Facebook is the social network of the moment for news organisations, having taken over from Twitter as top of the list of concerns for many. Twitter has proved itself and continues to thrive as an invaluable tool for journalists: useful in gathering information, promoting their work and gathering feedback. But although Twitter, with more than 175 million users, is big, Facebook, with an estimated more than 600 million members, is bigger.
Although, as Meg Pickard, head of digital engagement at the Guardian said, Twitter is a more "conversational medium" with a "real immediate journalistic aim," Facebook arguably offers the possibility of more sophisticated branding and interaction with users. As well as implementing Facebook Connect to allow users to 'like' stories and share articles directly to Facebook, news organisations have taken the opportunity to create fan pages to build a presence in this social arena that they can use not only to promote their articles and thus increase traffic, but also to engage with readers and build connections.
Because of this conversational element, Pickard explained, Twitter was the Guardian's first social media focus, and the paper now has 50 official accounts, with somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million followers in total. In addition, several hundred Guardian journalists have their own Twitter accounts.
The Guardian has had a core Facebook page for some time now, Pickard said, so that people looking for the paper could find it, but it was not the hub of the conversation at first. The page has 60,000+ followers, which is relatively impressive compared to other UK newspapers but surprisingly few in comparison to its European and American counterparts, given the paper's considerable international standing.
Pickard's explanation for this figure was that the page has not been advertised in any way. This move was fully intentional, she said, as "we wanted to see how people came across it" before starting to promote it. These 60,000 have noticed it in their friends' feeds or specifically sought it out, and there's "something very powerful about that," she believes. "Any shopkeeper will tell you that people who find you and then are passionate about you and recommend you to their friends are really worth while," she added. (Kim Wilson, founder of Social News Desk, discusses the quantity vs quality issue with Facebook fans here.)
Pickard made an interesting differentiation between the way the paper uses Twitter and Facebook in terms of the type of content it posts to each. With Facebook, it is necessary to remember that this is more social territory, Pickard said, and that the news from media organisations will be mixed in with news from users' friends.
"We encourage people to publish non-commoditised news on Facebook, not news that you could get absolutely everywhere," she said. "So if you look at the sort of articles we put, they tend to be quirky, interesting, viral, something you might not have seen it anywhere else. This tends to be the sort of thing that people want to like, repost or comment on, rather than breaking headlines, which work better on Twitter."
She doesn't see such a place for breaking news on Facebook.
The Guardian, like some other publications, has recently started to launch niche Facebook pages for different sections of the paper to focus on smaller but likely more engaged communities of readers. This move signals an acceptance that not everybody is interested all the content that the publication produces, but many are interested in specific parts.
Pickard said that while the main Guardian page appeals to those who like the Guardian brand, the section-specific pages attract people around specific issues. "It's important that we are in both places," she said. The niche pages have only a fraction of the number of fans that the main page boasts, but are recent additions and may well grow into small but dedicated communities. Football, Environment and Films are already doing particularly well.
Media, technology, global development, law, data, and society are also among the paper's sections that have launched their own niche pages. "There is no mandate for sections to create a page," Pickard specified. When editors want to launch one, she checks that they know how they want to use the page: where they want the conversation to take place and how much control they want to have over the content.
The pages might be run by the desk editors, or by the community coordinators who are attached to some teams. There will usually be someone on the central team of editors who is an 'admin' of the page so that anything that goes wrong can be dealt with quickly, but Pickard stressed that "we try to devolve as much responsibility as possible to the desk editors because they are the ones who know their communities best."
Both Pickard and The New York Times' former social media editor Jennifer Preston made the same point about the importance of committing to updating a Facebook page, and understanding that you cannot just create it then let it lie idle. "The last thing we want is to create them and walk away," Pickard said. "I warn them that it's like a puppy," said Preston.
The New York Times has gone even more specific and allowed readers to follow specific journalists on Facebook, such as Nicholas Kristof, Roger Cohen, Gail Collins or David Carr. They have launched their own fan pages, where they publish links to their own stories, and might add other comments.
Nicholas Kristof, a Times op-ed writer, recently used his page to provide updates and comments about his experiences in Egypt. This type of usage - more personal and involved than than simply posting links to articles - is likely to be effective at engaging the community, particularly when in such a volatile situation which has attracted worldwide attention.
Online news and the now inevitable level of personalization that accompanies it means that most people are becoming increasingly adept at getting the news they want to read about, and these subject-specific pages on Facebook are a further step in that direction. Will more and more publications use social media to go niche?