The Economist 'likes' Facebook groups to friend larger US audience

“Hello everyone. Here's an interesting tidbit from our recent special report that I’d love to hear your thoughts on: Fully 63% of Trump voters said that to be truly American, it is important to have been born in the country, but only 42% of Clinton voters said the same. So this doesn't seem to be a purely partisan opinion. What do you all think makes someone an American? It that even possible to measure?”

This is a Fourth of July weekend post from Democracy in America, a Facebook closed group from The Economist. There are seven discussion threads so far in the week or so since this group has begun. Like the title suggests, the topics swirl around American politics and society - “Around 30% of American voters do not have a good sense of where Republicans or Democrats stand on the role of the state. Why do you think Americans might be more likely to change their opinion than their political party affiliation?” is another sample.

Responses are detailed, often running into thick paragraphs or several of them, edifying and civil, flush with data - a treasure trove for journalists but that’s not the point here.

Facebook Groups as a tool to keep rude, noisy people out of debates on politics and society/ Reuters pic

Facebook Groups as a tool to keep rude, noisy people out of debates on politics and society/ Reuters pic

Reaching the community rather than simply delivering a product is fast becoming the gold standard of news marketing. Bucking the so-called trends on social media content can indeed lead to increase in reader traffic and from there onto revenue gains. A more detailed Q and A with Adam Smith, the moderator of the The Economist FB group Democracy in America is at the end of this piece.

The New York Times, Australia and Washington Post also interesting work on the same theme of connections with subgroups within Facebook’s massive platform - there is life and profit beyond Facebook Live and the endless stream of Twitter posts that social media teams churn out.

Complementarity and connections between readers and content providers is where nuanced social media management is going.

Facebook, for its part, is rewarding groups with multiple layers of privacy and endless tweaks to its user interface.

Getting things right on social, like in all businesses, is about making the right connections and bringing related parties in touch with each other.

In his new book on the subject, Harvard Business School’s Bharat Anand says it well in The Content Trap - “We need to get off the bullet train, even if only for a moment, to learn where it’s going. We need to understand the game that’s being played before we know how to win it.”

Social media minders for pinch hitters in the news business are finding smarter formulas to promote their content on large platforms in ways that loop new readers or even the merely curious back onto platforms over which they do have control - like their own website or apps.

In ways that mirror a gentler pace, The Economist social team as well as a handful of others are doing exactly that - making connections with community, not merely giving them stuff they write but reaching them in ways that a comment thread simply cannot.

What’s the big deal about that? Can’t this (too) be copied and thrown back into the internet?

Copying competitors is fairly routine but that hasn’t led many revenue successes because in the case of most successful initiatives, it’s not just one silo, it’s many teams that have a decent understanding of what’s going on from the inside out.

So we went and asked Adam Smith, Deputy Community Editor at The Economist a few questions on their new rubric. For the benefit of our readers, the Q and A, lightly edited, is reproduced below:

Firstpost: Beyond testing the ability of online crowds to have a civil, bipartisan debate, what of the group's rich and varied content? Does this get funneled into the Economist's published articles or does it stay outside of  the newspaper and in the SM realm alone?
The Economist: We're very gratified that the quality of discussion is so high and that members are sharing authentic personal insights. I've encouraged journalists and editors to take a look at what members are saying, but we're not pushing for them to use the discussion as story leads or in their reporting. Our journalists usually find stories and sources from being on the road, speaking to people and, to a lesser degree, Twitter. They may in future add the FB Group as a venue for finding people to speak to, so we'll have to see where it goes. Primarily the group is a service to our community of readers who want to debate the issues our content raises, rather than a service to our journalists.

Firstpost: What would lead your team to say, kill the FB group on debating American politics. Is there one tipping point or several? Or is this a limited time group which has an expiry date already?
The Economist: There’s no single metric that would kill the group. We're looking at the extent to which the membership grows, and the extent to which it is engaged, the quality of the debate, and the likelihood that it can drive more subscriptions. We founded the group on June 29th, and we'll review it after a month. It won't automatically expire after that month. I hope we can show that it's performing well enough on enough of those metrics that we can keep building the community there.

Firstpost: Have you changed either resources or time spent on tweeting The Economist content?
The Economist: A year or so ago we cut back on the number of Twitter accounts we had, because some of the accounts covering specific sections in the newspaper were not active enough. We still craft lots of tweets for most of our stories—not just relying on automated tweets based on headlines. But we also know that Twitter is struggling to grow, while other platforms and digital opportunities are growing, so we're keen to make sure we don't just spend lots of resources on Twitter simply because we as journalists like it.

Updated Date: Jul 12, 2017 00:30 AM

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