A million and counting: Inside the Liverpool Echo's Facebook strategy as it becomes first regional title to hit landmark
Stories about the circulation figures of regional newspapers are usually a veritable bingo of doom: "decline", "dwindling", "gloom" and, more often that not, "redundancies".
And while publishers' bottom lines are still so dependent on their print operations, there may well be good reason for the pessimistic tone of much of the reporting.
But if we step away from the ongoing debate about business models and digital sustainability and focus instead on barometers such as reach, readers, brand awareness and influence, then there are eye-popping success stories within the regional press.
One of those is the Liverpool Echo, which has just become the first regional to clock up one million likes for its Facebook page. That's more than the London Evening Standard and Daily Express combined.
Add in its other Facebook accounts - particularly its Liverpool FC page, Everton FC page and What's On page - and the number of likes ticks up towards two million.
Its Trinity Mirror stablemate, the Manchester Evening News, is ploughing a similarly rich seam of success on the platform, particularly for its dedicated football pages (its Manchester United Facebook page has over three million likes), but the Echo is some distance ahead of the MEN - and every other regional - in terms of its core brand. And success for publishers on the platform is not a given - the Yorkshire Post, for instance, has just chalked up 7,000 likes.
So what is its secret? We spoke to Steve Graves, the Echo's executive editor for audience engagement, who leads the digital team - under the overall leadership of digital editor Maria Breslan - behind the paper's social strategy.
40 half-hour slots a day
The Echo website currently receives between 400,000 and 500,000 unique visitors a day. Of those, around 100,000 can be expected to have arrived from Facebook (although when we spoke, the site had driven over 900,000 unique visitors in the previous six days). Facebook dwarfs Twitter as a deliverer of traffic, making up around 75% of all its social channels.
Experience and trial and error has informed the way the paper uses Facebook. While its reporters' breaking news lines deluge Twitter, Facebook is the arena for its "very best content", Graves says, where the best version of a story is posted.
"We produce over 100 pieces of content each day as a newsroom," Graves says, "but we just have 40 half-hour slots for Facebook, starting at 5.30am."
The types of stories evolve as the day progresses - in the morning, there are likely to be more breaking stories around traffic, travel and weather. As lunchtime approaches, they'll look to introduce a bit more fun into content - a quiz perhaps, or something related to a trending story - and it saves the best stories of the day for the sweet spot of Facebook consumption, between around 7.30 and 10 in the evening.
"The newsfeeds tend to be less crowded in the evening and we try to capitalise on that," adds Graves. "We also know that video is more likely to do well when people are browsing in the evening, rather than when people are at their work computers at 10am."
From an engagement perspective, hyperlocal stories tend to fly on Facebook. "Whether positive or negative, there's a much higher ratio of engagement when people knows the streets involved and can identify with the story." Facebook messages is also just about the most popular way for readers to get in touch with the paper, and the Echo looks to respond to every enquiry or lead.
Trinity Mirror targets "local and engaged" audiences with latest digital-first strategySince the much-heralded Tell Ali relaunch, there's also been a more conscious effort to post stories that "celebrate the best things about Liverpool, the things that people feel proud of", adds Graves.
Other stories that typically do well on the platform include those that give people the opportunity to peep inside places they wouldn't normally see - whether an expensive house on the market or a historic building.
Isn't there a constant temptation to stretch the boundaries of what actually is a Liverpool story in the never-ending quest for clicks?
"We're very conscious of what is our USP," claims Graves. "Probably 95% or more of our stories are Liverpool specific. Occasionally we will share a national or world news story, but the Echo as a brand has always offered national news in print. But we know that our reason for existing is to be not any other brand out there."
That said, it does look to piggyback on daily trending stories while finding local angles for newsworthy stories, such as 'How many of Jeremy Corbyn's policies do you agree with?'
Keeping a light touch on comments
Even someone with a cursory interest in Facebook will know it is a fertile ground for comments of the most offensive and libellous kind. While the Echo avoids posting stories about ongoing criminal trials for this very reason, Graves admits it is a battle to allow people the freedom to have their say.
"With Facebook you can only post-moderate comments, so we are constantly monitoring to ensure that when people are abusive or racist or similar, we can very quickly hide or delete those comments. Where people are just having an endless argument, we try to be as light touch as we can and let people have their say, but there are lines that are crossed."
Given the lightning speed with which Facebook stories can spread, it's also careful not to post graphic images as the main featured image on a post, perhaps alongside a story about animal cruelty. "We might publish it on the Echo site itself and warn people so that they can decide to click through, but if an image like that just appears on your feed, you haven't made that decision," Graves adds.
Facebook dependence is an issue for many news publishers today and the Echo discovered the other side of its own dependency back in March. In what was described elsewhere in the industry as a ‘Faceboocalypse’, the social network made an overnight change to its news feed algorithm that drastically reduced the reach of many news sites' posts, in what was an attempt to ensure that newsfeeds weren't so dominated by news brands.
The Echo did not escape: indeed, it suddenly lost somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 clicks a day. Trinity Mirror hastily sought a meeting with Facebook, and the resultant learnings have helped to claw back the lost ground.
"It placed an emphasis on us to post better content that had to be as good as it could possibly be," says Graves. "We had to learn what would make our Facebook page more valuable to Facebook, and so now we know that sometimes a native video or a picture from one of our photographers is just as valuable as a link clicking through to the site.
"We also reduced the regularity of our posts from 20-minute slots - we were finding that it was just too much. The reach of our best stories was being squashed, and counterintuitively, posting fewer stories gives us a better result. Facebook will continue to refine their algorithm so we will keep on learning."
Although Trinity has recently confirmed a move to a new digital-first strategy involving an increased use of analytics, there is as yet no target-setting within the Echo digital team for numbers of likes or shares, or similar.
Graves acknowledges however that the global appeal of its football teams has brought a lot of people to its Facebook page, changing the nature of its audience to one where there's as much of a contingent from Bali as there is from Bootle.
And that's likely to mean more targeting for Facebook posts: "If there's a major crash in Liverpool we might start to limit the post so that only people in the area see it. Targeting specific members of your audience is another of the key things in the future that Facebook will reward."
The future of regional news: delivering bespoke geolocational stories to your newsfeed. It's a world away from a newspaper through the letterbox.