences of millions from millennials to the boardroom - and not even household names attempt that. Choose one or two that cater to your demographic, and do them well.
The key to social media is being collaborative and sharing e.g. talking to people and giving them a reason to keep coming back for more stories. And use visual content – videos, infographics, photos. Wilding recommends, “Focusing on creating high-quality content but with social media and shareability in mind. Write headlines which will generate clicks (which is not the same as relying on clickbait).” For small businesses already struggling to keep on top of deadlines, a content calendar, prepared in advance will alleviate that burden. Both Facebook and Twitter allow users to schedule timed posts in advance – not unlike publishing in print or on a blog. So you’re effectively replicating what you’re already doing but giving your efforts a real boost and reaching potentially hundreds – or thousands - more readers. And that’s what advertisers want to see: that your publication is reaching the maximum number of people that it can.
I came across two great examples recently by publishers at a news:rewired session on new models in local media - see the presentations and audio from the session here. The first one was from Brighton & Hove Independent on their ‘People 100’ supplement, which had a crowdsourced element to it, and the second from AGL Gruppo Editoriale Espresso’s ‘Igers’ initiative, where they gave the keys to their Instagram account to their audience.
Most platforms come with built-in tools such as Facebook Insights and Twitter Analytics. Both are wonderfully simple to use and visually easy to navigate, providing users with colourful charts, reach, top Tweets and so on. This way you cannot only hone your content to have maximum impact but also produce engaging reports for potential advertisers and partners. I personally love using Topsy. The tool analyses all of your social activity in one place and produces great graphs for use in campaign reports or following a lively period of social output after a big news story for example. It’s also free and you don’t need an account to use its features.
Arguably the most commonly used tool that is also free to use is Google Analytics. Google Analytics helps users track traffic and engagement with websites in addition to social media, so it’s especially useful for those building blogs and online news sources. With businesses spending increasing amounts of time and resources on social media, ‘return on investment’ or ROI tracked by using analytics tools shows whether your efforts have been successful. “Google Analytics is our primary source of data when it comes to selling advertising but we have also used the demographics of our Facebook audience. Providing details of a sizeable audience on any social media networks is always useful in discussions around advertising“, says Wilding.
Magnum also uses Google Analytics to measure impact and says, “Social media will always be important to us but because we are specifically seeking a local audience we are now looking at other ways of increasing it.”
So start talking. Get Tweeting and don’t forget to tap into your analytics. With a little bit of effort, your top stories could be reaching thousands of readers in the local area and you could start making a bit more money while you’re at it too.