Social media expands audience

Published 1:18 am Saturday, September 4, 2010

For the past week, we’ve had a contest going in the office of The Star-News.

Ruck Ashworth and Jeff Moore were challenged by their co-workers to see who could collect the most Facebook friends in a week.

When we first began talking about this challenge, Jeff had five “friends” on the popular social networking site. Ruck didn’t even have a Facebook page. Jeff is an Auburn guy. Ruck’s a passionate ‘Bama fan. Collectively, we are only slightly more crimson than orange and blue, so we knew this could be fun.

The contest was born of a staff discussion about how to answer people who ask us if the Web is really hurting our business.

The simple answer is, “No. Actually, it’s helping us.”

For years, newspapers delivered only in print, and we talked about circulation. We counted the number of papers our subscribers ordered and the number of papers purchased from our racks, did some simple arithmetic and had a number.

Now, we use multiple tools to deliver the news and the math is a bit more complicated.

Yes, we produce a print edition five days a week. Yes, we post that news to our Web site. But we also put the headlines into an email that’s delivered at 5 a.m. on our publication days. And we use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to help deliver the news in the format some readers want it.

For some Facebook friends and Twitter followers, a headline is enough. Others are enticed by headlines to click onto our Web site for more information. And suddenly, we’re measuring our readers not in terms of circulation, but as a collective audience.

Is the Internet hurting us? Consider this.

Our average daily circulation is 500 fewer than it was in October of 2001. But when we add the average daily unique viewers who visit our Web site, we actually are “delivering” to twice as many people.

In July of this year, there were 553,381 page views on our Web site. We put the headlines into the “in” boxes of about 1,000 people each morning, and 1,783 people follow us on Facebook.

So what does any of this have to do with this week’s contest?

What we’re learning is that all of us have to be conscious of all of the ways people look to us for news. Since social networking has become a key element of that communication, it was important for each of us to be “plugged in” and be able to use the medium to deliver our messages.

Ruck, with aide from his wife and another co-worker, led the contest most of the week. But when he slipped out of the office Friday to get ready for the first Saturday of college football – apparently there is some routine over in Bellwood that borders on the religious – Jeff got to work and sent out a call to the AU faithful. There were rumblings about a certain sorority on the Plains coming to his aid. Nonetheless, he pulled ahead, and when the contest ended at 5 Friday afternoon, he had 361 friends to Ruck’s 307.

Besides bragging rights, what did he win? Hmmm, probably something orange and blue if I can bring myself to make that purchase. And we all got a good lesson on the power of social media.