Facebook world

Facebook's new subscribe feature offers a great way for journalists to connect with their audiences

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Facebook Subscribe is "a pretty revolutionary feature for journalists" according to Liz Heron, social media editor of the New York Times.

Launched less than six months ago, Subscribe seemingly took inspiration from one of the real pluses of Google+: allowing anyone with a personal profile to share news with anyone who chooses to follow them.

Rather than requiring a two-way agreement of friendship, Facebook users can start to follow people of interest like politicians, celebrities and journalists.

This guide looks at why journalists should consider adding a subscribe button to their personal profile, how to best use Facebook to interact and engage, and suggests tricks and tips for making Facebook's algorithm work in your favour.

The big names of Subscribe

More than 50 journalists at the New York Times use Subscribe including Nicholas Kristof with a staggering 365,000 subscribers and Liz Heron, the title's social media editor, with almost 300,000 subscribers. Here in the UK Benjamin Cohen, Channel 4 News' technology correspondent, has just tipped the 31,000 mark and Sky News' digital editor Neal Mann (fieldproducer on Twitter) has 15,000 subscribers.

Subscribers not fans

Not long ago Facebook was encouraging journalists to set up "fan pages". These were created in addition to a user's personal profile, reserved for close friends, and were a way of sharing news with a wider public.

Indeed Kristof, Heron, Cohen and Mann all started with pages, migrating to subscribe with help from Facebook.

The problem with pages is that they are not well indexed, Heron told Journalism.co.uk.

"Pages existed in a little bit of a void. It was hard to grow an audience or community there and your profile is a much easier place to be."

The move from a page to profile makes for easier social media identity management, according to Cohen.

"Previously I had my Facebook profile for my friends and then I had to log in separately to my fan page and it was quite cumbersome to have to switch between the two."

For Mann there is another reason he prefers a subscribe button to a "fan page".

"Initially I didn't really want a fan page – because of the fact that it is called a fan page. I originally started a separate [profile] account so people could add me as a friend. Interestingly, people came back to me and said they didn't really want to add me as a friend because they didn't trust a journalist having access to all their information."

Literally as soon as I switched over all of the people who were previously fans became subscribers and the number of people suddenly jumped significantly to the point where my Facebook subscribers now stands more than double my number of Twitter followersBenjamin Cohen
Mann therefore set up a "page that people could like" but that "didn't really take off as much as Twitter did on the follower front".

Subscribe, rather than pages, seems to be encouraging a dramatic surge in engagement. Benjamin Cohen saw his followers rise from around 1,500 in September to more than 31,000 today.

"Literally as soon as I switched over all of the people who were previously fans became subscribers and the number of people suddenly jumped significantly to the point where my Facebook subscribers now stands more than double my number of Twitter followers."

Neal Mann switched in December, and since then his Facebook followers have been "rising steadily".

"I'm putting on up to 1,000-a-day," he said.

Understanding the algorithm

Facebook's algorithm EdgeRank is what pushes your friends' stories to the top of your news feed, favouring those with lots of comments and "likes" and giving less prominence to the updates posted by friends you have not interacted with for some time.

Mastering the algorithm will help you gain fans as you will be recommended by Facebook as someone worth subscribing to.

Benjamin Cohen is well aware of what keywords and interactions have accelerated his Facebook Subscribe popularity.

"The Facebook algorithm matches people based on my interests", he explained, "I'm openly gay and I often post things about LGBT issues.

"I think that most people who follow me on Twitter – I'd probably say all – know that my job is technology correspondent for Channel 4 News.

"I would say that most people who are subscribers of mine on Facebook wouldn't necessarily know that my job is technology correspondent on Channel 4 News.

"I think that a lot of my Facebook subscribers are interested in gay rights, I think a lot of them are also interested in the charity work I do in relation to disability and so I'm seeing a different sort of profile of user to what I would see on other forms of social media."

This idea of key interests is one reason Subscribe can work well for foreign correspondents.

When Neal Mann was in Libya he used his Facebook page (as it was pre-Subscribe) to share behind-the-reports updates with followers, plus striking images he took as a journalist who is also a photographer.

News worth sharing

Where Kristof's updates focus on the places he is reporting from (this week Sudan), Heron uses her profile to gauge readers' opinions.

I always try to ask several questions of my subscribers and not just make it a one-way conversation. I'm really interested to hear what they have to say, and I also ask them questions about things that interest meLiz Heron
"I've been mainly using it as a hub for conversation around New York Times journalism and other people's journalism.

"I always try to ask several questions of my subscribers and not just make it a one-way conversation. I'm really interested to hear what they have to say, and I also ask them questions about things that interest me."

Examples include Heron posting and opening discussion on comment moderation guidelines and asking subscribers "do you read a story before you 'like' and comment on it or do you usually just comment off the headline?"

Heron crowdsources "things that interest me about human behaviour" to help her in her role as social media editor.

Who should use Subscribe?

Heron is encouraging foreign correspondents to embrace Facebook Subscribe "because of the huge non-US audience on there, both in terms of audience and individual sources".

She is also suggesting that reporters writing about "the way we live and the way society is changing" consider a subscribe button, "as I think there is a huge opportunity there to do crowdsourcing on Facebook for those kinds of stories".

One of those who has listened to Heron's advice is freelancer, blogger at 10,000 Words and Goldsmiths student Elana Zak. It is early days for Zak in using Subscribe, but she says it is worth doing.

"It's experimenting with a new way of interacting with readers. When you are starting out you might not have a lot of subscribers but it's never bad practice to get used to engaging with readers in an interactive way."

And while encouraging journalists to give it a go and "stick with it", Mann has a word of warning to those who, unlike him, do not have an established social media presence.

"It is easier if you have already got a profile on another social media network. Some people I know have found it quite depressing because if they have not already got a solid following, say on Twitter, they haven't picked up a following very quickly by opening up subscribe."

He added: "Just like with Twitter you have to interact and if you interact and post regularly it will take off quite quickly."

Mann has also paid attention to his cross-platform identity.

"Initially I did keep the brand consistent: it was a fieldproducer Facebook page.

"Once I morphed that into my personal Facebook page I did actually bring across the brand in the way that the URL for my Facebook page is still Facebook.com/fieldproducer.

"I felt it was quite important to keep that coherent brand across both platforms, as I do across a number of other platforms, including Flickr."

Tips from the experts

Liz Heron warns that "you might want to scrub your profile".

"If you have anything really personal there make sure that it has all been made friends-only before you open up to subscribers.

"Then warn your friends and family that you are going to be doing something on Facebook Subscribe and then go ahead and start."

Cohen invites his subscribers to influence his journalism.

"I like to engage the audience and the people who are interested in my work with all of the stages of the process of making a report."

He explained how he posted an update to say he was doing a story about the Facebook IPO and asked "what do think? How addicted are you to Facebook?"

"The messages I got back said that 'yes, we are addicted' so I went to see a psychologist who deals with Facebook addiction."

Other comments inspired another area for Cohen to explore, that of older people setting up Facebook profiles.

He then filmed at a centre where teenagers are teaching older people how to use Facebook which "created a really great piece of content that went out on TV, which I shared on Facebook and that then created further comments and ideas for future pieces".

Facebook versus Twitter

For Neal Mann, Twitter is for two-way conversations, Facebook is for group debate.

My Twitter followers are really interacting with me, what Facebook allows is to build a community around my journalismNeal Mann
"My Twitter followers are really interacting with me," he said. "What Facebook allows is to build a community around my journalism."

And where Twitter is great for breaking news, Facebook gives stories an extended life.

"What is also really exiting about Facebook as a platform, something so much more so than Twitter, is how long a piece of content can live for," Cohen said.

Neal Mann says users should utilise the strengths of both platforms.

"Facebook is a brilliant platform for bringing in your Instagram photos that are a bit more personal. I often put photos on Facebook that I wouldn't necessarily put on Twitter because they are not newsworthy but that do give an insight into me, which is fine for journalists to do on Facebook."

The downsides

Mann warns of spam, often in a variety of languages, a frustration he has flagged up to Facebook.

And with social media you cannot light the fire and then walk away.

"Self-moderation is the only way to deal with spam. Facebook doesn't seem to have a system in place to kill it quickly."

But this can be hard to do when in the field. "When I was in Libya I would post content and I wouldn't really have a chance to interact or edit it for a day or two days. By that time you can have a host of spam on your page which has not been removed," Mann explained.

There is another problem, according to Cohen – or rather his close friends. "One of the annoying things is that my friends are seeing more of the things that they really aren't interested in from me.

"The Facebook algorithm will note that some of them don't engage with that content: they don't click 'like', they don't comment on the stuff that I've really directed at the public.

"Over time, in theory, so Facebook tells me, they will see less of the stuff that is published for the viewers of Channel 4 News and for the other people that are interested in my work and more of the stuff that I want to share with them, my close friends."

And, interestingly, Facebook is getting Cohen's Google+ time. "The reason I was so excited about Google+ when it launched was because of the ability it gave to journalists to share content in a much clearer way with members of the public."

Because Facebook has such a large audience already, I'm not having to convince people to a, join Google+, and then b, follow me. All I need to do is get them to subscribe to me on Facebook because they are already on thereBenjamin Cohen
Not long after Google+ launched, Facebook added subscribe "pretty much mimicking a lot of the great functionality that Google+ introduced".

"Because Facebook has such a large audience already, I'm not having to convince people to a, join Google+, and then b, follow me. All I need to do is get them to subscribe to me on Facebook because they are already on there.

"As Facebook becomes a much more exciting place for me to engage, the opportunity that Google+ offered has gone down. Unfortunately, the level of interaction that I'm getting and the response to making posts on Google+ is not as high as it was when it started," Cohen added.

"That may change as Google+ signs up more users and it becomes more closely integrated into the Google search engine. As it stands now, because of the Facebook Subscribe functionality, more and more my eyeball time has shifted back onto Facebook, back where it was about a year ago. And that is where I think it is going to stay for a little while."

For more on Facebook Subscribe listen to our podcast on the topic.

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