Social Sharing Does Help Build Loyal Audiences Online

June 20, 2016

Written by NewsWhip
Social Signals

Do people always read what they share? For publishers and marketers serious about building their audience, they should look to their own metrics to get their own audience’s take. 

A Washington Post headline grabbed our attention over the weekend: ‘6 in 10 of you will share this link without reading it, a new, depressing study finds‘.
Yes, it was referred by a friend on social media. And yes, we read it all.
By now, these kind of headlines provoke a sense of déjà vu, and it’s easy for media folks to feel aggrieved by these reports, which seem to pop up with the unwelcome consistency of Mondays.
There goes the faceless digital audience again, ruining quality discourse for the rest of us. Here’s why digital media is in freefall and we can’t have nice things like good journalism and cat-free homepages.
But for successful digital publishers, the (very well researched) findings aren’t as traumatic as they might appear.
Firstly, this particular study wasn’t all about all platforms, just Twitter (the study itself is titled ‘Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Read on Twitter?‘). While Twitter is a major platform where vast numbers of articles are shared and consumed every day, the platform alone does not qualify as all ‘social media’.
We’ve seen lots of data to show that the type of content that gets shared on Twitter is much different to what gets shared on other platforms. There, we see hard, breaking news stories quickly pick up multiple retweets very quickly. The Twitter accounts that achieve the most engagement on the platform are the well-known, trusted news sources – BBC Breaking News, the New York Times, Reuters and others.
In many cases, people see a breaking news headline from one of these trusted sources, and retweet to share the information. A well-written headline is enough information. In fact, adhering to the best practices of traditional sub-editing, they do their job perfectly, telling the reader the news as succinctly as possible.
To illustrate that let’s take a look at some of the headlines of the most tweeted stories of the last 30 days:
– ‘Mourinho appointed United Manager‘ (Man Utd)
– ‘Police: 50 killed in Orlando attack‘ (CNN)
– ‘Muhammad Ali, ‘The Greatest of All Time’, Dead at 74‘ (NBC).
All fairly self-explanatory, right?
People retweet these stories all the time without clicking, especially on mobile, where clicking through to an external site on a patchy connection can be an infuriating experience.
Meanwhile, on Facebook, we see engagement with all kinds of stories. Especially popular are cause-driven stories, op-eds and strong investigative journalism stories, like BuzzFeed News’s investigations into FBI spy planes and match-fixing in tennis, both of which attracted thousands of engagements on social media. These stories are presented well for social media, and their readers are largely passing them on to their network as a recommendation of quality.

Your own audience is your most important feedback loop

But publishers also need to carefully balance these findings against their own experiences and analytics. By making inferences from studies of the internet as a whole, rather than contrasting it with their own internal analytics, publishers are in danger of losing sight of the most important feedback loop available to them: their own audience.
Assuming that the actions of the ‘readers’ of low quality, deliberately misleading sites match your own is not wise. If you’re making a genuine connection with your readers, you’ll know how much social engagement can contribute to driving traffic, attracting new readers, and even building subscriptions.
In a fragmented market, no two sites are completely alike. In an analysis of the Guardian’s output on social media, we found that their Education and Environment coverage (as well as book reviews) attracted the highest average engagement rates on Facebook. For the New York Times, it was their opinion pieces and health coverage.
Smart publishers understand that trying to build an audience online without social media is nigh on impossible. Where else are potential readers online going to come to your site and subscribe?
At the GEN Summit in Vienna last week, Condé Nast International Digital Officer Wolfgang Blau pointed out the difficulties that publishers would face in building a digital audience online without social media. Without social distribution and organic sharing, directing readers to your site gets a whole lot more difficult.

The Reuters Digital News Report 2016, released last week, showed that 44% of respondents in the 26 countries surveyed now use Facebook to get their news.
To make meaningful connections with their audience, publishers seeing high engagement but low click-throughs must ask; why is it that readers aren’t reading their stories? Could it have anything to do with badly optimised reading experiences, disingenuously presented content, or poor brand loyalty?
As with the ad-blocking phenomenon, many will find that the answer lies a lot closer to home than they may think.
A narrative of a mindless, unthinking audience, happy to share false stories, does exists online. It’s a familiar arguing point for those who feel uncomfortable with the platform that social media provides a previously mute audience.
But it should not be the narrative that publishers, marketers, or anyone else with an interest in seriously building their brand online is focussing on.

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