Ten Social Media Rules for Publishers and Journalists

At the massive 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin last year one key theme was clear – social media is now the most common way people – especially people under 40 – find out about the news. As an example, a recent Pew Research study says that about 30% of adults in the US get their news primarily from FaceBook.

If you’re a journalist or a publisher that should be a call to action.

The numbers are astounding. The top three SM sites – FaceBook, Twitter and LinkedIn – have a total of 2.3 billion active user accounts (almost half using mobile devices). And, collectively, they produce over 30,000 posts and messages per second, around the clock and around the planet in over 70 languages. And there are dozens of other social media sites and apps, drawing tens of millions more, many of them in the hard-to-reach 16-28 crowd.

Many of our publishing clients draw over 30% of their site traffic from social media, and it’s growing. For most of them, social now drives more visits than direct, search-based or paid promotions. People get the key elements of a news event on social sites from posts by others there. And, if they want to see more, they’ll follow links or mentions in these posts to the original stories online.

Most publications are active in social media, with editorial, marketing and audience development people reaching out to draw traffic and revenue back to their own sites. Sadly, much of this social media outreach (SMO), especially from journalists and editors, still feels like a me-too lip service exercise.

Most newsrooms we work in – newspapers, magazines or TV – are made up of about 15% digital keeners, 15% old-school journalists who still have not embraced the new era and the huge group in the middle – the 70% who try to think digital-first and are active to varying degrees on social media. That’s the most promising group, because that’s where most of the change will happen.

The key message to them is simple – news and opinion is not a one-sided ‘schedule and destination’ business any more. For decades, the news media gathered and polished news and opinion on their own schedules and delivered it to specific destinations for their audience to consume (the morning paper, the evening TV news, etc.).

Today, anyone with a laptop, tablet or smartphone can post their own news and opinion, complete with photos or videos, anywhere online in minutes, day or night. More importantly, social media is increasingly the place where news is posted, discovered, consumed and discussed 24/7, poaching audience and revenue from traditional news organizations.

Social media, then, is the new battlefield where journalists and publishers must reach out to inform and engage their audiences, building brand and traffic back to their own sites to generate ad and subscription revenue. Savvy publishers and editors have already accepted this new reality and are moving social media outreach into the very heart of their work every day. People still like to tell and read stories, so they’re a valuable social currency.

With this in mind, a few tips to make your organization’s social media outreach more effective …

  1. First, and most importantly, don’t lose sight of your real strategic goals. Posting and promoting your news and opinion on social media is a tactic with three main goals:
    • To get people on social media to discover your content and engage with it in some fashion, ideally sharing it with others – audience engagement is the new oxygen, and this can extend your reach dramatically.
    • To build your brand online, either as a news organization and/or as an individual journalist.
    • To bring traffic back to your own site or app, driving ad and/or subscription revenue.If your social media posts are not driving these metrics (especially the last one) you’re wasting your time and effort.
  2. Post early and often. Social media content needs to be brief and current. Two or three sentences (and maybe a quick photo) when a story is breaking beats five paragraphs later on. Best practice in many newsrooms is a short SM post first, then a second SM post and a short initial story for the web site as the story develops, and later, if the story dictates, a final version of the story for the web site and the next print edition or broadcast.
  3. Twitter is fast but ephemeral – it builds buzz and brand visibility but not a lot of traffic to your site. The celebrities who tweet and their millions of followers make it seem bigger than it really is.
  4. FaceBook, with three times the audience of Twitter, is a bit slower, a lot more engaging and drives traffic to your site. Most news sites get six to eight times more traffic from FaceBook than Twitter, so FaceBook is their focus with SMO work.
  5. Say it with pictures. Or charts. Or Info-graphics. Or maps. Or an editorial cartoon. Tell your story visually whenever possible. A striking photo with a short caption is much more likely to get shared than a text-only post.
  6. Keep is short and sweet for the mobile user. About half of social media users are on mobile devices, primarily smartphones with small screens. Keep your posts short and easily-digestible for them – a couple of sentences and a picture or short video works best.
  7. Getting people to share your SM posts is critical – so give them a reason to do that. There are a handful of things that motivate people to share things on social media…
    • Posting important or striking statistics or lists of tips or resources offers practical value which people like to share with others.
    • Each post should evoke one or more of these emotions or reactions:- this seems credible / believable – it makes sense

      – this appeals to me / is interesting to me

      – this excites me / makes me happy (or angry)

      – this helps me feel ‘in the know’ / makes me feel

      like an insider

      When framing or writing your SM posts try and incorporate one or more of these elements to boost sharing.

  8. Watch how your posts are doing, and react accordingly. If one of your posts is generating a lot of discussion you need to be IN that discussion. Don’t just slide your posts under the door and move on. But give up on the idea that you can really control it – be a friendly participant, not ‘the expert’ or the would-be boss.
  9. Focus on value in your posts (see #7 above), not just clickbait. Don’t just tease the story or list – give them the key content (briefly). People are increasingly negative about teaselines, and, worse, FaceBook, Google and Twitter are changing their relevance algorithms to increasingly punish this type of content.
  10. Understand that social media, done properly, can drive a lot of traffic back to your site, but not necessarily engagement there. Research shows that visitors coming in from social media have shorter visit lengths (and less page views) that visitors coming in from other sources. Better (and clearer) site design, navigation and content architecture drives user engagement with your content – which is essential to build a loyal audience.