By Emilie LutostanskiDirector, Local News Resource Center

Content sharing on Facebook is a common and effective way local news organizations reach their broadest audience and build strong follower loyalty that leads to lasting — and sometimes profitable — relationships.

For local news broadcasters and newspapers, just “being on Facebook” is not adequate to have the best ROI possible with social media. An audience-first strategy on social is as important as this approach is to newsletters, website design, print layout and every touchpoint with the community.

Newsrooms across the U.S. have been applying an audience-first approach to Facebook, demonstrated in a recent Local News Resource Center report that offers real-world insight behind the data trends surfaced by CrowdTangle from ~2,600 local media pages. This approach has led to not only better and more loyal and frequent social engagement, but also increases in referral traffic as a result of more concerted programming strategies.

From the findings of these two reports, we offer core takeaways and examples of audience-first social strategies that build loyalty, which is key to growing revenue sustainably.

People come to Facebook to find local news. The CrowdTangle report showcased that even though posting frequency among local news pages was stable YOY, engagement on local news content increased. The local audience is eager to engage over important and inspiring local topics — especially if publishers are able to frame and cater content using data on consumption trends and programming.

For example, Matt Martin, executive editor at The Erie-Times News, identified several programming trends within their own data that indicated weekday drivetime Facebook posts received very little engagement.

“It’s generally not even worth posting on Facebook between 4:45 and 5:45 p.m.,” he said.

Comparing data also showed posting news in the morning hours between 6-10 a.m. is crucial to meeting engagement goals.

“While we have more followers active around 8-9 p.m., the 6-10 a.m. window is the most critical for engagement and referrals seven days a week,” he said. “If we miss it — if we don’t publish our best material twice an hour, up to nine posts total — it’s almost impossible to make up the losses throughout the rest of the day … ”

Sharing is considered a high-loyalty metric, and loyalty is good for business. Out of all engagement types, people share most often, making up 31% of all interactions, followed by likes at 30% of all interactions.  Loyalty can also translate into newsletter signups, membership, attendance at events, and digital subscriptions. If someone is willing to share your content, there’s a good chance they like your brand enough to continue engaging and potentially find additional ways to connect.

Emily Ristow, loyalty and engagement news director at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said her team uses shareability to determine what content is worth posting on Facebook and as a predictor of what’s likely to drive high engagement

“One of the guiding things for us is, ‘Are other people likely to share this on their feeds, too?’” she said. “That to us indicates that they are more likely to comment, react, or click on it if it’s something that they would be interested in sharing themselves too.”

Links are the primary way local news pages are distributing content, and link posts are leading to more social referrals. YOY data shows local news pages have shared links about 80% of the time consistently throughout changes to news feed algorithms during the last two years, and some say they are now seeing more clicks on those links back to their websites. We also find publishers are often becoming more selective with the links they share and do not share on Facebook based on the likelihood of quality engagement and click-through.

Data from GateHouse Media shows overall Facebook pages from January to July, YOY, saw a 48% increase in interactions and a 67% increase in post shares, per CrowdTangle data provided and analyzed by Sherri Horton, data scientist at GateHouse Media. January through July, YOY, social referrals have grown 37% despite post count dipping slightly by about 5%.

Facebook newsfeed is a place of local news content discovery but also brand discovery. With this in mind, it’s important to remember that not all engagement is created equal. A post that drives a high number of comments may be a result of irrelevant controversy and not unique, local community discourse. Consider the effects on your brand as a result of abuse in comments and unproductive debate. Understand also that producing engagement bait content—such as reaction polls on Facebook Live—is not a long-term strategy, but a short-term attempt to gain interactions while potentially tarnishing the news brand’s image.

Martin said at the Times, they have focused on local news rather than national politics, even as some of those posts garner high engagement.

“We stay away from most national political posts. They don’t lead to referrals and they create a battleground reputation for the page,” Martin said. “We see a lot of unfollows and unlikes if we post anything that can become polarized. After gaining about 12,000 new likes annually for the five years ending 2017, churn has slowed us by about 70-75 percent to a gain of right around 3,000 per year in 2018 and 2019.”

Local, unique content is the publisher’s most valuable commodity and should treated as such, especially to the broad audience on Facebook. Good journalism is good business – and it’s good for the brand, too.

John Colucci, senior director of social media at Sinclair Broadcast Group, said he advises all stations tell a story, provide information and offer valuable news, and avoid engagement bait, which doesn’t perform well, such as polls soliciting votes with specific reactions or generic landscape scenes with broad messaging.

“We want to stay away from the click-bait or engagement-bait method of using Facebook,” he said. “We want to really stick to quality local journalism.”

People want to engage with local news when they find it on Facebook, and use it to feel significant and part of their geographical community. Every engagement on social media is an opportunity to build a relationship, serve a journalistic mission, and sustain or improve loyalty that can help meet business goals.

Learn more from the Local News Resource Center, funded by the Facebook Journalism Project, and read the report from CrowdTangle. Find more information about CrowdTangle for local news (it’s free) and attend upcoming webinars.