Is Social Media More Important than Traditional Media?

What is better for a brand?

A.) 25 million Facebook fans

B.) An article in the New York Times

Ideally, you’d like both.

But if forced to pick, I’d probably go with A.  Facebook fans are a constant – a set of people who have opted into your content.  While they don’t all receive your content all the time – they have made a commitment.  They are interacting and sharing your content on an ongoing basis.  They want some kind of relationship.

An article in the New York Times is definitely valuable.  The New York Times is one of the most influential media outlets in the world.  It’s circulation and online reach is enormous.  It’s point of view can change minds.  But a single article is fleeting.  It’s impact in this noisy, fast-moving world is, well, questionable.

In the end, the impact of the article depends on how it was written, how it was displayed and shared.  In other words, its impact is out of the hands of the brand.

Have we reached a point where a brand’s digital communications audience is more valuable than third-party coverage from traditional media channels?

It may be a simple matter of mathematics.

A company with a modest social media footprint – 50,000 Facebook likes, 5,000 Twitter followers, 1,000 LinkedIn followers and a YouTube channel with 1,000 subscribers consistently reaches more people than a sporadic program dedicated to generating news articles in the traditional media.

The social media audience as outlined above is a consistent and reliable subscriber based of more than 6.5 million. Every time this brand releases news or information it is guaranteed to be pushed out to this audience.  And this doesn’t count tweets or videos that have the potential go viral beyond the core audience.

The same company would have a difficult time reaching 6.5 million people using just traditional media, especially since those audiences are shrinking.

However, complicating matters is that it has become difficult to cleanly divide social media from traditional media.  For example, the New York Times not only has its print edition, but a huge social and digital presence: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites, interactive applications, etc.  So scoring coverage from a newspaper isn’t just about the “print” article, but how that content is pushed out on all of a newspapers channels.

That said it is becoming easier to argue that brands with strong social and digital networks no longer need to invest as much time and energy in traditional media relations to reach their audiences.

What do you think?  Are a brands’ “owned” channels a better way to reach audiences?  Does “earned” media still do a better job?


9 Responses to “Is Social Media More Important than Traditional Media?”

  1. I am not sure this is a wholly honest comparison. Anyone would love 25 million Facebook fans, or even a “modest” 50,000 fans. The fact remains that most companies deploying PR initiatives are not achieving anywhere near even the lower figures you noted. I am always amazed that broadcast media still delivers millions of real Nielsen(c) viewers and Arbitron(c) listeners daily for various PR initiatives and receives so little attention these days while a PR campaign gaining 5 thousand Facebook fans for 5 times the budget congratulates itself for its great success. Pew Research (which is media neutral) shows year after year that local television still vastly dominates as the primary news source in America. We advocate social media in our all work – but the concept of “fans” and “followers” as a stand-alone measure of success is in great danger of being highly overrated those who sell it too hard.

  2. Hi Jack:
    Thanks for your interesting comments, although I disagree with most of what you’re saying. I don’t doubt that major news coverage still moves the needle, but not as much. You mentioned Pew Research so let me give you a couple of statistics from its 2012 State of Journalism report:

    – Newspaper circulation and advertising have fallen 43% since 2000
    – TV news (both national and local news) grew slightly last year after a decade of falling numbers

    Social media, however, is growing by leaps and bounds with Facebook likely to have more than one billion users by the end of the year. More people every year get their news first on social channels. I know it works that way for me (although admittedly I’m in the industry).

    I’m not sure why you think social media campaigns are “5 times the budget” of PR. That’s simply not the case. Social media isn’t free, but it isn’t 500% more expensive than PR, in fact, the price can be nearly the same. Maybe you’re thinking about advertising?

    Quite frankly if I was a brand I’d rather have a fan or follower – someone who has actively engaged with my brand – rather than a reader or observer who is passively reading or watching a story about my brand.

  3. I do not disagree at all about the growth of social media – or it’s worth to PR initiatives. Indeed, we were advocating such as part of a general media outreach long before it was cool – simply based on the fact that Americans are always looking for the shortcut to data that matters to them. The pressure of that behavior will also have a long term bearing on what social media will be in coming years – certainly not what it is now. In likely less than 5 years, my 3 year old is going to think of our current hot social media system…the way I think of my antique IBM Selectric. My point is that any PR campaign that focuses only on one methodology (including social media) assumes American consumers as a media monolith and does so at peril. I think we have a gentleman’s disagreement here on some things and that is what I enjoy about your blogs. I wish others would engage here. The relative importance of social media in PR outreach may determine the fate of many in this industry.

  4. Hi Jack:
    Agree we’re probably pulling hairs at this point. Let me add that PR is fleeting. So it doesn’t matter if efforts on Facebook or Twitter are old and out-dated in five years. PR doesn’t have that kind of shelf life. The importance is create buzz, awareness and loyalty via the available streams of communication. But I agree wholeheartedly that integrated, multiplatform PR is the way to go.

    And thank you for your kind observations!

  5. There’s another piece to the pie you miss.

    The fact you have 25 million Facebook fans does not indicate those 25 million see what you share on your wall. You might get 1% or 7% — but far less views on average compared to who will see your newspaper piece. The difference lies in the demography of who will read the article and react/print/tell others vs who will see the wall update and like/share/comment.

    No doubt Facebook has the potential of more virality but the percentage of who sees it plays a big part.

  6. Hi Ari:
    The algorithm for Facebook pushes content onto the walls of 3 to 7.5% of your total fan base. So a brand with 25 million gets an automatic audience of about 1.2 million – way more people than the average newspaper (the Boston Globe, for example, has just north of 300,000 daily subscribers).

    And not all readers of a newspaper (or its website) read every article (not even close).

    The Facebook audience is also a constant – a consistent brand-centric audience that has opted in for information and news about the brand. Newspaper subscribers are there for the newspaper content – not your brand content.

  7. Both Facebook pages and most popular newspapers will have people that skip their advertisement/updates occasionally. There is nothing you can do in some cases, certain people just don’t focus on your offers (or ignore them eventually).

    Almost everyone would go with 25 million fans; first, it tells the visitor you obviously must be big, important and people like what you are doing, and second, whatever you post will immediately be seen by thousands, if not millions. What company would not want that ;)?

    When reading the newspapers, you’re there for the news, or some holiday offers. On social media, you always get the latest and greatest, which is what you “signed up” for.


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