Understanding Social Media's Audience Development Role
In a recent column in Folio, Stephen Saunders, managing director of marketing services company DeusM, makes the odd claim that, while it's legitimate for publishers to want to build a "bridgehead" on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, those sites represent the least valuable platform imaginable in terms of targeting audiences.
He writes, " ... in social networks like Twitter and Facebook ... the door is always open (welcome, Internet loonies!) and there are no restrictions on what you can post, regardless of how annoying or how vacuous, with the corollary that most of the content found therein is as valuable as an old tea bag, with audience demographics to match." Yet, Saunders is himself, as he freely admits in his column, a provider of marketing services to publishers on just these sites.
What's going on here? I think Saunders is trying to offer a cautionary tale to clients with ultra-high expectations of what Facebook and Twitter can do. This is understandable: with nearly 600 million users, Facebook seems like an indispensable means of reaching—well, everyone. But its very vastness (and, Saunders thinks, openness), means many who cast a line into that sea will indeed come up with nothing more than the proverbial boot (or tea bag). Better, he says, to develop one's own opt-in community of users, rather than piggybacking on someone else's.
While I agree with some of what he says, I think he makes the mistake of looking at social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook as a whole, rather than the value of specific communities within them. The success of the Flipboard app is built on the power of these networks to quickly drill down to what interests an individual via the power of friending and following; when someone in my network of friends recommends an article or fan site, I am more likely to trust that it's worth paying attention to. Some of my Facebook friends are pretty kooky, but I still value their opinion on stuff. They may be loonies, but they're MY loonies.
Publishers obviously do need to develop their own audience of registered users. IDG is a great example, with their IDG Connect network of IT resources. Still, no one who wants to reach beyond a core group of enthusiasts can neglect the mega-platforms—individual IDG brands such as Computerworld maintain a high profile on Facebook and Twitter, and peer-to-peer followings on Facebook are harnessed by enabling recommendations that link back to articles and white papers on IDG sites. (Read more about IDG's audience development efforts here.) Traffic on these sites leads directly to traffic on your own—and the monetization to follow, so long as you keep editorial standards high and, quoting Saunders again, "use that prime content to attract and register the cream of whatever industry you work in." On this last point, I 100 percent agree.