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Most other online news organizations are also establishing fan pages on Facebook, setting up Twitter feeds, and encouraging readers to share links. They are doing this not just because the networks are where the audiences are, but because they think social media will bring readers who are more engaged than those who come through search engines. At Gawker, Google-driven traffic “is waning,” says Pettigrew, the marketing director. Facebook is now the top referrer, and Twitter is gaining. But it wasn’t easy for Gawker management to come to terms with social media. “We didn’t want to join in the ‘fan-page game,’” she said, lest readers become more accustomed to accessing its stories from Facebook than from Gawker’s home pages. “You want to own the distribution.” But eventually, Facebook’s power as a traffic-driver won out. “You can’t ignore the way people want to access content.”
Vadim Lavrusik, former community manager at social media site Mashable, says that “readers who come through social are far different in their behaviors. They tend to view more articles on average and stick around the site longer.” Facebook and Twitter visitors spent 29 percent more time on Mashable.com, he said, and viewed 20 percent more pages than visitors arriving via search engines.
Similarly, at The Atlantic’s website, “The percentage of referrals from social nets is coming in at about 15 percent. And it’s growing,” says Scott Havens, vice president of digital strategy and operations. There’s a wide array of social sharing tools on TheAtlantic.com, including Facebook, Twitter, Digg, and Reddit. The Atlantic has also started using Tumblr, a microblogging platform that allows anyone—from individuals to media companies—to post text, photos, and videos. It has a distinctive visual format and is another way to drive engaged traffic. Newsweek.com also uses Tumblr, including links to a wide variety of sources. By doing that, the magazine can “introduce people to Newsweek who would never read it” on its site or in print, says Mark Coatney, who worked at Newsweek before joining Tumblr in 2010. And he says that while Newsweek’s Tumblr audience is smaller than the audience it gets through Twitter or Facebook, its readers are more engaged.
The argument about whether it’s more important to build large audiences or engaged audiences has not been settled. Two news organizations that haven’t jumped on the engagement bandwagon are New York magazine and Newser. “The notion of engagement has been touted for a number of years,” says Michael Silberman, general manager of nymag.com. “This is not important in driving our business. We want to grow uniques”—that is, the number of users—“so we’re really thinking about the scale. Secondarily, we want to drive page views.” He might change his mind if nymag.com decided to start charging for online access, but that isn’t on the table for now. “Engagement only makes sense in a subscription model,” he says.
At Newser, an aggregator with about 2.5 million unique visitors a month, the audience breaks down in ways similar to mainstream news organizations. Executive Chairman Patrick Spain says about 12,000 users are “addicted” and come to the site many times a day; 225,000 are “avid” users who visit Newser many times a week; and more than two million people pass by, with just a click or two. But Spain argues that the passers-by are useful, because they are more likely than addicted users to click on ads, though whether clicks on ads are a good indicator of engagement is an open question.