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Social Media Reach Helps, but Quality Counts More

Quantity is not enough for 4A's panelists

Facebook's Blake Chandlee, New York Times' Michael Zimbalist, Twitter's Adam Bain, Percolate's James Gross, GroupM's Rob Norman

Quality trumps quantity.

That was the key take-away from a discussion about social media today at the 4A's Transformation conference in New Orleans. In other words, it's great for a brand to have a lot of fans on Facebook, but it's even better if they're actively sharing your brand's content in the News Feed.

A player in the discussion, Blake Chandlee, vp of global partnerships at Facebook, noted that as recently as three years ago, marketers focused intently on amassing fans, particularly compared to their rivals. Board members directed marketing leaders to achieve big numbers fast. And while having a large following on Facebook theoretically increases a brand's reach, big numbers alone won't build a brand.

"It's not about the size of the community. It's how engaged that community is and how that aligns with the brand's strategy," Chandlee said. "We do believe that people's best customers should be their fans. We think that's a unique way to touch them. … But it's not about getting more fans than your competitor because that's a chase to the bottom, and, at the end of the day, the quality of those fans gets impacted. And we just think that's a mistake."

That said, the growing mass of people in social media has helped The New York Times build its brand, particularly during live events, such as the Republican National Convention last year. The Times, for example, uses Facebook as another publishing platform, Google+ for reporter "hangouts" and Twitter as an audience engagement platform, said another panelist, Michael Zimbalist, who leads research and development operations at the Times.

"Social has become woven into really the fabric of all of the work that we do," Zimbalist said. "If the reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks was because that's where the money is, the reason social is so important to us is, that's where the audience is."

The size of the audience, however, doesn't necessarily influence the editorial direction of the newspaper. When panel moderator Rob Norman of GroupM asked if the popularity of certain topics influenced the paper's content decisions, Zimbalist replied, "I don't think so."

"Human editorial judgment of what are the most important stories will trump anything," he added. "But I think increasingly as every organization becomes more data-driven and data-aware, we are more aware of what is trending, what memes are taking off, which one of our stories is getting engagement on social platforms. It's still sort of a very small segment of our audience overall. But the fastest growing segment of our audience are the social referrals that do come to us through Twitter, Facebook. Actually, it's worth mentioning [that] Reddit tends to be our No. 3 referrer socially."

The question of how active social media users are also came up in the context of Twitter and other social media platforms, particularly outside the U.S. Percolate co-founder James Gross acknowledged that it's possible that some people are, as Norman put it, "overcooking our estimates of how big and important these platforms are."

As for Twitter, all of its users listen, 60 percent tweet and 40 percent just sit back and listen, according to Adam Bain, the company's president of global revenue. "We think that's a healthy ratio," he added.

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