Meet the New Influencers, Same as the Old Influencers (?)

Posted by: in Social Media Insights & Trends on December 2, 2010

One of the key elements of the WCG media approach, which endeavors to do away with media labels (no more “old” media or “new” media or “social” media or “mainstream” media — just media) is an effort to measure how frequently content is shared. The ability to create content that is broadly shared by social media isn’t the only element of influence, but in an increasingly social online world, it’s a crucial component.

Part of the motivation for moving away from labels is that they are all too often misleading: for all the hue and cry about the death of “traditional” media, most of the top online news sites are extensions of existing print, radio or television institutions. But I was curious how those sites stacked up in the “sharability” department. (I was prompted, in part, by my colleague Marshall Sponder, who included a link in his post of two weeks ago that suggested old-school journalism was less “engaging” than blogging.)

So I ran a brief and more or less unscientific test last week: I took the top four stories from four sources — the New York Times health page (still the premier “old” media outlet), WebMD (the most trafficked health-specific website), the Huffington Post health page (among the most successful digital-only outlets) and Diabetes Mine (a well-regarded and brilliantly written blog) — and ran them through BackType, a tool that measures, among other things, the number of Facebook actions (likes and comments) and the number of Tweets generated.

The results were interesting. For almost every publication, one of the four stories I checked had gone viral, sparking a huge number of reactions in social media. A New York Times piece on whether technology was rewiring our brains generated an astounding 3,000 tweets and more than 14,000 reaction on Facebook. Huffington Post’s examination of contaminants on drinking glasses prompted nearly 500 “shares” on Facebook and Twitter. And WebMD’s piece on the FDA’s move to take Darvon and Darvocet off of the market generated nearly 1,600 Facebook “Likes” and comments.

So to make a more accurate assessment, I lopped off the most-shared story and averaged the rest. In this analysis, the Times fared the best, with an average of 130 mentions on Twitter and more than 200 on Facebook. WebMD pieces generated an average of 73 Twitter reactions and 123 Facebook actions. Huffington Post articles, in general, saw 17 Twitter mentions and 45 Facebook “Likes” and comments. In the blog world, Diabetes Mine posts averaged about a dozen shares across both sites. (Full results are below.)

I should note that there are severe limitations here. Four stories is a small sample, and the stories selected may not be representative. Some stories were online (or featured) for longer than others. And it is nearly impossible to assess what the overall traffic is to any specific story and how that might influence social activity. It’s entirely possible, for instance, that WebMD pieces are read by a smaller audience but shared more often (as a percentage of readers) than a Times pieces. And it’s not fair to judge huge, generalist outlets with focused bloggers such as Amy Tenderich from Diabetes Mine, who carry enormous sway with specific audiences (just ask anyone even tangentially related to diabetes).

Still, viewed broadly, the experiment has a clear take-home message: in a fractured media world, there are no easy rules to help identify which reporters will have the greatest impact. The New York Times isn’t hampered by lack of engagement. The Huffington Post resonated with readers worried about chemical contaminates. WebMD had the most-shared Darvocet piece of any outlet I examined. From a media relations point of view, it drives home that I need to be reading a huge swath of outlets; predicting the single outlet most likely to send a story viral is a tricky game.

Story/Outlet Tweets Facebook (total)
Technology and the Brain/NYT 3404 14305
New Eye Treatments/NYT 8 86
Health Law Implications/NYT 294 494
Home Care/NYT 88 114
Lead in Drinking Cups/HuffPo 197 248
Antibiotics:Pros and Cons/HuffPo 24 4
PMS and Chocolate/HuffPo 23 81
Food Safety/HuffPo 4 50
TSA Screening and Pumps/Diabetes Mine 15 15
Top Search Terms/Diabetes Mine 5 4
Diabetes and Media Attention/Diabetes Mine 15 1
Geroge Canyon/Diabetes Mine 5 6
Darvocet Banned/WebMD 123 1569
Good Movie Snacks/WebMD 37 58
Avoiding Airport Germs/WebMD 100 101
Facebook and Asthma Attacks/WebMD 82 209

Note: BackType searches were  done on the top four stories on each site as of 3:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 22.

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a managing director at W2O Group, where he oversees influencer relations. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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