If anyone ever doubted the power of social media – Twitter in particular – as a means of delivering instantaneous news bites, the fraught first few days of Oscar Pistorius’ arrest for murder, the lead up to his bail hearing and the hearing itself should have laid those doubts to rest.
The ANC’s NEC meeting last weekend decided to disband the party’s youth league, a move that was not anticipated as now-former acting president Ronald Lamola had rolled over and promised President Jacob Zuma the ANCYL would hang on to his every word, that they were 100% behind him.
Twitter had the news first. It took a good hour before the first full story was posted on a website – the Mail & Guardian in this case – and another eight hours before the print media splashed the news across front pages.
Of course, the quality of the news in many instances could be in doubt, but the volume of information, the speed of delivery and the number of people the news reaches is in not in dispute.
Savvy news organisations have embraced social media. But what value do these platforms actually deliver to media companies?
Peter Bruce, editor in chief of Business Day and publisher of BDFM says social media platforms are vital channels for the marketing and dissemination of digital content. “However, it is important that we recognise that a channel, like a newspaper or website, requires full commitment and editorial management. BDlive has an active Twitter community, is growing in popularity on Facebook and will be expanding the number of fully supported social media channels in the near future,” he says.
Bruce says 14% of all BDlive’s referral traffic is from social media sites. “This is a significant number,” he says.
CEO of Creative Spark, Matthew Buckland, says while social media platforms are “absolutely critical distribution and marketing platforms for media companies, they should only be seen as such and not as content platforms in their own right because, at the moment, they are difficult to monetise”.
Buckland, who publishes Memeburn, Gearburn and Ventureburn, says journalists often put “an inordinate amount of time and effort into their company’s social media presence (because it’s easy and simple to use), when this time and effort should rather be going to the media company’s own, monetisable platform (the app or website).”
But, he says, “Twitter and Facebook are in our top five as referrers of traffic to the site. At any stage about 25%-60% of our traffic emanates from someone sharing our content on a social media platform.”
Buckland also points out that journalists build up their own powerful personal social media presences (aka database of their media company’s readers), and land up “theoretically then owning a piece of the company’s audience that they could port to a rival company when they leave. It’s important to have correct and fair social media policies in place here to govern this”.
CEO of the Daily Maverick, Styli Charalambous, says social media is “massively important”. Charalambous says his team dedicated a lot of effort to ensure every published article is tweeted and Facebook linked. “We’ve also started using social media to give readers a ‘peek behind the curtain’ into the behind-the-scenes kind of stuff that helps entrench the relationship between us and the reader. This helps create an affinity with the brand and ultimately drive readership. Social media currently drives about 15% of daily traffic,” he says.
Charalambous says returning visitors make up the biggest portion of traffic, but referral traffic is generated mostly by the Daily Maverick’s daily newsletter, Facebook, Twitter and Google searches.
Critics would say social media is something that only the upper LSMs can afford. Readers of BDlive and the Daily Maverick have access to wireless networks, tablets, laptops and smartphones. Nevertheless, the country’s biggest newspaper, the Daily Sun, has over 200 000 Facebook fans and nearly 15 000 Twitter followers. Of course, their print offering reaches over half a million people daily.
“The ceiling on eyeballs in South Africa is fundamentally prescribed by the inequitable economic realities in this country. If you are a publication that is desktop web based and covers topics relevant to middle classes, logically you will receive only a small part of the country’s audience,” says Buckland.
“If you are a mobile and desktop focused site that reflects the interests of the broader majority then you will reach a large amount of eyeballs. With cheaper bandwidth, and cheaper mobile, tablet and ‘phablet’ devices, online media sites are increasingly more accessible to everyone and the barriers to entry are falling away rapidly.”
He says online publishers in this country need to stop blaming the platform and cost of bandwidth and rather look at the content they publish. “Ask if its relevant to the target market you are trying to serve. The slow bandwidth and ‘computers are too expensive’ excuses in the age of cheap Android, cheap tablets and cheap computers that are all getting cheaper is so last decade (before 2010).”
Charalambous says the Daily Maverick has taken into account the importance of mobile delivery platforms such as smartphones and tablets. “We recognise its increasing part of how our readers access our content, and early on recognised the need for dedicated tablet publications, such as iMaverick. Dedicated smartphone apps and content delivery becomes even more challenging as the advertising market for smartphones is even smaller than online, which can cannibalise online revenues and readership numbers if not done properly,” he says.
Bruce says BDFM has seen “a significant increase in our application downloads. “We launched iPad and iPhone apps last year and have had 58 000 downloads so far.” The company also has an Android phone app, launched in December.
Buckland says the majority of their readers still prefer their desktop edition, but that mobile platforms are important. “We have an Android, iOS and Windows Phone app. We have a smartphone web app and a feature-phone mobile site. Despite having these presences, we still find however that the majority of our readers prefer our desktop edition. But that is the nature of our content and our target audience (digital professionals at work), it may not be the same for everyone.”