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February 03 2012

16:30

Pew data: Facebook has room for passives as well as actives

If it’s so much better to give than receive, why are some Facebook users sitting on their hands?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new report today that suggests Facebook users are not a uniformly active bunch. According to the study, the typical Facebook user gets more friend requests than she sends, is tagged in photos more than she tags, and has posts Liked more often than she Likes herself.

But wait — shouldn’t it all even out? After all, every friend request has a requester and a requestee. If a typical user is skews passive on Facebook, where’s all the action coming from?

The answer: a collection of “power users” who, according to the report, are becoming specialists of a sort. You know that friend who only posts tons of photos, or the one who goes on a Liking spree, or the one who seems to rack up an inordinate amount of friends? Yup, they’re doing the work for the rest of us. Even on a flat platform, behavior still moves toward a division of labor:

A proportion of Facebook participants — ranging between 20% and 30% of users depending on the type of activity — were power users who performed these same activities at a much higher rate; daily or more than weekly.

Essentially, in the funny parlance you could only get in a report about Facebook: “People are liked more than they like.” Some data:

Facebook users in our sample on average contributed about four comments for every status update that they made. On average, users make nine status updates per month and contribute 21 comments. Some 33% of Facebook users here updated their status at least once per week. Still, half of our sample made no status updates in the month of our analysis.

Discussion of social media circles around the word “engagement” — but even for many users of social networks, the experience is more about taking-it-all-in than about response and conversation. For a news industry with a long history of one-way communication, that might be a little…comforting? Facebook’s value, at least to media and other companies looking to tap into audiences, is that it’s a super-broad platform built for content and transactional activity. A link is posted; it’s rewarded with a like. A question is asked; it elicits comments. The Pew survey paints a picture where that action is less than reliable:

A third of our sample (33%) used the like button at least once per week during this month, and 37% had content they contributed liked by a friend at least once per week. However, the majority of Facebook users neither liked content, nor was their content liked by others, in our month of observation.

If Facebook activity disproportionately relies on a subset of power users with busy hands, that’s an opening for news outlets or individual journalists to fill that need. The conversation is far more distributed than it was pre-Internet, but it’s still not evenly distributed.

Pew says that Facebook comment-leaving is a bit more reciprocal than some other kinds of Facebook behavior:

More than half our sample (55%) commented on a friend’s content at least once in the month, and 51% received comments from a friend. A large segment of users, a little over 20%, contributed or received a comment every day. The average of 21 comments given on friends’ content was nearly identical to the average of 20 that were received. Again, there are some extreme users as well, about 5% of our sample contributed and received over 100 comments in the month of our observation.

Pew’s data is based on a sample of 269 Facebook users, initially identified through a random phone survey, but who then allowed Pew to track their trails on the site. While its findings may give a (slight) challenge to the idea that Facebook is a heavily engaged network where everyone’s sharing all the time, the report still found big, enticing numbers for any publishing looking to reach a big audience: The median user in their sample is within two degrees of separation (friends of friends) of 31,170 people on Facebook. (For one uber-connected user, that number was 7,821,772.) We already know Facebook is growing as a top referrer to many news sites, so what’s clear from this report is that they need to keep it up. If power users are the straw that stirs the drink on Facebook, then it’s more important than ever journalists and media companies play an active role.

Meh button by Ken Murphy used under a Creative Commons license.

March 08 2011

23:00

Something to “Like”? Facebook offers real-time analytics

Facebook just launched a round of updates to Insights, its analytics tool for sites that feature its social networking plugins. The updates include a bunch of useful improvements — you can now measure impressions, Comments Box analytics, and Like button clickthrough rates (yep, that’s a thing now!) — but the most significant (and potentially quite awesome) of the updates is the addition of real-time analytics capabilities when it comes to measuring Facebook interaction. Think Chartbeat for social engagement.

Think also, though, Google Analytics for social engagement. Facebook has been expanding its role when it comes to its relationship with publishers — not only through its broad Facebook + Media efforts, but also through an array of new plugins designed to help news sites better understand (and, then, interact with) their readership. And the Insights updates, via aggregate (and anonymized) usage stats, provide data not just about traffic, but also about user demographics. It’s not just about how many people are liking (and, you know, Liking) your stuff; it’s about who’s liking it — according to age range, gender, location, and language. Knowing all those demographics — some of which Google Analytics can’t provide — gives publishers the option of targeting their content (and with it, perhaps, their advertising) to specific user groups. And, given the real-time data, during specific times of the day.

The revamped Insights tool is, essentially, an invitation to publishers to experiment with how they present their content and, with it, their Facebook-integrated features. Is a Like button more effective at the top of stories, or below them? Or both? Do the majority of shares come organically — through cut-and-pasted links — or via plugins? (Yep, the updated Insights tool measures that, too.) Those small data points can make a big difference as far as traffic — and, obviously, user engagement — is concerned. Same deal from the Share/Like/Recommend perspective: Are your readers more inclined to distribute your content when it’s framed with a “Like” button, or a “Recommend”? Once you know, you can design accordingly. We use Insights to track Facebook engagement here at the Lab; it’ll be interesting to see what it will reveal.

February 28 2011

15:00

“Like,” “share,” and “recommend”: How the warring verbs of social media will influence the news’ future

It appears that Facebook has settled on a central metaphor for the behavior of its 600 million users.

See an interesting article? Want your friends to see it too? Facebook’s offered up two primary verbs to bring action to that formless desire: “Share” and “Like.”

But the writing’s been on the wall for “Share” for some time. Facebook seemed to abandon development on “Share” in the fall. And on Sunday, Mashable reported that the remaining functionality of “Share” is being moved over to the much more popular “Like” button. (Clicking “Like” on a webpage will now post a thumbnail and excerpt of it on your Facebook wall, just as “Share” used to do. The old “Like” behavior made the links less prominent. It’s actually a pretty big deal that will likely lead to stories spreading more readily through Facebook.)

But I’m less interested in the details of the implementation than the verbs: sharing (tonally neutral, but explicitly social) has clearly lost to liking (with its ring of a personal endorsement).

There’s actually a third verb, “Recommend.” Unlike “Share,” it’s not its own separate action within FacebookWorld; it’s just “Like” renamed, with a less forceful endorsement. But it lives deep in the shadow of “Like” everywhere — except on traditional news sites, which have tended to stay far away from “Like.” I just did a quick scan of some of the web’s most popular news sites to see what metaphor they use to integrate with Facebook on their story pages.

“Share”: Los Angeles Times, ProPublica, Talking Points Memo, Reuters, ESPN, The Guardian.

“Recommend”: MSNBC, CNN, New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post, Globe and Mail, Le Monde, El Pais, Newsweek, Telegraph, CBC.

“Like”: Gawker, Politico, Slate, Wired, Time, Wall Street Journal.

Both “Like” and “Share”: Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune.

Now, that’s an unscientific sampling. And, among those who use “Share,” some might have preferred the different functionality (although that difference has now disappeared). But looking at those names, it seems to me that many more traditional news organizations are uncomfortable with the “Like” metaphor that has become the lingua franca of online sharing. The “Likers” are more likely to be Internet-era creations; news orgs that existed 30 years ago tend toward the more neutral choices. (With a few exceptions.)

And that’s understandable: Newsroom culture has long been allergic to explicitly connecting the production of journalism and the expression of a reader’s endorsement. (Just the facts, ma’am!) And “Like” is awkward. When I click a button next to a story, does that mean I like the fact that “Tunisian Prime Minister Resigns,” or that I like the storyTunisian Prime Minister Resigns“? But there’s no doubting the appeal of “Like,” which feels like a vote when “Share” mostly feels like work.

Facebook hasn’t announced that “Share” buttons will stop working any time soon, and there’s always “Recommend” sitting there as a milquetoast alternative for the emotion-squeamish. (Although technically “Recommend” presents most the same problems as “Like” — it can still be read as a fuzzy endorsement.) But there’s a bigger issue here, as news organizations — many of them traditional bringers of bad news — have to adjust to an online ecosystem that privileges emotion, particularly positive emotion.

Emotion = distribution

I can tell you, anecdotally, that for our Twitter feed, @niemanlab, one of the best predictors of how much a tweet will get retweeted is the degree to which it expresses positive emotion. If we tweet with wonderment and excitement (“Wow, this new WordPress levitation plugin is amazing!”), it’ll get more clicks and more retweets than it we play it straight (“New WordPress plugin allows user levitation”).

For harder data, check out some work done by Anatoliy Gruzd and colleagues at Dalhousie University, presented at a conference last month. Their study looked at a sample of 46,000 tweets during the Vancouver Winter Olympics and judged them on whether they expressed a positive, negative, or neutral emotion. They found that positive tweets were retweeted an average of 6.6 times, versus 2.6 times for negative tweets and 2.2 times for neutral ones. That’s two and a half times as many acts of sharing for positive tweets. (Slide deck here.)

Facebook’s own internal data, looking at major news sites’ presence within Facebook, found that “provocative” or “passionate” stories generated two to three times the engagement of other stories.

Or take the Penn study by Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman of The New York Times’ most emailed list. It found that “positive content is more viral than negative content,” but noted that it’s actually as much about arousal (speaking emotionally, not sexually) as anything. Content that you can imagine someone emailing with either “Awesome!” or “WTF?” in the subject line gets spread.

Social media as the new SEO

Here’s the thing: The way that news gets reported and presented is influenced by economic incentives. When publishers realized that Google search traffic was a big driver of traffic, you saw punny headlines swapped for clots of “keyword-dense” verbiage and silly repetitive tag clouds — all trying to capture a little bit more attention from Google’s algorithm and, with it, a little more ad revenue.

But I believe we’ll soon be at a point where social media is a more important driver of traffic than search for many news organizations. (It certainly already is for us.) And those social media visitors are already, I’d argue, more useful than search visitors because they’re less likely to be one-time fly-by readers. As people continue to spend outrageous amounts of time on Facebook (49 billion minutes in December), as Twitter continues to grow, as new tools come along, we’ll see more and more people get comfortable with the idea that their primary filter for news will be what gets shared by their friends or networks.

And that means a phrase like social media optimization will mean more than just slapping sharing buttons on your stories and telling your reporters to check in on Twitter twice a day. It’ll also mean changing, in subtle ways, the kinds of content being produced to encourage sharing. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing — just that it’s the natural outcome of the economic incentives at play.

Does that just mean more listicles? Maybe. But I’d argue that, on the whole, figuring out how to make people want to share your work with their friends generates a healthier set of incentives than figuring out how to manipulate Google’s algorithm. Providing pleasure — pleasure that someone wants to share — is not an inappropriate goal. And when you broaden out beyond “positive emotions” to the idea of driving arousal or stimulation — positive or negative — the idea starts to fall a little more neatly into what news organizations consider their job to be.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that news orgs should become engines of happy stories or only focus on the most outrageous or enticing news. Their mission can’t be channeled exclusively in that direction. I don’t know what it will look like for a quality news organization to focus on making more sharable journalism; it’ll be up to the very smart people who work at them to figure out how to do that while defending their brand identities. But I do know that the role of social media is going to keep increasing, and with it will come increased economic pressures to maximize for it. They may not “Like” or “Recommend” it, but I suspect it’s a fate they’ll all, er, “Share.”

July 27 2010

13:45

Facebook launches a “Facebook + Media” page

Last night, Facebook unveiled a project that it’s had in the works for a while: a media page devoted to journalists, developers, and other “media partners.” Facebook + Media is dedicated, it says, to “helping news, TV, video, sports, and music partners use Facebook” — in particular, by helping them “learn about best practices and tools to help…drive referral traffic, increase engagement, and deepen user insights.”

The page offers data, for example, into how users engage with news content shared on Facebook — think of it as the social sister to Google Analytics. For example, per a note we received from a Facebook spokesperson, and based on a study of the 100 top media sites integrated with the network’s social plugins:

- Stories published in the early morning or late evening showed higher engagement

- Websites experienced 3-5x greater click-through rates on the Like button when they included thumbnail photos of a user’s friends, enabled users to add comments (which 70% of top performing sites did), and placed the Like button at the top and bottom of articles and near visually exciting content like videos and graphics Sites that place Facebook social plugins above the fold and on multiple webpages receive more engagement. For example, sites that placed the Activity Feed plugin on the front and content pages received 2-10x more clicks per user than sites with the plugins on the front page alone.

- Sites have used the Live Stream box to boost engagement with live video content. During the World Cup, there were over 1.5 million status updates through the Live Stream box on media websites such as Univision, TF1, ESPN, Cuatro, RTVE, and Telecinco.

Whatever your current engagement with Facebook, and whether your particular news organization is staffed by 1,000 employees or one, the findings are worth attention. Here’s some more information on the data and how it was assembled.

As far as Facebook itself is concerned, the new page seems devoted not just to data on traffic and interactivity and the like, but also to avoiding the trap that Google has found itself in and is now trying to rectify: an uncomfortable kind of awkward often oppositional relationship with news organizations. News outlets and social news platforms — or, more clinically, content providers and content distributors — used to be an us-and-them proposition. Now, though, we’re coming to a point where “social news” is not only common, but a redundancy. How could the news, we increasingly assume, be anything but social in nature?

It may have PR overtones; still, Facebook + Media is an indication of the collapse of the wall that used to divide content and delivery platform. As Facebook Development team lead Justin Osofsky — who oversees the company’s media partnerships, and who (with fellow Facebooker Matt Kelly) was on hand at a San Francisco Hacks/Hackers event last night — put it: Facebook is trying to enter into dialogue with journalism organizations. And the media page is “the first cut to start the discussion.”

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