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Summary:

The way that NPR uses its Facebook page to connect with listeners and build community around its content has a number of lessons for other media entities, including the fact that they should focus more on engaging with their users and less time worrying about ads.

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It’s not just iPad apps and paywalls that are confounding traditional media — there’s plenty of evidence that many don’t really get Facebook or Twitter much either, despite the fact that both have been around for years now, and there are plenty of examples of how to use them well. One of those examples is National Public Radio, which has over 1.4 million Facebook fans and recently talked about how it uses the social network to build its community of listeners as well as to do reporting.

NPR’s digital strategist, Andy Carvin, told an Online News Association event that the organization doesn’t look at its Facebook page as a place where it can push the news, but more as a place where listeners (and potential listeners) can talk with each other about things that interest them. The pieces that the broadcaster posts aren’t usually breaking news or even the top story; instead, Carvin says they are items that get picked based on the question: “Will our friends want to talk about this?” And they don’t just talk — the Facebook page also drives 4.5 million pageviews a month to the NPR website. And as the Nieman Journalism Lab notes, according to survey of its listeners that the broadcaster did last year:

Facebook fans are also some of NPR’s most devoted listeners, with 70 percent of them tuning into their local NPR station — and averaging 2 hours of NPR consumption a day. Fifty-five percent also visit NPR’s website on a regular basis.

Of course, NPR doesn’t have to rely on advertising, so you could argue that how it approaches Facebook is different from the way other traditional ad-supported media might, or should. But I don’t think that’s the case. What NPR is doing is building a community around its content — and not just by posting links that people can comment on or click “like” on, but by asking people to help shape stories as well. In other words, using social media as a tool for real interaction, not just for broadcasting a message (pun intended). And the result is more engaged readers/listeners, and more traffic to the broadcaster’s website — which matters just as much to NPR as a traditional media outlet, because the broadcaster relies on public donations and awareness.

It’s also worth noting that the public broadcaster doesn’t keep too tight a rein on its community, which some media outlets try to do. “We feel like it’s as much theirs as it is ours,” Carvin said at the ONA event. “If they want to swear like sailors, [they can]. We don’t block comments just because there’s swearing, or even if they’re being snarky.” NPR staffers delete offensive comments or hate speech, but criticism is fine. And here’s the best part: their Facebook fans often take care of the moderation themselves, by reporting obvious fake accounts or offensive comments. That’s one sign of a strong community (NPR also makes great use of its Tumblr blog and of YouTube).

One issue for media companies is that approaching things the way that NPR has means giving up the community aspect to Facebook, or at least some of it. Many readers will click through to NPR’s site, but others will not — they will click “like” or comment, but that’s all. For a media entity, this is going to feel like giving away the store. There are other issues as well: the social network is still a fairly walled garden in many ways, and it can change its terms of use quickly and with little warning. That could put a media company in a difficult spot, since Facebook is ultimately the one that controls what happens to that community and the interaction that takes place there.

That said, however, the reality is that media in the web era is a distributed thing, and that includes the community aspect. Conversations about your content are going to occur on Facebook because 600 million people use it, and they are going to occur on Twitter because 200 million people or so use that. If you want to build a relationship with your users — which is about the only thing you have left, since scarcity of information and control over the distribution channel is no longer working — then you have to be there too. And not just shoving ads or content at them, but talking to them.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Florian Boyd

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  1. I get your point but then what is the harm if people advertise with their community? It solves double purpose and gives them free publicity options at times.

  2. Great post, but the sad reality is Facebook will never allow true community interaction. Proof: No search.

    Go to any single person’s or company’s page, try to search for what is of interest to you – It’s impossible since there is no mechanical means to do so.

    But that’s “defective by design”, as they say, Facebook just wants to be the balskhole of the internet that sucks in all your data, use a pathetically primitive algorythium to read it and throw tacky ads against it – Thats it. Its what their IPO is based on.

    Ultimately, I tell companies to stay far away from “house of cards” that is Facebook because it go the way of Myspace, Friendster, etc. immediately after the IPO.

  3. I wonder if ubiquity of user communities will become commonplace even for B2B companies – which will then lead to (a) price transparency even in supposedly custom/complex business products (b) more adhoc but widely known quality assessments. If so, will this lead to lower margins and higher churn in the short run?

  4. Facebook Roundup: Goldman Sachs, Security, HTML5, MySpace, NPR, Cuba and Teens Friday, January 21, 2011

    [...] about how the organization’s 1.4 million fans communicate around Facebook. NPR’s main goal is building a community on Facebook, as opposed to just driving short-term clicks, which gives them success such as growing its click [...]

  5. Jay O’Conner Sunday, January 23, 2011

    I could not agree with you more about building communities around brandcasting not broadcasting content. What is missing is a business model to facilitate the Pulling of Content from Communities rather than the Pushing of Adverts in the form of Pre-Rolls or trying to duplicate broadcast television at the web. At WCN we are starting the dialog about product placement and technologies that allow for the return of information when asked by a single viewers click. Monetizing streaming video using social network may just be the way to accomplish the shift in paradigm in marketing and advertising companies providing direct to consumer access by viewer request. We all know how opt-in works, the next level is watching a music video or television show or film and buy anything seen on screen without commercial interruption nor disturbing the creative process. Then it might just work out that with Facebook’s Global Distribution of streaming video the 600 Million and counting will be better served with WCN Brandcasting Strategies and technologies rather than straight Ads.

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