News media must embrace Facebook and other social networks

This is a cross post of an article published today for the BBC College of Journalism’s blog.

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If you were in any doubt about the increasing influence of Facebook, two things caught my eye this week, both of which demonstrated the impact of the social network.

In the US, Zynga, the maker of the Facebook-based hit game Farmville among many others, this week sold 14% of its shares, valuing the company at $7 billion. Markets clearly still value companies which make things, even if in this instance the ‘goods’ are virtual.

Facebook’s own IPO, widely predicted to be issued at some point in 2012, will surely see the social network valued at a much higher figure.

And the network’s dominance of the social sphere was clearly reflected in Ofcom’s sixth International Communications Market report, a weighty tome which compared the global communications market across 17 countries. It found that in the past year ‘Facebook’ was the most searched for term on Google in ten out of 17 countries, including Italy, Spain and the US. It was also the fourth-most searched for term in India and Brazil, confirming that Facebook isn’t just a phenomenon of the US and Europe.

Of course other social networks do exist – and are popular: Stayfriends with the second largest social network in Germany, for example, and Copains d’Avant, the third-most popular in France. 

Of all the countries surveyed, Top of the (social networking) Pops is Italy, where 91% of internet users having visited these sites online. Twenty-four per cent of them do so more than five times a day. Moreover, the average Italian also has more friends online (216) than the average user in the UK (168), US (198) or France (108). It was also the country where the highest number of internet users claimed to read news online (78%).

The impact of this for news outlets and journalists isn’t just that social networks are where the eyeballs are. They’re also affecting how we consume traditional media, with some audiences consuming less ‘heritage’ media as a result.

Table showing media used less since using social networking websites. 

Source: Ofcom consumer research, October 2011.

Consumers are also using social networking sites to discover breaking news, with a third (35%) of UK consumers saying they do this, alongside nearly half of French (45%) and those highly socially networked Italians (47%).

As Facebook rolls out its Timeline service, and other developments designed to make the network stickier still, media outlets will have to respond to the challenge by somehow embracing the power of social networks.

Yahoo! has just announced it is rolling out its Yahoo! Activity news tool, to the UK and Europe, making story sharing easier; while traditional media players like The Washington Post have introduced their own Facebook app so users can read their content entirely within Facebook itself.

In March 2011, the hyper-local website Rockville Central, a Maryland-based blog, went one further by becoming Facebook-only, noting: “Facebook is where people, by and large, have decided to go for their first-stop online community activities. Which begs the question: Why have a separate site, and try to drag people away from Facebook? Why not go where they are?”

As the BBC’s recent Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook programme showed, a wide range of businesses have been developed off the back of the network’s success. And while Zynga’s flotation is perhaps the most high profile, efforts such as Rockville Central show that this impact can be felt right down to a hyper-local level.

For innovation lovers, it looks like Facebook will continue to be ‘one to watch’ in 2012.

Damian Radcliffe is manager, nations and communities, at Ofcom. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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