#newsrw: Does social media prove that big isn’t beautiful?

One of the (many) things which journalists appear to have taken with them into the online world is the notion that big is beautiful. I suspect this is perhaps to be expected, given that for as long as anyone can remember, we’ve obsessed about the size of audience, be it readers and circulation, or viewers and listeners.

And, at first, online it was all about page impressions (0r the incredibly vague term ‘hits’) before unique users became a more popular metric. There’s a growing amount of support for pages per user too, or time spent on site. But for all of these terms, bigger appears to better.

In social media terms, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people get excited about the number of followers or friends they’ve got. Which is great – if they have been found in the right way.

We’ve all seen the web services which offer to deliver you thousands of friends or followers overnight. What did surprise me at News:rewired today was the suggestion that people do pay for these services. Seriously.  Surely the myth of being able to buy an audience died a very long time ago. Sure, you can buy them in for a bit but they’ll soon move on again.

This point was made by Vikki Chowney, editor of Reputation Online, in a session about building online buzz around a project or brand.

She said there ‘were no shortcuts to online buzz’ and that if you do and try to pay for a community, the quality of that community is poor. Trawl through the followers or friends of any news organisation which has a high number of either and you’ll find a lot of spammy accounts. That’s a fact of life, there’s little point blocking them. But to have paid to get them to follow/befriend you in the first place?

In short, social media success requires work. It needs to be promoted, and you need to seek out a suitable audience for what you do. (Here’s my post on getting going on Twitter). Perhaps part of the problem of an instant form of communication is that you expect instant success.

For niche or specialist publications and writers, this is good news – it’s easier to find people who share your interests than ever before. But it’s not bad news for the traditional, cover-all-bases brands either. Chowney argued that good content will attract a community online.

The challenge appears to be making sure that the groups interested in the different content have different places to find that content. As Marc Reeves, former editor of the Birmingham Post said later, the mistake many newspapers made is treating their audience all as one. Online, this isn’t a problem. Yes, the content is all in one place, but the opportunities for building niche communities around it is infinite.

In social media, I’d argue big isn’t always beautiful. Or maybe it’s just the old quality v quantity argument turned on its head.

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