The relationship between large media groups and their audience has traditionally been a one way dialogue: if they publish it the public may or may not see it. The previous decade saw the meteoric rise of social networking sites, an entirely new form of communication. It allowed individuals to quickly connect with people worldwide at no cost. The marketing and media information company, Nielsen, now shows social networks and blogs to be the 4th most popular online activity, ahead of emailing. It's not difficult to see why media organisations have begun to embrace the potential of online communities. Broadcasters and publishers have an opportunity to reach an extensive audience that was once unattainable. Media groups including Sky News, the BBC and ITV recognise this and have begun to place a significant value on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Job advertisements for "community managers" and "social media editors" are increasingly common. These are roles which did not exist a few years ago. They have been created in order to gain new audiences and develop a deeper level of engagement between them and the media organisation.
Broadcasters and publishers will continue to promote their website via social media channels simply because there is no other low-cost promotional method that gives them frequently recurring visitors. Whether these organisations are selling products, services or publishing content for ad revenue, investing in social media marketing is an effective method to make their site profitable. Publishers such as The Guardian and The New York Times have found that communicating with vast audiences on social media sites is providing a source of traffic rivalling that received from search engines. In addition, it is considerably more difficult to increase search engine traffic while social media traffic can be easily controlled through strategic marketing. For example, exposure to social communities can be implemented in a natural and spontaneous manner, differing from paid advertising which has explicit commercial connotations.
Perhaps the clearest motive for media organisations to utilise social media sites is the low-cost, high returns involved. The expenses required are only limited to time and hiring a programmer or designer whilst the benefits will often far exceed this expenditure. It would cost thousands of pounds to receive the level of engagement that social media can give broadcasters and publishers for minimal investment. Media groups recognise the potential for building a network of people that is both international and self-maintaining. The individuals within the network may voluntarily refer other people to the social community of media groups and others may simply join due to the exposure the network has publicised. In essence, media groups have the ability to promote whatever they wish, for free, to millions of people by linking their website to social network sites and vice versa.
News broadcasters have quickly adopted Twitter as an interactive channel to communicate with its current and future audience. While condensing eloquent articles into 140 characters may challenge the synthesising skills of any reporter, many have shown it can be done. Within news broadcasting, the 280,000 followers of The New York Times's Twitter feed dwarf many other established media organisations such as The Wall Street Journal (19,000+). The New York Times has even established Twitter feeds for individual sections such as Books, Arts and Entertainment. In a similar manner, the Financial Times (37,000+ followers in the main feed) has established individual Twitter profiles for reporters and columnists. These additional sections take its followers to over 100,000. However, Sky News has gone even further by appointing a "Twitter correspondent", Ruth Barnett (1,000+ followers) in order to fully utilise the potential of Twitter. Many small-town papers worldwide have also adopted a Twitter handle in order to interact with its online community on a local scale.
In the UK, Facebook has 23 million members. This is more than the 20 million people who tuned in to ITV to watch the final of The X Factor. In order to connect with the members of Facebook, ITV linked their leading show to it. The online activity ITV generated allowed their audience to interact and engage with the show more directly than in previous years. ITV did this by setting up Facebook fan pages for the X Factor and all of its contestants. This fan page allowed ITV to build an online community in a manner similar to Twitter. However, unlike Twitter, fan pages can be developed and customised a great deal further to keep their audience informed and engrossed. It is these kinds of resources which give the show's followers a reason to repeatedly visit the fan page and interact the with X Factor brand. In total the fan pages attracted 1.75 million followers and the main X Factor fan page alone attracted half a million comments during the entire series.
Large media groups have also begun to recognise that social networking sites can not only be used to interact with their audience, but also to find potential employees. The most well known example of a social networking site used for business purposes is LinkedIn.com. LinkedIn has over 40 million users in over 200 countries generating revenue through job listings, premium subscriptions and advertising. Media organisations can build up a large network which enables them to communicate directly with the people they wish to contact. They are also able to search for a member directly and view information on their previous positions and current qualifications. During the recent recession, the site's traffic has risen, highlighting the faith people are putting into LinkedIn to find employment and why media groups are drawn towards it.