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Fifth in a five-part series based on 50 interviews with journalists at four U.S. metro newspapers on how they are embracing the innovation of Twitter

On Sunday mornings, bargain hunters can sign on to Twitter to see #TBTimesDeals, a shopping list of bargains found inside that day’s Tampa Bay Times. Consumers routinely find everything from $10 off Target groceries to free french fries at Checkers Drive-In Restaurants.

By tweeting out the deals — sometimes more than $700 in coupons in a single day’s newspaper — the Times has seen how Twitter pays off. “We pepper the market with these” tweets, said Joe DeLuca, publisher of the Times’ website. Single-copy newspaper sales take off when the deals go out on Twitter. “We easily see a lift of 2 to 7 percent” in sales “as a result of this,” DeLuca said. “That’s huge … and we’re not writing a check to someone running a commercial on the radio.”

Twitter has proved to be a valuable tool for journalists searching for information, but turning social media efforts into real revenues is still elusive for most newspapers. Nonetheless, publishers and owners are willing to invest the time and experiment because they see progress and longer-term payoffs. Twitter is popular among a younger demographic, which is harder to attract to newspapers. Getting them to engage with the paper’s website can translate into higher ad rates because more eyeballs mean more sales.

“Twitter extends our reach to a demographic that doesn’t subscribe to the newspaper,” said David Duitch, editor of Dallasnews.com at The Dallas Morning News. “It’s an opportunity to socialize with potential consumers of our products. It also gives us a chance to act as curators of content that’s not necessarily our own.”

The Times’ DeLuca views it as a key to survival: “We’ve got to use Twitter and the next thing after that to engage with our audience. When the next generation is ready to consume local news, we’ll be ready to hand it to them.”

Editors interviewed at the four papers — the Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitutionand The Denver Post — have seen evidence that Twitter, along with Facebook, are driving more people to their websites. But it is difficult to make complete comparisons among the four papers, as editors are skittish about sharing details. Each newspaper offered a different snapshot of results, either year over year, or three months of results. The Dallas editor declined to share specific numbers. Overall, Facebook appears to be still driving more traffic to websites, but Twitter is catching up and growing at an exponential rate.

The Tampa Bay Times was the only newspaper willing to share specifics on their traffic. At the Times, social media accounted for more than 7.1 million referrals to its website, tampabay.com, in 2013, an increase of 50 percent from 2012, according to the Times year-end report on social media traffic. Of that total, Facebook accounted for 3.2 million of those referrals, up 47 percent from the year earlier. Twitter referred 1.5 million people to the site, an 88 percent increase from 2012, according to the Times.  “The only thing that had changed was putting our social media team in place,” DeLuca said. “We’re in the very beginning of this in terms of putting energy, focus and real strategy behind it versus the wild, wild west.”

The AJC declined to share actual page view numbers but said traffic referred by Facebook is up 132 percent in June 2014 compared to June 2013 on average, while Twitter page views are up 51 percent in the same time period, according to Michelle Serra, the AJC’s social media manager.

“Twitter extends our reach to a demographic that doesn’t subscribe to the newspaper,” said David Duitch, Dallasnews.com. “It’s an opportunity to socialize with potential consumers of our products."

At The Denver Post, page views from the end of March until the end of June showed that Facebook accounts for about 3 percent to 6 percent of weekly page views. Twitter accounts for about 1 percent to 2 percent. By far, the biggest driver is direct clicks on a newspaper’s URL, while Google accounts for about 18 percent to 21 percent of traffic, according to the Post’s Dan Petty, one of the paper’s social media editors. The numbers get sliced and diced numerous ways, but page views is what “advertisers are trying to get,” Petty said.

Editors say they are still experimenting with both platforms to see which one works best for different types of stories. For instance, all editors agree that Twitter is a must for fast-moving breaking news. Facebook is geared for readers who have more time for deeper features. “I think you get a lot better, genuine interaction with the community on Facebook,” said Dave Burdick, deputy features editor of The Post. Twitter has a breaking-news feel and Facebook people are “going in there in a more leisurely frame of mind.”

Like the Tampa Bay Times, the AJCis also promoting deals in its Sunday paper. Instead of using Twitter, the AJC posts advertising on Facebook on Saturday encouraging readers to look for coupons in the Saturday “bulldog edition,” which is an extra edition of several sections of the Sunday paper published and delivered Saturday afternoon. So far, Serra said it resulted in a 1 percent rise in Sunday newspaper sales.

The AJC is also testing new Facebook pages, such as one for Atlanta Braves fans. In about three weeks, the Braves page attracted 10,000 likes from Facebook users. The paper’s research shows that Twitter users are “head skimmers,” meaning they just read a headline and do not necessarily click through to the actual story on the website. This is evident in the most popular stories clicked on via Facebook versus Twitter. For instance, one of the top five stories clicked on via Facebook was the Times’ feature on an orphan looking for a family at church. On Twitter, one of the top stories referred were two breaking alerts on baseball.

A somewhat controversial blurring of the lines between advertising and news is on the horizon as the AJC tests sponsored content, such as a freelancer-contributed story on 10 reasons to bring film and television production projects to Atlanta. “Readers don’t care” who wrote it, Serra said.

Twitter tips

  • Invite Twitter users to visit the newsroom and talk about what they like to tweet and how the newspaper can attract them to their websites.
  • Follow the Tamp Bay Times: Tweet out all the good deals in today’s paper so bargain-hunters will pick up the paper. It just might convert them into subscribers.
  • Social media is the place to take risks. Challenge each news department to come up with a new space on Facebook or Twitter.
  • Turn everyone into a food, music or movie critic. Offer coupons or discounts to staff writers who agree to tweet about their weekend fun.

Alecia Swasy  
 
Research scholar


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