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It’s clear that social networks have become a new kind of Holy Grail in the quest to build web traffic. What seems less clear is what all the tweeting, Tumblr-ing and Facebook posting is designed to do — and how to gauge its effectiveness.

Gotham Gazette (GG), a small site that cannot afford consultants and does not have a marketing person, has worked to create Facebook pages and to tweet to try to draw readers to our pages. We’ve all taken this on (with varying levels of zeal) — since gone are the days when reporters didn’t also have to do marketing (alas!).

The effort has gradually been building, with many thousands (not yet millions) following Gotham Gazette and its reporters on Twitter and signing up as our fans on Facebook. What this has not done, though, is raise our traffic.

As someone who works exclusively online but wonders how I’ll have my a.m. coffee when (or if) the New York Times stops printing, I’ve been slow to figure out why. But as colleagues and others tell me, many people who might previously have come to GG for their daily fix of NYC news, now get that from their Twitter feed. Often the tweet (or Facebook posting) of our story tells them all they want to know.

An Albany Story

Recently we ran a story by our Albany reporter David King reporting that some upstate Republican state senators were floating the idea of charging tolls on some of the now-free bridges leading in to Manhattan and using the proceeds to fund mass transit, a scheme long embraced by urban environmentalists and transit advocates. In return, though, the senators — to the concern of many of those same advocates — want to repeal a payroll tax that provides funding for mass transit.

It was a good story that had flown under the radar in the city. So I tweeted it on both my own feed (GailNRobinson) and at GG's (gothamgazette):

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Of course, I hoped that would pique interest and send followers rapidly clicking to the Gotham Gazette story. No doubt some who care deeply about mass transit and/or tolls did. But probably most people did not — the tweet told them as much as they wanted to know. Back in the pre-Twitter era, some of those people might have come directly to GG.

On the other hand, though, my hunch is many people saw the tweet who would never have come to Gotham Gazette, pre-Twitter era or not.

Assessing Results

So how do we assess this? Was it a good idea to tweet the story? Could the tweet have done more to pique people’s interest? (I’m almost sure the answer to that one is yes, but I’m not sure how it could have done that.)

A similar issue exists with Facebook, where the posting can be longer. I have engaged in extensive discussions of my articles on education with Facebook friends, many of whom based their comments and arguments not on a reading of my full story but on the paragraph on Facebook.

This leads to the issue of what one’s goals are. If it is to increase visibility, the social media almost certainly can help. People using social media who never would have come to your home site will now see your material, expanding your audience.

If, though, you hope that social media will increase your page visits, the answer seems less clear. Recently I heard that an organization that publishes a prestigious, expensive almost academic journal had hired someone whose job is to use social media to drive traffic not to the organizations’ Twitter feed, Facebook page or even website but to subscribe to their (rather high-priced) print publication. Good luck to that new employee — but it seems a heavy and long lift to me.

In some ways, this may be an easier issue for a non-profit site like Gotham Gazette than for a profit-making one. We are published by Citizens Union Foundation, and our goal (and theirs) is to increase awareness of local government, issues and policies. While I think the long story on the transit funding did more to increase that comprehension than the tweet, the tweet clearly is better than nothing.

But that does not mean it is not a problem for us, as I blogged about previously. We need to bring in enough money to stay afloat and — correct me if I’m wrong here — many advertisers and funders have not figured out how to grasp these new metrics. And that’s not surprising since few of us know either.