How the Reading Eagle used Facebook Live to jumpstart social engagement and traffic growth

The embrace of Facebook Live in conjunction with an enriched, audience-centered social media strategy has kickstarted an impressive trend of growth at Reading Eagle.

The Reading Eagle is a family-owned daily newspaper in Reading, PA, serving the region of Reading and Berks County, which has a population of about 418,000, according to the US Census Bureau. The newspaper has a daily readership of 140,900, an average of 3 million monthly website page views, and a Facebook following of 70,000.

This report highlights how the Reading Eagle was able to grow its social traffic referrals and increase audience and engagement on Facebook, and thus advance its social media strategy, in the ladder half of 2018.

From 2017 to 2018, the Reading Eagle increased page views from Facebook by nearly 7 percent, and increased unique visitors from social by 5 percent. In Q4 of 2018, Reading Eagle had the three best months of the year for social referrals, or total site visits from social media.

October: +52.71% YoY increase
November: +9.39% YoY increase
December: +20.89% YoY increase

The Reading Eagle increased the growth rate of new Facebook followers from July 2018 to January 2019.
“We’re really focused on making sure the audience that’s already there is seeing the content we’re posting. The result of that focus has been increased likes, but it’s not the priority.”

Data shows the Reading Eagle’s social reach and the growth rate of Facebook followers have also increased.

In a social media landscape where many small, local publishers experienced a downtrend in reach and social referrals during 2018, the Reading Eagle accelerated an upward climb.

As assistant managing editor of digital since July, Dustin Leed has led the Reading Eagle newsroom to find opportunities for broader audience reach and quality engagement, including through use of Facebook Live. The product allows publishers to broadcast a live video from their Facebook page to the public or a specific audience. Frequently using Facebook Live, a relatively simple access point for video content native to the platform, helped kickstart substantial social growth at Reading Eagle.

Facebook Live initiative

Facebook Live is part of the publisher’s three-prong video strategy, which includes:
1. Facebook Live
2. Documentary-style video
3. Staff-produced social media clips

Reading Eagle’s Facebook Live video of flooding at the Reading Public Museum arboretum.

Leed said since July, the newsroom has focused on improving Facebook Live posts, including how and where to shoot, and best practices for writing descriptions. Photographers are equipped with iPhones, tripod and camera mounts for the phones, and external phone batteries.

Reading Eagle has plans to create different video offerings but has found success in returning to the basics on Facebook Live, Leed said, because of its ease of use, high engagement, and minimal need for investment in technology or editing.

“We wanted to cut back on some of the polished production of video and focus more on serving our social audience with quick, live video content. We found embedding those videos within our articles was much more efficient than spending lots of time producing and editing event-based video,” Leed said. “Right now we don’t want to do more video, we just want to do our video better and we want to simplify the way we are doing it.”

Late last summer, residents near Reading experienced flooding and the news team used Facebook Live to deliver updates. After seeing the impact the Facebook Live post made on reach and engagement, Leed said the newsroom embraced Facebook Live as a valuable method for telling fast-developing, visually rich stories, among other coverage opportunities.

“We pushed Facebook Live to tell breaking news in a faster more effective way, and that went crazy for us. On the year, we were up over four-figures [in minutes viewed],” he said.

In total, Reading Eagle increased total minutes viewed by 4,060 percent, and 3-second video views grew 2,539 percent, from 2017 to 2018. In 2017 Reading Eagle produced a handful Facebook videos, but beginning in mid-2018, Facebook Live became a more frequently utilized content piece, propelling the reach of all of the publisher’s content.

“It was a simple approach to video … because we see the data and the trends from these kinds of videos. That is something that speaks of success for us,” Leed said. “Facebook Lives don’t drive traffic to the website, but we could see because of what we were doing, the algorithm shifted, and our stuff is more often at the top [of Facebook users’ news feeds] because of it.”

A Reading Eagle photographer at the crime scene mounted a smartphone on a tripod, aimed the camera toward the area blocked by police tape for this Facebook Live.

Examples of Reading Eagle Facebook videos

Triple fatal shooting

In September, Reading Eagle staff used Facebook Live to shed light on a particularly violent incident with a triple fatal shooting. Audience Development Manager Andrea Gillhoolley said with the social strategy in mind, a photographer at the crime scene mounted a smartphone on a tripod, aimed the camera toward the area blocked by police tape, and then started the Facebook Live. Several minutes into the broadcast, off-camera cries and talking are heard.

“Family members … were just finding out what had a happened to their loved ones. The audio that we got on this Facebook Live was so heart-wrenching. I had never heard anything like that, unfolding live. It was just really powerful,” she said. “I think it changed the way people and the city of Reading viewed this violence, at least for many of the people who were tuning in. People in the newsroom were saying, ‘This is a game changer; this is a different way of experiencing violence.’

“It led us to understand that, if there’s an opportunity for us to tell the story in a different way next time, we should.

“Ever since we have been doing Facebook Live video we have had massive growth in video, and likes too because we are reaching people that wouldn’t typically like our page.”

Spotted lanternfly infestation

Staff produced a Facebook Live Q&A with experts on the lanternfly, which had a high engagement rate.

Reading Eagle prolifically covered an infestation of spotted lanternflies that has plagued their region in Pennsylvania. With high audience interest, Gillhoolley said any content on the topic would get shared and seen much more than usual.

“In the summer time, they blanket the trees and destroy them, creating havoc. It’s completely disgusting and they’re everywhere,” she said. “Every story that we did, it would get three times as much as we would normally get in engagement, page views, time spent, shares, and everything — every time. So we asked, ‘how do we build on that?’”

Staff produced a Facebook Live Q&A with experts on the lanternfly, which had a high engagement rate and long view times. From the interview conducted during the Facebook Live broadcast, they also produced a follow up web story that received more than 30,000 page views.

This shareable social video with captioned words and information is another way Reading Eagle used video to explain an important topic while being “dynamic and different” on Facebook, Leed said.

A building fire Facebook Live received significant engagement.

“We really hone in on Berks County residents and what they’re concerned with,” Gillhoolley said. “We want to provide service for them and give best possible news experience. We do that on our end by listening to them with the tools that we have.”

Breaking news

The newsroom has been experimenting with different opportunities to use Facebook Live to tell a breaking news story, including a building fire, a truck fire following a road accident, and area flooding. Leed said breaking news on Facebook Live works, in part, because “not all videos need to be completely perfect and edited.”

Where does Facebook Live fit in the digital strategy?

Dustin Leed has been the assistant managing editor for digital at Reading Eagle since July 2018.

Leed said Facebook Live is not a magic fix-all for salvaging a publisher’s lost or stagnant social traffic or audience growth. The philosophy behind testing and learning from producing Facebook Live is to “do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.” And the data shows Facebook Live, along with a hyper focus on delivering content that matches audience interests, has been working for Reading Eagle.

“Facebook Live has had a big impact, but ultimately I feel like we are really growing our presence by letting our audience guide us and tell us what they need.

“When an audience on Facebook or social media tells us over and over that they want to know more about [a topic]—because we are seeing that it over performs in comments, shares, time spent, page views, social referrals—that’s a prime opportunity to cover that [topic] proactively and not reactively.

“If something over performs on Facebook, we want to exhaust our thoughts on what we can do on related content. We look and see if people are asking questions in the comments and discussion. Those comments – that’s value for us.”

Understanding the content that most resonates with its audience on Facebook also comes with the benefit of marketing to that demographic for digital subscriptions.

In the context of the targeted marketing funnel—in which a publisher identifies and reaches specific audiences segmented by their familiarity with the brand and their likelihood to subscribe—Leed saidthe newsroom is top-to-mid-funnel. They produce content on O&O and social platforms that appeals to new and returning users who, as they move down the funnel, are more likely to convert to loyal readers and paid subscribers.

“We want to analyze the content that resonates with new and returning users, because that’s where you have an opportunity to grow the top of the funnel but then also convert the funnel from returning to loyal,” Leed said. “What we found … was there are a lot of returning, loyal visitors that come from Facebook.”

Seeing the value in an expanding Facebook audience, Leed said he and his colleagues experimented with boosting an in-depth investigative story about a local rehab center, which led to new consumer revenue.

“[In Facebook Ads Manager] we essentially built an audience and served that audience the story,” he said. “We saw that it doubled the traffic on the story, and it increased loyal views on the story. So we thought, ‘Let’s use that same audience and run a campaign for subscriptions.’ In a week, we had ten new signups for paid subscriptions to our digital content from that one Facebook campaign.”

Advice to other newsrooms

With data driving decisions at Reading Eagle, the team uses a suite of tools to manage and monitor social engagement, web traffic and trending topics. Leed’s advice to other newsrooms who are trying to grow social audience and social referral traffic is to use the free tools available and listen to followers.

“Look at simple analytics and insights about what’s resonating with your audience and try to do more of that,” he said. “Those social platforms have a lot of built-in analytics you can use without paying for anything. Facebook Insights, Pages to Watch and CrowdTangle are all super valuable. … You wouldn’t believe all the stories or tips that you get from what those little pages have posted.

“It always starts with your audience. If you’re not doing it for your audience, who are you doing it for?”

This report was produced by the Local News Resource Center, a partnership with the Local Media Association and the Facebook Journalism Project