Social engagement catches fire at 'Firehouse' magazine

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For the more than 1.1 million Americans who fight fires and respond to other emergencies, work is more than just a job—it's a calling. Firefighters' mutual respect and camaraderie show through even in online interactions. For more than 15 years, the monthly Firehouse magazine, along with its Web and event properties, has helped its audience stay in touch with the latest news, tactics and innovations in one of the world's most dangerous jobs. boasts an impressive monthly audience of more than 450,000 unique visitors, but audience interaction was not where the company wanted it to be. As many website operators can attest, convincing visitors to log in and participate is a constant struggle. However, Facebook is one place where firefighters, as well as millions of other online denizens, congregate every day. Even though the brand established a Facebook page, the team knew that Facebook success wasn't about publishing, but about stimulating conversation. So editors ditched the practice of simply reposting headlines in favor of posing questions that would spark conversation and debate. The questions included such queries as, “Have you ever responded to a fire in funeral home or coroner's office, and what type of unusual tactics did you need to use?” Some 25 members responded to that one. Another inquiry about how to secure emergency vehicles drew 23 comments. “Like” votes often run into the hundreds. The success of the Facebook initiative “boggles my mind,” said Peter Matthews, editor in chief of and himself a former firefighter. He and Publisher Mike Natchipolsky, a firefighter in Maryland, cooperate on much of the Facebook content. In the year since the Facebook initiative started, more than 75,000 firefighters have registered a “like” vote, bringing the total to 124,000. The key to the brand's Facebook engagement is understanding its audience and focusing on the touch points that tap their passion for their work, Matthews said. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is such a touch point. Last September, the editors asked members to remember where they were when they heard the news about the terrorist attacks. “We got hundreds of comments,” Matthews said. Even that was dwarfed by the recent news of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Within five hours of posting the news, more than 275 members had commented. Many remembered comrades who had fallen in the line of duty in the aftermath of the attacks. Knowing the audience also means responding to their inherent pride in what they do. Firefighters traditionally line up for roll call at the beginning of each shift, so the Facebook team came up with the idea of a virtual roll call. Members are invited to sound off with their name, location, rank and length of service. One Sunday morning in January, 444 firefighters answered the call. It's all about camaraderie, you see. is one of 16 winners of BtoB's Social Media Awards, and will be honored in New York May 24. Peter Matthews will be there, and I hope you will, too. Paul Gillin is an Internet marketing consultant and author of three books on social media. He also writes the New Channels column in BtoB.
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