700k Reasons Why NY Times Has An RSS Feed, Not A Facebook Page

The following is a guest post from John Boitnott.  John is a technology writer and social media consultant who has worked at Village Voice Media and NBC. Before that he held several positions at various TV newsrooms in the state of California. He’s been a journalist for 16 years and was one of the first social media strategists to be employed full time by an American media company to drive page views to its Web sites. He currently works with several companies to polish their online presence and bring people to their pages.  Be sure to follow John on Twitter.

The number stops them in their tracks every time. When I tell people that the New York Times has more than 700,000 fans of their Facebook page, they say something like, “They have THAT MANY?” Yes they do.

There’s a whole lot of hullabaloo these days in the social media world about Facebook fan pages – and with good reason. So many employees are being asked to start them or continue the work they’ve been doing with them. Most everyone adjusts their strategy for updating their fan page on an ongoing basis or tries out new strategies periodically. Some people follow simple, generic rules according to frequency, size and type of update. Others do whatever the heck they want whenever they want to. The New York Times would be the latter.

As a social media manager for a newspaper company it was important to me to establish simple rules that could be replicated across all the company’s papers. We went for a smaller amount of Facebook updates during the day. We chose, in general, shorter, snappier introductions to links in the updates. We also made sure to include updates that didn’t bother to include links. Often, we chose to ask questions such as: “Did you feel that?,” (if there was an earthquake) or “How was your weekend? Give us the dirt.” My idea behind the “personalization” here was to engage people, build community and increase number of followers. In general it worked. The stats pointed to that. However, when the community comes naturally and is extremely large, you can break all these rules. The New York Times is the perfect example of this.

Why the Times Gets to be Different:

The New York Times has more than 704,000 people who have “liked” its fan page, and the number is growing very quickly. The LA Times has roughly 15k while the USA Today has only about 23k. Hundreds of people click on the “like” button below NYT updates. Routinely, their updates receive dozens and dozens if not hundreds of comments. For anyone who has worked at a smaller publication, these are dream-like, stratospheric numbers. I got more than a few comments from my web editors saying they experienced frustration when they examined the Times’ page. It’s tough to slave away, slowly grabbing a few clusters of followers, while massive publications attract them with what seems like little effort. What’s worse, the Times does this, while breaking the rules that smaller publications often follow for fear of losing followers.

Rule #1 Broken

Rule number one for smaller publications is don’t update your status too many times a day. Not everyone on Facebook has a massive number of followers. Someone who has say, 73 friends, may find it annoying to have one news organization dominate their wall with too many updates. What are the consequences of appearing “spammy” to people because of too many updates? That little “hide” button that appears next to an update. When people click it, it gives the the option of hiding all of your organization’s updates. That’s of course the last thing you need.

The New York Times doesn’t have to follow this rule. They operate with what seems like impunity, one day updating more than 12 times. Heck you don’t have to follow the rule either. But a smaller publication should consider being much more choosy, with only five or six updates. Why? It’s OK to dominate peoples’ walls when you are the New York Times. It doesn’t go over as well when your publication doesn’t carry the same reputation or weight.

Rule #2 Broken

I always told my editors to get personal on their pages. “Get their attention, link to a variety of places. You don’t even have to link to your paper all the time. You can link to friendly sites. You can link to the company Flickr account. You don’t even have to link out each time. Just starting a conversation is a great way to get followers to view you with trust because they feel as though they know you better.”

The New York Times doesn’t need to get personal, although they have started recently to sometimes try this. Overall, its Facebook page operates as a kind of elaborate RSS feed for its stories. The majority of the updates include two things; an introduction and a link. It matters not. Are these updates written well? Of course. Is the format a bit on the bland side? Yep. Do I like to answer my own questions? Apparently. Sure editors ask questions in their updates at times, but they often don’t appear to interact with the responses.

I believe that a fan page should be more than an RSS Feed for a publication. It should contribute to the collapse of journalism’s “ivory tower.” It should give people a chance to interact with the journalists who wrote the stories. It should perhaps even give people insight into how journalism works. You can make arguments advocating different stances and I understand. “With 700,000 fans, it’s OK if the Times sticks to more of a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach.” You know what? You’re right about that. But the rest of us can’t replicate the Times, and we do at our peril. We have to learn from what the Times CAN do. Smaller publications, which work their butts off to maintain their Facebook community, had better avoid an overbearing, impersonal approach. It could mean a loss of connection to the fans who enjoy personality and perhaps even fun with their information.