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February 10 2012

19:30

How NPR drove traffic to a local station by geotargeting stories on Facebook

NPR Facebook screen shot

Editor’s note: Our friends at NPR Digital Services, Eric Athas and Keith Hopper, wrote about an experiment of theirs using Facebook’s geotargeting features on the Digital Services blog. We thought their findings were interesting — geotargeting’s a tool not a lot of news organizations use — so they’ve kindly agreed to let us cross-post their story here.

NPR’s Facebook page and its 2.3 million-like audience is made up of users from thousands of cities across the world. We wondered: What if we focused on just one city?

The question arose after identifying a somewhat obscure Facebook feature that allows anyone with a Facebook page to customize posts by location. This means, for example, that you can post a story about Boston and modify it so that only users in Boston will see it in their Facebook feed.

Last October NPR Digital Services and Digital Media used this tool to launch an experiment with member station KPLU, in which we shared selected KPLU.org content on NPR’s Facebook page, but only for the eyes of the Seattle region (KPLU’s market). Four months into this experiment, we’ve made some unexpected discoveries around Facebook communities and the power of localization on a national platform.

How it works

From a technical standpoint, geofocusing page posts on Facebook is easy — just click the Public button next to Post prior to publishing. But before launching into this experiment — which is ongoing — we outlined how it would work, what it would look like and how we’d measure it.

The coffee shop test

We work with KPLU’s Online Managing Editor Jake Ellison each day to determine which KPLU.org story we’ll post. It must pass what we call the content coffee shop test: the conversation-style that NPR’s Social Media Desk has developed, mixed with a splash of local flavor. We want stories that will raise curiosity and be talked about in a Seattle coffee shop. Jake works with reporters to produce stories that will hit this sweet spot. If it does, Digital Services posts it to NPR’s Facebook page. If you live in the Seattle region and like NPR’s Facebook page, you may have noticed more Seattle-oriented stories from NPR, linking to KPLU.org. If you live outside of Seattle, this experiment hasn’t touched you.

Pacing

NPR’s Social Media Desk has a steady cadence — about every hour or so — for its Facebook posts. In a given day you may only see 10-12 NPR posts in your Facebook news feed. We don’t want to disrupt this pace and overflow Seattle users with too many stories, so we only post up to one KPLU story on NPR’s Facebook page per day.

Measurement

To our knowledge, no other news organization has used Facebook to geofocus content in quite this way. So before diving in we needed a way to closely measure the experiment. We wanted to know how this test would impact KPLU.org’s audience growth. For this we decided on campaign tracking — tacking a unique tag onto the end of each link we post. We also wanted to monitor engagement on Facebook to determine how users would interact with these local stories and whether or not the number of likes, shares and comments would differ from globally shared posts. For this we dug into Facebook Insights.

Audience growth

We knew posting a KPLU story to NPR’s Facebook page would result in a traffic bump to KPLU.org, even if only a small piece of the 2.3 million audience would see it. But we didn’t know how big of a boost this would give the site.

As it turns out, a big one. During the first four months of this experiment, we posted about 50 geofocused KPLU links — a fraction of all KPLU content — on NPR’s Facebook page. These posts accounted for 12 percent of KPLU.org’s sitewide visits during this four-month period. The test helped KPLU achieve three milestones: record traffic for a single day (January 19), second-highest traffic for a single month (October 2011) and the highest traffic for a single month (January).

High engagement

When a story is posted to NPR’s Facebook page the usual way (globally visible), the result is an instant flurry of likes, shares and comments from across the world. When a Seattle-targeted story is posted, it gets a high volume of likes, shares and comments, but usually fewer than a global post. This of course is because only a fraction of the NPR Facebook audience can actually see it.

Using data from Facebook Insights we were able to measure the relative engagement of stories, allowing for an apples-to-apples comparison. In other words, we looked at the number of likes, shares and comments on a Facebook post as a percentage of the number of unique people who viewed it. We call this a post’s engagement rate — of the people seeing it, how many likes, shares and comments are they generating.

We found that geofocused posts to the Seattle region usually had a much higher engagement rate than links shared to the global NPR Facebook audience.

For example, the KPLU story “Is Seattle a great but lonely place to live?” was posted to NPR’s Facebook page on January 6 to a geofocused Seattle audience. This story achieved relatively high levels of engagement compared to other local posts.

The NPR story “The Public Respects Civility, But Rewards Rudeness” achieved relatively high levels of engagement compared to other global posts and was posted to NPR’s Facebook page on January 26 to the entire global audience.

As is clear for these specific stories, the local post outperformed the global post in relative engagement across likes, shares and comments. After noticing this same trend for other individual posts, we wanted to know if this was the case more generally across local posts, so we rounded up the full body of posts and did the math. We found that during the first four months of this experiment, the average engagement rate across all geofocused post was six times higher than all global posts.

Throughout the course of this test we’ve had a lot of conversations about possible explanations for why this is happening. One concern we kept a lookout for was the possibility of confusion over where the content originated and where it linked to. However, steady growth in engagement throughout the experiment coupled with a lack of curious comments in the story threads seem to suggest that this is likely not a problem.

Community-driven conversations

Just a few days into this experiment, we noticed something different was happening. It was after we posted a KPLU story about Amanda Knox — a Seattle native — being flown back to her home town after Italian authorities freed her. The story focused on how SeaTac Airport was dealing with the media hysteria that would likely ensue.

Facebook screen grab

This story sparked the normal gut-reaction comments, but the users also reacted to how the story related to them — the Seattle resident. They began talking to one another, sharing information as local residents.

“Would have been a lot smarter to SAY they were flying into Sea-Tac, but instead, arrive in Portland and drive up I-5 to get home.”

“Glad I’m flying in tomorrow.”

“It’s kind of like when it snows here. Everyone freaks out over 3 inches, schools close, nobody can drive, and the east coast sits back laughing at us.”

We saw this trend continue throughout the experiment and develop as the content became more pointedly about Seattle. For example, one KPLU story tackled a question Seattleites know well: Why don’t people in Seattle use umbrellas?

Residents of New York, Boston, or D.C. wouldn’t have much to contribute to a conversation around this question — or even understand why the question was being posed. But Seattle users — the only ones who saw this post on NPR’s Facebook page — had a lot to say.

Facebook screen grab

“Because we spend more on rain gear than most people spend on computers.”

“It never rains hard enough to run makeup….you just get a misty glow. And umbrellas are for quitters ;)”

“Because it’s hard to open and close an umbrella with Coffee in your hand.”

What it all means

We’ve told you a lot about what we know from this experiment, but there are plenty of things we’re still investigating. We’re curious if this can be replicated in other markets and are exploring options for scaling it to more member stations. Some questions about this test will be answered when the experiment grows — something we’re looking to pursue. Although we’re still analyzing the results, we’re confident about the potential of this as a powerful journalism tool.

May 25 2011

14:50

Can Seattle Save the World? Project Argo Event Takes on Global Health

Last month, about 700 people packed an auditorium in Seattle, not for a Microsoft developer's conference, but to discuss whether the city's burgeoning global health movement can eradicate disease and poverty across the globe. It was a live forum sponsored by public radio station KPLU and its Project Argo blog, Humanosphere. The event was provocatively named, "Can Seattle Save the World? (Poverty, Health and Chocolate)."

Town-Hall-full-panel-sized.jpg

It's exactly the kind of event we had in mind when we began working with NPR member stations last year on Argo. We'd been hoping that the offline and online worlds could collide in a way that would lead to serious discussion around weighty topics.

"The idea of community engagement is always something we'd hoped for in a variety of ways," said Jennifer Strachan, assistant general manager and director of public media at KPLU. "Our struggle was, what kind of a topic could draw a crowd around global health?"

For those of us who are evangelists of digital storytelling or espouse certain philosophies at conferences that usually start with, "The future of" in it, this is another way to measure that elusive "engagement" metric we all talk about. Certainly, we can't ignore critical web analytics -- uniques, pageviews, comments. But when you fill a large venue at $10 a head, you've tapped into something important.

Humanosphere blog

KPLU's Humanosphere is one of 12 NPR Project Argo blogs, whose mission is to develop deep content in a niche vertical that's critical to a local community but resonates nationally.

The Seattle-based site draws modest traffic numbers, punctuated with spikes when writing of global health/poverty issues more broadly in the news (see Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" scandal).

But on this night, those who turned out to listen and ask questions acted as if they were going to see rock stars, Strachan said.

Tom Paulson, Humanosphere blogger and the evening's host, is most definitely an unlikely rock star. But he's been covering the growing movement in Seattle -- that goes far beyond the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- for years as a newspaper reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Paulson brought in experts from the Gates Foundation, the University of Washington, PATH and Theo Chocolates (hence the "and chocolate" in the title).

The event was live-blogged on Humanosphere, videotaped for Seattle's municipal cable TV channel, and tweeted via its own hashtag, #SEAsaves.

Engaging Young People

While Paulson said he's aware that influentials in the global health space like Humanosphere, he noted, "One thing that was confirmed for me is how big a deal this is for young people. A huge number of people in the crowd were college age or in their 20s. I was surprised at the sophistication of the questions, diversity of opinion, and the excitement for the subject matter."

So the question for Humanosphere is what practical effect the event will have on the blog itself going forward. The answer so far is that it has done little to increase traffic on the blog. Paulson admits the evening was long on policy and short on pitching the blog to this crowd, perhaps something he might do a bit more of next time. And yes, Paulson does expect there to be another live event in the fall.

But for KPLU, and its potential funders, the message on this night was there is an engaged community in Seattle willing to engage in a serious discussion about disease and poverty, and that public radio can be the impetus for that conversation.

As to whether Seattle can actually save the world, Paulson provided the answer to the gathering in the first five minutes. "We were kind of kidding around with the title. Obviously Seattle can't save the world. Bill Gates can't even probably save Zune."

September 09 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of public radio’s Argonauts

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Overnight, it seems, journalism has been transformed from a daily grind to an heroic quest. Rupert Murdoch has dubbed his adventure to get readers to pay for tablet (and other) content Alesia (after a Roman/Gauls battle) and now public radio formally launches Project Argo. Ah, journalists pursuing the golden fleece. Forget Woodstein — the pursuit of journalism itself is now an against-all-odds mythic trip against budget monsters and business model slayers.

If last year was the year of massive cutting, this is the year of new news creation popping up from unusual quarters. AOL’s Patch is probably the biggest hiring agent, with more than 400 new full-time jobs covering local communities. Sites like TBD.com and Bay Citizen are crafting new products and strategies and hiring dozens of journalists. Now Argo pushes forward, in a quest to stick a new flag of public media in terra incognita, and is hiring journalists in the process.

Argo is intended to bring a high level of attention to hot button topics, covered from a regional perspective. “We want to be the best means of authoritative coverage,” NPR Digital Media G.M. Kinsey Wilson told me recently. [We want] to be the top-of-mind choice for issues like immigration [now covered out of L.A. by KPCC with the Argo site Multi-American].”

Coverage is handled by the increasingly familiar reporter/blogger/curator, finding the most relevant coverage for readers. Largely providing a single new full-time position for each new site, “hosts” come from some impressive reporting backgrounds, like WBUR’s Carey Goldberg, former Boston bureau chief of The New York Times, and Rachel Zimmerman, former health and medicine reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Much of the content — and there’s an impressive amount at launch — is text, not audio.

At first, Argo seems hard to put in context. It’s public radio becoming public media becoming locally topical, but in ways that can inform more than local audiences — which we used to think of as public radio listeners, but who are now public media listeners and readers. Got that?

I’ve talked to a number of people in the emerging public media landscape — a fairly merry lot of Argonauts and other dragon slayers who see lots of upside — so let’s take a look at the emerging newsonomics of projects like Argo.

By the raw numbers, Argo is a $3 million investment. That’s not much by traditional journalism standards, but in this day and age, it wins headlines, like the minor economic development miracle of a new big-box store being covered on the Metro front. The money comes both from a foundation — the omnipresent Knight Foundation at $1 million — and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at $2 million.

That Knight funding reminds us of the good that’s still being done by the once dependable profits of newspaper companies, as Knight Ridder funding built one of the 25 foundations in the country, one that has been instrumental in seeding sprouts of the new new journalism.

That CPB funding reminds us that our tax dollars have been supporting news for more than four decades now, even as the debate rages abstractly on whether it’s a good idea to have “government” in the news business. NPR’s news effort — supported by members, philanthropists like Joan Kroc and yes, our tax dollars — makes a pretty good case that some government funding is a good idea, especially if we compare NPR radio news to what is elsewhere generally available in the growing desert of commercial radio news coverage.

Argo itself is 12 sites, produced by 14 public radio stations (two sites are jointly produced), each specializing in major topics like education, health, immigration, and ocean health, and exploring that topic regionally. Journalists are hired by individual public radio stations, each of which applied for the funding. The initial funding is intended to sustain the sites through the end of next year — and to provide “prototype products,” according to Wilson.

So that funding is one of the first things that tells us about the business of this effort. Like Silicon Valley startups, the effort is about building a product that seems to meet a clear audience need, building that audience — and then finding a sustainable business model. That’s what has built companies for decades in the valley, and it’s in contrast to how much of the journalism business has long gotten funded.

Looking under the covers, though, here are three more things to watch about the emerging economic model underneath Argo:

  • It’s local and vertical. In the conundrum that the web has been for newsies, publishers often felt compelled to choose “local” or “vertical,” the fancy term for topical. Of course, readers’ concerns encompass both, and an education site that focuses on local education (such as Minnesota Public Radio’s Argo site On Campus) creates double value and may multiply audience. Even though, it’s “local,” just as WBUR’s CommonHealth, it will find national audiences as well.
  • It’s built for networking. Public radio used to a fairly one-way street, with national NPR and then Public Radio International and American Public Radio essentially licensing or syndicating shows to local stations, of which there are more than 250. Now built on increasingly flexible technologies like NPR’s emerging API and PRX’s exchange, local stations can increasingly both syndicate their own work, Argo-funded and other, to each other — and pick up other stations’ work more easily. In a sense, we see an alternative wire in creation, especially as the Public Media Platform goes forward.
  • It builds on public radio stations’ local news push. A number of stations represented in Argo have also begun building out their local/regional/statewide news presences. KQED, in the Bay Area, which is launching MindShift through Argo, just hired eight new news staffers as it launched KQEDNews.org (Good piece by MediaShift’s Katie Donnelly on the initiative and its context.) So in KQED’s case, as in WBUR’s, KPCC in L.A.’s, and Oregon Public Broadcasting’s, the topical initiative receives more play due to the expanded news reach — and the expanded news reach gets more public notice because of the new topical coverage.

Each of those factors are multipliers, multipliers of public radio’s emerging digital news business. They multiply audience. They multiple the ability to get members and membership income. They multiply sponsorship opportunities, the “advertising” of public radio. That’s on the business level. On the journalism level, public radio’s news values — the closest to newspaper’s traditional ones — get to flex their muscles, another early test of just how far public media wants to go in filling the yawning local news vacuum.

August 25 2010

16:45

NPR’s Argo Project becomes the Argo Network, mixing the local and the national on reported blogs

NPR’s Argo Project (or Project Argo — it seems to vary) is starting to take shape — launch is set for one week from today, September 1. Argo is the network’s $3 million effort (with Knight and CPB money) to ramp up the online presence and reporting capacity of member stations by building a network of reported blogs grounded in topics of both national and local interest. As project director Joel Sucherman puts it, describing the now-christened Argo Network:

Each Argo site is run by a different member station, but all of them cover news that resonates nationally. While KPLU’s ‘Humanosphere’ covers the development of a burgeoning global health industry in Seattle, for example, it will also be a worthy bookmark for anyone interested in the worldwide mission to end poverty and improve health.

The sites promote each other, as in this box of “Network Highlights” that appears on article pages. It’s that network functionality that’s one of the most interesting things about Argo; NPR is made up of its member stations, and there’s long been tension between the growth of the national organization and the health of the individual stations who comprise its membership and rely on the network for much of their programming. For the mothership to be supporting local programming — even if just on the web — could smooth over what has at times been a contentious relationship. But it also raises challenges of how to make sure the content is useful to both a local and a national audience.

We’ve got the full list of Argo sites below — go check them out. Some have already softlaunched and look to be in full flower, while others are still on the Argo staging server. NPR officials declined to talk for this post, saying they’re not quite ready.

Name: On Campus, based at Minnesota Public Radio
Blogger: Alex Friedrich
Tagline: Everything higher education in Minnesota.

Name: Ecotrope, based at Oregon Public Broadcasting
Blogger: Cassandra Profita
Tagline: Covering the Northwest’s environment.

Name: Multi-American, based at Southern California Public Radio
Blogger: Leslie Berestein Rojas
Tagline: Immigration and cultural fusion in the new Southern California.

Name: Humanosphere, based at KPLU (Seattle)
Blogger: Tom Paulson
Tagline: Covering the fight to reduce poverty and improve global health.

Name: The Informant, based at KALW (San Francisco)
Blogger: Rina Palta and Ali Winston
Tagline: Cops, courts and communities in the Bay Area.

Name: The Empire, based at WNYC (New York)
Blogger: Azi Paybarah
Tagline: Everything you need to know about New York state politics and governance.

Name: The Key, based at WXPN (Philadelphia)
Blogger: Bruce Warren and Matthew Borlik
Tagline: Discover Philly’s best local music.

Name: MindShift, based at KQED (San Francisco)
Blogger: Tina Barseghian
Tagline: How we will learn.

Name: Home Post, based at KPBS (San Diego)
Blogger: Jamie Reno
Tagline: The military in San Diego.

Name: DCentric, based at WAMU (Washington)
Blogger: Anna John
Tagline: Gentrification w/o representation.

Name: CommonHealth, based at WBUR (Boston)
Blogger: Carey Goldberg and Rachel Zimmerman
Tagline: Where reform meets reality [in health care].
[Note: Still hosted on beta server.]

Name: Climatide, based at WGBH (Boston)
Blogger: Heather Goldstone
Tagline: Oceans, coasts, and climate change on Cape Cod.
[Note: Still hosted on beta server.]

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