Developing a voice
When Stephanie Grimes arrived at the Las Vegas Review-Journal two years ago as its first audience development director, she arrived to find social media was “a headline RSS feed.”
“My first priority was to turn that off and start testing content,” she said.
Whether you’re developing a voice for the first time or are changing an existing one, here are four things to include in your strategy.
Relate to your audience
MLive Media Group, which publishes eight Michigan newspapers, looks at the demographics of each account’s followers and particularly the most engaged users to adapt a relatable voice.
“We know that our followers expect a certain level of voice from us,” community engagement director Jen Eyer said. “It’s more of a conversational tone. For example, if we had a story about a kid who did something really awesome, we’ll take an opinion like that; we’ll flat-out say, ‘This is an awesome story.’ It’s hard to argue with that.”
Because the Arizona Daily Star’s audience looks to the media organization for local coverage, social media editor Irene McKisson primarily posts stories about the area using language that reflects the Daily Star’s relationship with the community — for example, using “our” instead of “Tucsonans.”
“I will say ‘our’ as if we’re inserting ourselves into the community because I think when you read that on Facebook, you read that as, this is our newspaper, this is our content, and our newspaper understands the community that it’s in,” she said. “The voice for us has been a young, digital voice that understands Tucson really well as a Tucson native and uses casual language but is also an expert of everything that we cover.”
And if you’re part of the audience you’re trying to reach, don’t forget to take into account how you might respond as an individual.
“The best thing to think about is: Would you like, comment on or share this?” Politico social media editor Trevor Eischen said.
Write posts tailored for the platform
Grimes of the Review-Journal started at a time when the media outlet’s digital and social media strategies were undergoing great change. As part of this, she wanted to emphasize that social media is a platform separate from the organization’s other products — the print newspaper, the website and the app — and therefore has its own voice and strategy.
“I always say, ‘We’re not a newspaper; we’re a media outlet that happens to include a print product,’” she said.
Many editors emphasized the importance of taking the specific social media platform into consideration as well.
“The channel dictates certain norms, certain protocols, and ignoring them is foolish,” warned George Kelly, a reporter and former online coordinator for the Bay Area News Group, which publishes 11 daily newspapers and 27 weeklies in California. “Even if you get them wrong to start, there’s room to get better; there’s room to figure out what works.”
We’re not a newspaper; we’re a media outlet that happens to include a print product.
For example, The Denver Post will tag pages of restaurants that are involved in stories it posts on Facebook. And for all posts, the organization takes advantage of the editable fields in the Facebook link box: the headline, the description and the photo.
“We try to use those three spots as best as we can to tell our story on Facebook,” social media editor Sara Grant said. “The description box where you type something out after you post a link, that’s where we’ll do a statistic or description or a quote. When people share it, our description might not necessarily get carried, but that headline and what’s attached to the link is what gets shared, so we want to make sure that we get what we really want to be shared out.”
On Twitter, then, that means incorporating hashtags and users’ handles into tweets.
“Our preference is definitely to write (the hashtag) into the tweet when it makes sense,” said Brian Smith, engagement editor at The Des Moines Register.
Create identities for newsroom accounts
Samantha Ragland, digital content strategist at The Palm Beach Post, recommends being an active participant on each social platform your newsroom uses or wishes to adopt to become familiar with the platform’s purpose and personality. Then, editors can identify exact missions for each social account instead of treating each as “a content dumping ground.”
“You should shape and execute these missions to best serve your users,” she said.
A good place to start is with the overall brand identity for the publication.
Even though Erica Palan oversees audience engagement efforts for Philly.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, each account uses its own voice. The Philadelphia Inquirer, a newspaper that considers itself the paper of record, is a more serious broadsheet newspaper; the Philadelphia Daily News, a tabloid newspaper, is more sassy and fun; and Philly.com can take advantage of the freedom it has as an online-only publication to be more casual.
Erica Smith, The Virginian-Pilot’s digital news editor, says its social media accounts aim to be “bold in attitude” to complement the reputation of other aspects of the brand.
“We have a strong history of bold design, so it’s taking that bold mentality and transforming it into a social media presence,” she said.
Media organizations with a “mascot,” such as the Chicago Tribune’s Colonel Tribune, can have an advantage. When Smith coordinated social media for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she would channel the Weatherbird, the weather- and beer-loving cartoon bird that’s been featured on the print edition’s front page for more than a century.
“That was easy to do; it had a personality, and it was fun,” she said.
Many media organizations manage multiple accounts or verticals, which allows for voice to differ from the media organization’s main account. These additional accounts might have different missions, goals, audiences and content, so it might make sense to develop a different voice for each.
For example, although the voice of the Omaha World-Herald’s main social media accounts is mostly straightforward, the same cannot be said for those of its sister pages. The Husker football social media accounts will often offer more commentary or voice (humor or snark, for example) because of the columnists who write about the team, said Leia Mendoza, deputy online director for engagement. Social media interactions for Momaha, a website for parents and families, tend to be “kind of a conversation among parents.” And Live Well Nebraska, a health and fitness website, is motivational and helpful in hopes of being “a resource to people to better their lives.”
It’s taking that bold mentality and transforming it into a social media presence.
At Politico, all accounts have “an element of being an insider,” but each specific way conveys that differently, said Eischen of Politico. The main Facebook account has more of a newsy voice, whereas the magazine’s account is more reflective and in-depth, and The Agenda is more idea-centric.
Some media organizations even have created social media accounts to showcase specific types of content. Although these accounts — sometimes called verticals, passion pages or sister pages — might take a different posting approach than the main social media accounts, they are attached in some way, whether obvious or not, to a main brand and help drive website traffic. For example, The Palm Beach Post’s Weird Florida account has more personality and pokes fun at the strange goings-on in Florida more than the main account would, said Ragland, digital content strategist.
At the same time, however, too many voices can be a bad thing. When Palan joined Philly.com, she discovered about 150 branded accounts affiliated with the organization, many of them duplicative efforts.
“We had too many voices out there, and people didn’t know what to follow,” she said.
She spent much of her first six months merging Facebook pages and reclaiming ownership of Twitter accounts, which sometimes involved working with representatives from each company. Today, the three Philadelphia publications have about 20 accounts total.
“That was a big challenge we overcame: to have a few strong social media presences instead of lots of weaker ones,” she said.
Use different posting styles for different content types
Even if you have an overall voice established for your brand, still keep the piece of content you’re posting in mind when thinking about the voice of a post.
An overwhelming consensus among engagement editors is that, above all, news ethics are of the utmost importance. Even for those media outlets that regularly employ voice, such as The Palm Beach Post, it is not a top priority in a breaking news situation.
“Voice is important, but in traditional news coverage, it’s not necessary,” said Ragland of The Palm Beach Post.
Many are concerned about a question or statement being perceived as biased or leading, or something being insensitive. In that case, they tend to play it safe.
“I never want us to tweet anything that can get us into trouble because it was worded carelessly,” said Grimes of the Review-Journal. “In that case, it’s easier to just go straight from the story.”
Keep the piece of content you’re posting in mind when thinking about the voice of a post.
Some editors found that writing casually worked, especially when sharing lighter content.
“Being conversational and seeming like a friend helps (for lighter stories),” Mendoza of the Omaha World-Herald said. “It’s more of a voice of a reporter, just trying to portray that something is a really cool story, or this is a story you should read and why.”
Where the content is published might also be something to consider when writing a post. McKisson said digital-only content — slideshows, galleries, weather, nature, “jokes that only make sense to people who live online” — will often be shared in the Arizona Daily Star’s casual Tucson-native voice.
Our content analysis showed that posts using a casual voice received more likes on average.
The Review-Journal’s priority with breaking news is to be fast, be accurate and provide context — even if that context doesn’t come from its website. For example, on the day of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, a breaking story of high interest to readers, the media organization tweeted about nothing else for six hours, giving statements from local politicians, retweeting reporters in its Washington bureau and sending readers to the majority opinion.
“Only about a third of our tweets that morning actually linked to our website; most of it was just context,” Grimes said. “That’s our goal with breaking news. If there’s a major fire, we’re retweeting pictures and trying to provide information on how fast it’s growing and what’s going on out there.”
For enterprise news stories or investigations, which might allow for more time to write a post, McKisson of the Arizona Daily Star will discern whether there’s an angle of the story an audience might like, then go from there.
Figuring out the emotional response content will most likely elicit can also help determine how you might share a story — or whether you share it at all. As Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman found in the 2012 study “What Makes Online Content Viral?” many newsrooms have found that positive content generally tends to outperform negative content.
Although The Courier-Journal produces and shares a variety of content online, social media posts showcasing pride in the community or state typically have performed well. “American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown was a huge thing for us,” said Kim Kolarik, director of community engagement and digital product development. “Someone on my team created a medallion that people could share, and it was hugely popular.”
More specifically, Berger and Milkman’s study showed, positive and negative content that evokes a high-energy emotion (such as awe or anger) performs better than content that evokes a low-energy emotion (such as sadness).
Although we did not measure the energy of emotions as part of the content analysis, we did look at the emotional response the content was likely to evoke: positive, negative, controversial, weird/funny or other, which includes content with no particular emotional response. The content analysis found that posts sharing content likely to elicit a positive, controversial or no emotional response received fewer shares and fewer link clicks on average.
When looking at what characteristics performed the best, we found that positive and weird/funny content got the most likes; controversial, negative and weird/funny content got the most comments; and negative and weird/funny content got the most shares and link clicks. One possible takeaway is that content that surprises followers — as much weird/funny content is — leads to more engagement.
For some perspective, here’s how the emotional responses were represented overall in the study:
- Positive (33 percent)
- Negative (27 percent)
- No emotional response (24 percent)
- Controversial (11 percent)
- Weird / funny (5 percent)
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