When should newsrooms not use Facebook for audience engagement? When they actually want to make money.

WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers and Publishers) recently published a major study detailing whether or not publishers are making money with Facebook. Niemanlab summed it up aptly in their digest version of the report with two words: “not really.”

The study’s author, University of Oxford researcher Grzegorz Piechota, wrote, “Even leading news publishers in the U.S. that have embraced the idea of cross-platform publishing and have built vibrant communities on Facebook have not really been able to monetize their engagement with the platform’s products.”

How did this happen? It started with Facebook capitalizing on two critically important insights that newsrooms never did:

  1. “news” can be whatever people find interesting
  2. people find the people that they know, and what they’re interested in, to be very interesting

In the process of exploiting these truths to the tune of billions of users and dollars, Facebook has handily won the attention, time, money and “eyeballs” of those who otherwise may have been clicking around the sites of news organizations, making money for those organizations by seeing their ads.

Of course, it was too tempting for publishers not to flock to Facebook. “Go where your audience is” became the mantra, and much of your audience is likely on Facebook.

And now here we find ourselves. Facebook has not been able to provide meaningful revenue back to the content providers who help it thrive. It has not moved the needle toward solving the news industry’s business model crisis. Yet posting content and “engaging” on Facebook has turned into full-time, resource-intensive jobs in virtually every (remaining) newsroom.

This tweet by engagement evangelist Andrew Haeg pretty much sums up the reality of Facebook for newsrooms:

https://twitter.com/andrewhaeg/status/908422399183458304

At the company I run, Hearken, we get asked a lot by newsroom staff who are considering our services: “Why shouldn’t we just use Facebook to do what you do?”

(If you’re new to Hearken, here’s the quick version: we help newsrooms implement a new editorial model in which they listen to — and collaborate with — their audience members from pitch to publication, resulting in more relevant stories. We also provide newsrooms with a software platform that supports this editorial process and facilitates audience engagement.)

There are plenty of reasons why we and the hundred newsrooms around the world we partner with prefer Hearken to Facebook for audience engagement, but one is is singularly important. It bears shouting from rooftops:

because Facebook then owns your relationships with your audience.

Oh, and your data, too.


We believe audience engagement is just another way of saying relationship building. And if you don’t build relationships with your audience members as individuals, there’s no reason they should trust your reporting, stay loyal to your organization, or support you with their money. The work of relationship-building is hard and critically important work. And it becomes unnecessarily difficult if you outsource it to a third party platform with its own agenda.

To spell it out, these are things you cannot do when Facebook owns your relationships:

  • Retain a strong, differentiated brand identity
  • Cultivate a direct relationship with individual members of your community
  • Search, export, archive and organize audience input and data in a centralized space for later use
  • Filter your engaged audience members by their areas of interest
  • Identify audience members to target and re-engage in future projects
  • Collect emails for more 1–1 communication and collaboration
  • Gain consent to use said email addresses for newsletters
  • Identify leads for your membership or subscription pipeline
  • Directly funnel those leads into a CRM or other email management system

In short: you fundamentally cannot collect on the value you’re creating from the important and resource-intensive reporting you do with, and in large part because of, Facebook.

Of course there are loads of incredible things Facebook can do and has made possible. But the critically important function of helping news organizations keep their lights on is one thing Facebook was never designed to help newsrooms do. In fact, realizing that goal would put the company at odds with making billions of dollars. And regardless of Mark Zuckerberg’s stated mission or good intentions, the company’s very business model requires them to make decisions on the basis of “maximize shareholder value,” not “safeguard democracy” or “hold the powerful to account.”

The author of the aforementioned WAN-IFRA study, Piechota, has a major takeaway after analyzing Facebook’s not-so-positive effect on publishers: “To monetize engagement with Facebook and other platforms, news publishers need to build sound business outside of those platforms rather than outsourcing their future to them.”

The question of “how?” is the concern at the front of the news industry’s collective mind.

At Hearken, we believe the answer lies in another insight from Piechota’s study: “The concept of audience is outdated. Modern customers expect to be known as individuals with distinct needs and preferences, and assume service will be personalised.” This is why the model for engagement we help newsrooms practice is about treating the public as individuals, and responding to their individual needs while creating content that is relevant to a broad audience.

What does this look like in practice?

Instead of posting a call-out on Facebook for story ideas and then amassing a chaotic thread to police (and never to export, and practically impossible to search for and find the next day, let alone next week or year), Hearken partner WBEZ used our model and tech platform to cultivate questions from their audiences about the region they cover: Chicago. This is for a series called Curious City that I started in 2012 and formed the basis for Hearken.

So Rory Keane is a curious Chicagoan, and he had a question about bats (the flying kind) after having a perilous run-in with one over his lunch break.

Because WBEZ didn’t rely on Facebook for engagement, and instead used our tech to collect questions, their newsroom could do all the things in the bullet pointed list above. In terms of treating the audience as a collection of individuals, they were able to reach out to Rory and include him in the reporting process because they had his email address. (If you’ve ever tried to contact an individual via Facebook outside of the comments section while logged into Facebook as a newsroom, you know frequently permissions are blocked.)

Curious City interviewed Rory in advance of the story, and they brought him along for reporting trips. You can hear Rory’s voice throughout the radio piece (and his killer Werner Herzog impression) and see his face in the story they published online. Over the course of the reporting process, the Curious City team built an honest-to-goodness relationship with him.

As it turns out, this Hearken-powered story won a Chicago journalism award for best science reporting. The story would never have happened were it not for Rory’s great question, so the Curious City team felt it was only fair to share their honor with him. Because they already had established a relationship, it was easy to reach out and invite him to the awards ceremony where he got to collect the award alongside WBEZ reporters.

https://twitter.com/loganjaffe/status/596738094566477824

Since then Rory remains engaged with Curious City, continuing to listen to their stories, engage online, and even buys tickets for live events. This is just one example of the ways that the Hearken model highlights the elevates the individual, and gives them an experience that keeps them authentically engaged and loyal to news organizations over time.

Another one of our partners, Bitch Media, did a year long study that found their readers who engaged with Hearken were up to 5x more likely to become sustaining (read: paying) members. One of our goals is to help more newsrooms connect our engagement model to their business and marketing departments. So we’re developing integrations between our platform and the software that we know newsrooms use to advance those goals: newsletter providers and CRMs.

This work is a direct answer to Piechota’s findings: we’re creating an alternative to Facebook in which newsrooms can actually monetize their engagement.

Just last week, Atlantic writer Franklin Foer echoed Piechota’s concerns in an interview with Nieman Lab, emphasizing the importance of sound subscription business models as a way for newsrooms to break free from Facebook’s thrall. But, he says, “I also think that we need to create cultural conditions in the public that make a subscription model more appealing.” Foer correctly notes that this can’t happen overnight. But we think our engagement model, which treats audience members as individuals, is a start.

As newsrooms move away from a view of the audience in the abstract and soulless terms of volume and reach, and toward the quality of information and depth of connection that allows for real relationships, as well as content and ad personalization, we’ll look forward to hearing the question “Why not just use Facebook?” not quite so often.

Yes, we expect newsrooms will continue using Facebook for what it’s good at: distributing stories beyond a newsroom’s website, and allowing for conversations between the public. Meantime, we’ll stay focused on the kind of engagement that nets actionable insights, builds substantial relationships between individuals and their news outlets, creates searchable, exportable databases that news organizations own and manifests in real revenue for their work.

Facebook is not, never was, and likely never will be, designed for that.



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