Every month, brands within the company I work for, Trinity Mirror, publish the number of followers they have on Facebook and Twitter, along with unique browser data.
Every month, the data is picked up by the trade press, including sites such as Hold the Front Page, and reported in a straight-down-the-middle sort of way.
And every month, the same conversation begins in the comments section. “What’s the point of counting your Twitter followers” or “Where’s the money in Facebook likes?”
It’s a discussion which happens in newsrooms too, and the idea of counting followers and likes only really makes sense if you buy into the fact readers have a new sort of currency to bestow on you: Their endorsement.
We live in a world in which revenue follows endorsement. Where I live, people are as likely to turn to Streetlife or the local Facebook forum for advice on who to get to do their kitchen as they are to pick up the Yellow Pages or the local newspaper to find an advert.
That’s because they value the endorsement of someone they know – know in real life, know as in connected with via an online platform – highly. And the same is true of news.
In a world where anyone can technically be a publisher, news brands have to compete for attention like never before. Being a local publisher is a unique selling point, but it’s not enough to guarantee readers. You are far more likely to get readers if they feel you are giving them something which the appreciate or enjoy.
And that’s what makes a like or a follow such an important endorsement. If you can convince someone to like or follow your page on the site they spend a lot of time on, you are winning their endorsement to spend time with them.
On social networks, there are three ways to appear in someone’s timeline and have the opportunity to sell them your content. The first is to pay to be there. The second is to have a piece of content you’ve written shared by someone else – that’s an endorsement from one reader to his or her friends, but still relies on someone else building a connection between the new reader and your content.
The third is to have a relationship with that reader, on that platform, through a previous like or follow – an ongoing endorsement that the reader wants to see what you do in their timeline.
Options two and three are natural endorsements which open up the possibility of the reader then visiting your site, or the place where your content is natively hosted on that platform in the case of Facebook Instant Articles, and engaging with your content. It’s at that point the monetisation process which so vexes people concerned about what social media means for journalism can begin.
It’s also at that point that the fight to keep the reader with the brand they’ve chosen to read one article from begins. How good is the user experience on the site? How good is the content? How much effort has been put into making moving on to a related article effortless? All these things come into play once you have the attention of the reader.
So a like or follow doesn’t convert into pounds instantly. But it does make it far easier to engage with a reader in a way which enables brands to generate money.
That’s why time spent managing a Facebook page, for example, is time well spent. It’s time spent convincing people you have something worth saying that they want to listen, and that you’re (hopefully) listening back to what they’ve to say. It’s time spent preparing the ground for on-going endorsement, and it’s that endorsement which makes us stronger.
Our strength as journalists comes from having an audience, and algorithms of Facebook and others means we have to work to get that audience. A viral story is great for a short-term lift in page views, but endorsement will drive engagement, and engagement drives, and is derived from, a respect for a brand. That’s a powerful thing for journalists to have on their side.
Put simply, endorsement is an online currency which readers value. Journalism needs to value it just as much to ensure the other currency – the real-world currency – flows in our direction too.