Finding a voice on social media: Insights for local newsrooms
As more people, especially in younger generations, rely on social media to stay informed, news organizations must figure out how to speak to readers in these personal environments. How can a journalist’s news posts stand out in a newsfeed of both current events and family vacation photos?
What we found by examining this question is that there’s not a simple answer, or even a single one. Several factors about how a social media post is written affect the engagement it receives. They include the number and demographics of account followers, time of posts, ever-changing platform algorithms and voice, defined for the purpose of this study as how a social media post might sound when read aloud.
As part of this year’s American Press Institute summer fellowship, I gathered insights about the impact of voice on social media engagement in two ways. I talked with engagement editors across the country about best practices in their newsrooms, challenges they’ve overcome and challenges they still face. I also partnered with 10 local newsrooms and performed content analysis of more than 1,200 of their Facebook posts to gather quantitative insights about what resonates with users — voice and other factors.
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I found that voice varies among media organizations. Some engagement editors said they are afraid to create a unique voice; others are struggling to find one. Those who have defined a voice and developed a strategy might strive to come off as an authoritative source for the community, or as a member of the community itself — more like a know-it-all neighbor who can be a bit sassy.
We identified six basic types of “voice” that news organizations and journalists use for Facebook posts, some more successful than others:
1. Just the link
Posts can just include a link with no other identifying information; this tends to happen on Facebook, where inserting a link causes a box with other identifying information to appear.
Just 2 percent of posts in the content analysis were like this; the most common instances were sharing another user’s or page’s photo or sharing major community news. With the exception of a few posts about major community news, engagement on these types of posts was typically low.
2. Just the headline + link
Posts can consist of just the headline and the article link. Sometimes, the person posting might swap out a word or two — ”local” for “Atlanta,” for example — to add information that might be obvious on the news organization’s website but out of context on a feed of international information.
Just 4 percent of posts in the content analysis only included a headline with the link. Headlines for hard, breaking news seemed to drive decent site traffic when looking at link clicks overall. But many newsrooms say that long-term — and across all content — posts with headlines don’t drive as much engagement as posts that included other text.
“When (producers) take the time to really punch up their writing, we see a lot better results than if we just run a headline,” said Brian Smith, The Des Moines Register’s engagement editor.
3. Excerpt from the article
Posts can be direct excerpts from the text of the article. These excerpts are often ledes, nut graphs or interesting quotes or statistics. They can be, but aren’t always, enclosed in quotation marks.
About one-fourth of the posts analyzed contained these direct excerpts — and of those posts, about three-fourths contained excerpts with a formal news-writing voice, and about one-fourth with a casual voice. This style was most common for subjects that tend to be more serious and complex, such as education (about 33 percent), government (about 34 percent) and health (about 38 percent).
When just looking at posts that contained direct story excerpts, content shared that was not text-based — specifically, Storifys — received more link clicks on average. However, there were only a few Storifys included in the sample.
4. Blurb with formal news writing
Posts can contain polished language that one might use in formal, published writing — language that wouldn’t be out of place in a traditional newspaper article. These posts often use complete sentences to share an interesting fact or reword the nut graph. If these posts use puns, they’re sharp and witty.
About one-fourth of the posts analyzed used this original, formal voice. In the content analysis, there were a higher proportion of formal posts for topics that tend to be more serious; for example, about 43 percent of posts about public safety (which includes crimes, courts and traffic accidents) are written like this.
When looking just at posts using a formal voice, more serious topics performed the best. Posts that shared hard news content received more likes, comments and shares on average. Posts sharing content likely to evoke a negative emotional response received more comments, shares and link clicks on average. And posts sharing content likely to evoke a controversial emotional response received fewer likes but more comments, shares and link clicks on average.
5. Blurb with conversational language
Posts can be casual bursts of information conveyed in a way you might speak to a friend or colleague. These posts could come from a specific persona, but they’re often just conversational in nature. These posts might be sassy or snarky, use cultural references, include slang or abbreviations, or make a joke or pun. They could also include a non-controversial truth or opinion, such as how this dog might be the cutest thing you’ll see all week. About half of these posts include first- or second-person language, much more than any other type of post, content analysis shows.
About two-fifths (43 percent) of the posts analyzed used an original, casual voice. The content analysis found that topics with lighter content — such as those about community, entertainment, lifestyle, sports and weather — had more casual posts than the average topic (about 48 percent).
When looking just at posts with a casual voice, no one characteristic stood out as bringing in more likes, comments, shares or link clicks on average. However, posts that shared photos received fewer likes on average, and posts sharing content that elicited a positive emotional response received fewer comments on average.
6. The cliffhanger
Posts can use suspenseful language and leave out key bits of information to mislead people and entice them to click on the story link, hence the term “clickbait.” None of the posts we looked at were classified as this.
Many engagement editors want to stay far away from this style Upworthy and others popularized (and that Upworthy is even turning away from now). “I try to be really careful about not posting something that I can’t deliver,” said Irene McKisson of the Arizona Daily Star. “You lose trust that way really fast.”
What content analysis showed
Looking at more than 1,200 Facebook posts from 10 newsrooms, we found that although newsrooms employed various tactics when writing posts, most newsrooms tended to write a majority of their posts in one consistent voice.
We looked at more than voice, however; we also looked at other characteristics of posts and the content shared in them. Below are the characteristics we looked at and, overall, which characteristics received the most engagement on average across newsrooms:
- The voice of the post, as we detailed above. Posts with a casual voice, a direct story excerpt or no written text got the most likes on average; posts with a casual voice or no written text got the most comments and shares on average; and posts using a formal voice or with no text got the most link clicks on average. The few posts without any text either had very little engagement or, if about major community news, had a lot of engagement, so this is likely an outlier when making recommendations for posts in general.
- The type of post shared. Posts that shared an external link and posts that shared two or more photos got the most likes, comments, shares and link clicks on average. However, most of the posts in this sample were links, so further analysis with a more diverse sample could be beneficial.
- The purpose of the post. Posts that sent some information and sought other information — for example, shared information about a news story and asked followers a question — received on average more likes, comments and shares than posts just performing one of those functions. However, posts that just sent information about a topic received the most link clicks on average.
- The language used in the post. Posts written in second-person got the most likes and shares on average; posts without any text or written in second-person got the most comments on average; and posts written in second- or third-person or without any text got the most link clicks on average. The few posts without any text either had very little engagement or, if about major community news, had a lot of engagement, so this is likely an outlier when making recommendations for posts in general.
- The multimedia shared in a post. Posts with an embedded photo, including those in the link box, got the most likes, comments, shares and link clicks.
- The topic of the news reported by the post. On average, posts about weather, business and community, entertainment or lifestyle got the most likes; posts about weather, business and public safety got the most comments; posts about weather and public safety got the most shares; and posts about public safety, weather and business got the most link clicks. Posts sharing content about weather proved to be a significant outlier; content about weather received on average many more likes, shares, comments and link clicks than other content. We excluded these posts, which would skew the data set in a statistical analysis, for the overall correlations discussed later to get a clearer picture of what works.
- The voice of the content shared. Posts sharing content written in a formal voice saw slightly more engagement on average than posts sharing content written in a casual voice, but both of these voices performed a lot better across all metrics than content shared that wasn’t in a traditional article format — for example, just a video.
- The style of content shared in a post. News stories and features got the most likes, shares and link clicks on average, and news stories got the most comments on average.
- The likely emotional response a reader would have to the content shared in the post. 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.
Our content analysis also looked at correlations between types of engagement received — likes, comments, shares and link clicks — and the characteristics of both the social media posts themselves and the news content shared in these posts. These provide an idea of what post characteristics have worked well for the legacy media outlets included in the analysis, a starting ground for characteristics that also might be successful in other newsrooms.
- Having a lot of one type of engagement means that, on average, other engagement metrics are higher, too. For example, the more likes a post has, the more comments there are on average. This applies to likes, comments, shares and link clicks.
- More likes on average went to posts that used a casual voice, included a direct story excerpt, sent some information to people and sought other information from them, or posts without any text. The few posts without any text either had very little engagement or, if about major community news, had a lot of engagement, so this is likely an outlier when making recommendations for posts in general.
- More shares on average went to posts that send information (as opposed to crowdsourcing) or that embedded a video.
- Fewer shares on average went to posts sharing photos or content likely to evoke a controversial, a positive, or no emotional response.
- More link clicks on average went to posts that shared news content or that just shared a link to an article. Again, the posts not including text could be an outlier.
- Fewer link clicks on average went to posts sharing content likely to evoke a controversial, a positive, or no emotional response.
More details about the content analysis will be discussed throughout this strategy study.
Decisions about voice don’t end with scheduling a few social media posts. The same posture transcends how media organizations interact with their online community through comments, crowdsourcing and one-on-one interactions.
This study showcases examples of how media organizations, particularly legacy ones, have successfully developed and implemented a voice into content and interactions on social media.
Many of these examples are supported by content analysis of legacy newspapers’ Facebook posts, the findings of which will be explored throughout this best practices guide. It also includes suggestions for how to make social voice a priority in your newsroom — whether with one social media editor or a team of 10 web producers — and integrating it into your daily workflow.
The examples in the following chapters provide recommendations for voice best practices, as well as methods and resources that can be used to help integrate them into your newsroom:
- Developing a voice
- Implementing a voice
- Integrating voice into your workflow
- Interacting with your community
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)
Implementing a voice
Before Irene McKisson of the Arizona Daily Star began posting on social media, about 30 people in the newsroom were — and in all different styles. After she had decided what the voice was going to sound like, she revoked others’ social posting permissions and tried to make the voice of each post consistent. But she wasn’t afraid to make further changes.
“The audience you’re hoping to attract is a good way to start with what kind of voice you want to use, but it’s going to change as you see what works and what doesn’t work,” she said. “It’s important to stay nimble and flexible. If you shift it even a little based on what people were reacting to, you could do better.”
When implementing a social media voice, our research suggests you should do the following.
Experiment to find what works
Many engagement editors recommend minimizing fear about posting in this new voice.
“The ‘go big or go home’ mentality works a lot better than ‘what if I screw it up,’” said Erica Smith of the Virginian-Pilot.
Erica Palan, audience engagement manager of Philly.com, the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer, recommends thinking of different ways to post content. She tells her reporters to think about four kinds of tweets: one with just the headline, one with a quote from the story, one with an interesting fact or statistic, and one complementing a visual.
“Mixing up the styles of how you tweet the same story gives more entry points into a story,” she said. “Simply tweeting a headline once is not enough.”
Jen Eyer of MLive Media Group, which publishes eight Michigan newspapers, said when writing a Facebook post lead-in, she always encourages thinking about the angle of the story people are most likely going to talk about or share, two valuable forms of engagement on that platform. In other words, “When you’re with a group of people at the bar, how would you start talking about this story?”
If you’ve found a way to share a type of story that resonates with and engages your audience, don’t be afraid to use that way again, said Nathaniel Miller, The Sacramento Bee’s interactivity editor. For example, when sharing stories about proposed bills, he might say something about the bill and include the sentence “Should this bill become a law?”
Evaluate your successes and failures
Once you’ve begun to post content, it’s important to evaluate how posts performed, something Eyer recommends doing daily. One way to do that is quantitatively through analytics.
Facebook and Twitter, among other social media platforms, offer detailed analytics, as well as downloadable spreadsheets with this data from a range of dates from which you can select. Many third-party social media scheduling apps, such as Buffer, offer this, too.
The best metrics to use when determining what “works” will depend on what you are trying to achieve; Joy Mayer, director of community outreach at the Columbia Missourian, has brainstormed a list organized by goals to get you started. If you would like to take what we did in this content analysis and apply it to your newsroom, check out the metrics we used in our methodology.
Although analytics are useful, many engagement editors also recommend looking at the qualitative data available.
The best metrics to use when determining what “works” will depend on what you are trying to achieve.
“On Facebook, that means looking at every single post, reading all of the comments on all of the posts, then taking lessons away from that — making changes about what you post and how you post it and paying attention to how things did when you presented them a certain way,” said McKisson of the Arizona Daily Star.
At the same time, Stephanie Grimes, audience development director at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, emphasizes that “one complaint does not a disaster make.”
“How we overcame (the challenge of rebranding) was just persistence: not caving because one person complained about us,” she said. “We’re not perfect, but we’re doing our best to make sure that everything we post fits that tone that we’re going for, and we’re trying to constantly find new ways to adapt to the community.”
Even if you think you’ve written a great post that will get a lot of traction, it might not. Leia Mendoza, deputy online editor for engagement at the Omaha World-Herald, recommends evaluating not only the headlines, photos and text of each, but also the external factors that might influence the post’s performance, such as time.
“It’s a lot of figuring out the time of day and what people are thinking about at that time of day, week, season — (and) what type of content we are going to give them,” she said.
Many engagement editors also recommended keeping an eye on changes to the Facebook algorithm, which could impact how certain posts are presented, and to whom.
“They’re constantly changing their algorithms, and not just with people — also with pages,” said Sara Grant, social media editor at The Denver Post. “They no longer show you what pages your friends interact with (for example). It’s something we feel that almost every week, we should be changing our strategy.”
Integrating voice into your workflow
One person in a newsroom might work to develop a voice for social media posts, but for it to be most effective, everyone involved must work at it.
The best practices suggested below have helped newsrooms of differing sizes integrate voice into their workflows.
The Arizona Daily Star’s entire newsroom underwent about two years of training, both one-on-one and newsroom-wide, to make sure everyone was on the same page about social media practices and how to best use digital tools. The company also set internal goals that were included on each employee’s year-end evaluation. But the training didn’t stop there, social media editor Irene McKisson said.
“It changes so fast that it’s a constant process; I don’t think you’re ever done,” she said.
Even if there’s one person primarily in charge of social media, other members of the newsroom should feel comfortable posting after business hours, said Sara Grant, social media editor at The Denver Post.
Social media training might especially be beneficial when trying to bridge the generational gap in posting styles. Members of older generations might not be as comfortable using a conversational tone when posting on social media for a news organization, said Jeff Kidd, audience engagement editor at The Island Packet, The Beaufort Gazette and The State.
Even if there’s one person primarily in charge of social media, other members of the newsroom should feel comfortable posting after business hours.
Training also can be beneficial for those contributing to smaller newsroom accounts. Grant held a training session for designers, reporters and producers about taking cellphone photos and live-tweeting daily for YourHub accounts, which host The Denver Post’s hyperlocal coverage. People experimented and figured out what they were comfortable with, and Grant gave them feedback on their work.
“They each now on assignment take pictures and tweet live, but they also say, ‘Check back in the newspaper on Thursday for the full story,’” she said. “That allows me to retweet that off the house YourHub account and paint a really big picture of our hyperlocal coverage.”
More people managing a social media account also can improve understanding of what does well on social media, which can influence other areas of the newsroom. For the Flint Journal, one of MLive Media Group’s accounts, there used to be one community engagement specialist publishing throughout the week, with some additional help during weekends. But the team has since expanded to include both editors and reporters, who take shifts throughout the week during which they’re responsible for posting a certain number of times.
“It’s been a challenge to make sure that every person is creating good content and posting using the best practices,” said Jen Eyer, director of engagement at MLive. “The upside of that is that when we get all of these people fully up to speed, they’re going to understand much better and much deeper what kind of content does really well on social media, and that’s going to start showing in the stories that they produce.”
Each new Las Vegas Review-Journal employee — both on the editorial side and in the sales and marketing department, which produces in-house promotional posts — receives an explainer about the brand’s tone and voice, audience development director Stephanie Grimes said. There’s also a detailed style guide.
“We use contractions instead of writing out (something like) ‘that is,’” she said.
The Des Moines Register even created a hashtag glossary for its newsroom.
“It kept track of events happening now in the area, longstanding hashtags, traffic issues, political coverage, sports teams, that kind of stuff,” engagement editor Brian Smith said. “It helped a lot; it really took away a barrier to entry.”
Even with periodic training and written guides, most agree that having newsroom conversations about specific posts is important.
“Our team is pretty tight-knit and sits next to each other, and we’ll bounce ideas off each other in the newsroom,” said Leia Mendoza, deputy online editor of engagement at the Omaha World-Herald. “We’ll look at posts and say, OK, this is maybe too one-sided or too much of your opinion. The good thing is that we can edit them and make them more aligned to how we’re trying to come across as a company and news organization.”
Grimes of the Las Vegas Review-Journal recalled a time when she, the person tweeting and the online director spent a while debating about whether one word in the tweet was OK to use.
We know the impact that a single wrong word can have, so we put a lot of thought into everything we do just to make sure nothing that we do ever hurts our brand.
“We know the impact that a single wrong word can have, so we put a lot of thought into everything we do just to make sure nothing that we do ever hurts our brand,” she said.
Conversations about how to cover news when it breaks can also be beneficial. When a murder broke one morning, the Omaha World-Herald’s team met that morning to decide its approach.
“We decided to be very straightforward and extra careful about looking at the comments from other Facebook users to make sure none are insensitive or targeting the family,” Mendoza said.
For larger newsroom projects, Martin Reynolds, senior editor of community engagement for the Bay Area News Group, suggests collaborating with reporters to create engagement strategies, such as finding Twitter accounts of people who might be interested in an issue and implementing a large push upon the project’s release, well before a week or two in advance. He also recommends coordinating efforts for colleagues to share the project as well.
Interacting with your community
Erica Palan of Philly.com thinks journalists should be having one-on-one conversations with users on social media — as they do in the non-digital world — but that it can be tricky when the branded accounts have authority in a newsroom.
“(Communicating as) a brand is different than having a conversation attached to my name,” she said. “It’s a balance between ‘I’m a human behind Philly.com having a conversation with you, individual reader’ and ‘Here we are as a brand telling you what to read and what to trust.’”
Below, engagement editors share some best practices for communicating with their audience in various situations.
When engaging with individuals
Most acknowledge the importance of interacting with engaged users, but there’s not a consensus regarding the best way to do that.
Jen Eyer, director of engagement for MLive Media Group, considers commenters to be the most engaged readers — and, in turn, the most valuable customers.
“Even if they’re taking us to task, they’re the most invested in what we do because they’re taking their time to create an account, they’re taking their time to comment, so we need to respect them and value what they’re telling us,” she said. “We feel like their feedback makes our stories better.”
Posts examined in our content analysis employed a variety of methods to respond to readers. When responding from the newsroom’s account, some posts identified the staff member responding, while others did not. Sometimes, the reporters would chime in using their personal accounts or a professional Facebook page. Here’s an example of a newsroom account responding to a comment:
MLive Media Group closely watches its comments — removing any that attack another commenter or use inappropriate language — and requires all of its reporters to participate in the comments of every article they write. In fact, if they don’t participate, there are consequences, director of engagement Jen Eyer said.
“We believe firmly that the participation of the author in the comments does more to civilize the conversation than any amount of moderation we can and will do after the conversation has started taking place,” she said.
To help increase reach of its content in general, the Omaha World-Herald works to build relationships with sources and businesses the newspaper covers.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to businesses you wrote a story about and encourage them to share the story on their social media page,” advised Leia Mendoza, deputy online editor for engagement. “We increase traffic quite a bit by building relationships and asking sources and businesses to share stories about them.”
Many emphasized the importance of engaging with readers offline, too. When Erica Smith, currently of the Virginian-Pilot, was at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she would set up monthly “tweet-ups” at area breweries and would bring in different staff members, such as the Weatherbird’s cartoonist and the publication’s TV critic.
“The ability to meet people face-to-face helped build up what the brand was and what we offered and (helped us) figure out who our audience was in ways we weren’t able to before,” she said.
Many media organizations use social media to seek information — to ask for opinions about a certain topic, for user-generated content submissions or for information about a topic from specific people.
When asking for opinions, some have found that asking about topics unique to a community drives a lot of engagement. For example, when Datebook, The Des Moines Register’s entertainment magazine, wrote a piece about how Maid-Rite sandwiches are a very Iowan food, the Facebook post asked, “Tell us: Do you love or hate Maid-Rite?” — and got more than a thousand comments in response.
“We were able to turn those responses around and write another ‘Here’s what people are saying about Maid-Rite’ post,” engagement editor Brian Smith said.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal finds that the content it creates specifically from what its audience says on Facebook does well.
When asking for opinions, some have found that asking about topics unique to a community drives a lot of engagement.
“We make it a goal to post a few times a week an information-gathering post — stuff like ‘What’s the best hotel pool in Las Vegas?’” said Stephanie Grimes, audience development director. “Then our engagement reporter writes a story off of it, and those are always among our top-performing stories on the site.”
When looking for user-generated content, advertising on social media can make a huge difference in the number of submissions, said Sara Grant of The Denver Post. This year marked the first the gardening section’s photo contest had a social component, with its own hashtags and weekly posts on Facebook and Twitter. The grand-prize winner, submitted via Twitter, made the section’s cover, but five other top contenders were uploaded to Facebook so people could vote on a Readers’ Choice Award winner.
“We’re trying to do more of that,” Grant said. “I think it really helps with trust and engagement, and people feel like they’re part of our coverage.”
When searching for specific information from specific people, especially about a sensitive topic, it might be better to reach out as a journalist merely affiliated with the brand, advised Martin Reynolds, senior editor for community engagement for the Bay Area News Group. For example, when a few Irish students were killed in a balcony collapse in California, he tweeted at a friend of one of the students from his Twitter account affiliated with the publication, conveying his sympathies for the loss and asking if he might be willing to talk about his friend.
“We had an open discussion about that moment,” he said. “We had to be very sensitive and didn’t want to seem like a vulturous news organization; we’re just doing our job.”
Our content analysis showed that posts sharing some information and seeking other information received more likes on average, and posts that just share information (as opposed to crowdsourcing) received more shares on average.
The best practices examples from newsrooms were obtained through a series of phone conversations with engagement editors for primarily legacy print media organizations across the United States. These conversations discussed, among other topics, how these media organizations considered and approached voice in different posting scenarios, challenges they have overcome, challenges they still face and practices they’ve found work for their organization.
The content analysis, consisting of more than a thousand Facebook posts, was conducted using Facebook Insights data for three date ranges in 2015: Jan. 27 to 29, March 8 to 10 and May 21 to 23. Engagement editors at legacy newspaper media outlets were asked whether they would like to participate in the optional content analysis portion of this study following the initial conversation described above. The following 10 news organizations participated:
- Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
- The Beaufort Gazette
- The Courier-Journal
- The Island Packet
- Las Vegas Review-Journal
- Philadelphia Daily News
- The Philadelphia Inquirer
- The State
- The Virginian-Pilot
Information from the following categories in Facebook Insights spreadsheets was used in the content analysis:
- When it was posted (date and time), permalink, post message and type, all found in the “Key Metrics” tab;
- Numbers of likes, comments and shares, all found in the “Lifetime Post Stories by Action” tab;
- And number of link clicks, found in the “Lifetime Post Consumers by Type” tab.
Each individual post was examined and subsequently coded for the following characteristics:
- Media organization (so that data could be returned to partners)
- Content topic: business, community/entertainment/lifestyle, education, government, health, public safety, social issues/religion, sports, weather, other (includes newsroom personnel posts, A1 photos, advertisements and sponsored content)
- Post voice: casual, direct story excerpt, formal, headline, no text
- Content voice: casual, formal, N/A (content that’s not text-based)
- Content type: feature, narrative commentary, news story, no text
- Post purpose: to seek information, to send some information and seek other information, to send information
- Content emotional response: controversial, negative, positive, weird/funny, other (no emotional response)
- Post language: first-person, second-person, third-person
- Post multimedia: Facebook page preview, graphic, photo, video, other (includes a shared Facebook event or group, or a text-only Facebook post)
- Types of post comments: discuss event/story, discuss coverage, discuss personal connection, respond to query, incite personal attacks, insert comment unrelated to post, none
- Original (versus third-party) content: yes, no
Posts were then compiled and examined in two different ways. What characteristics got the most engagement overall were determined using the entire data set by calculating average likes, comments, shares and link clicks for each individual characteristic, then comparing all of the characteristics in one category. The correlations made between types of engagement and the characteristics were made using data sets that excluded posts about weather, designated as a major outlier, in which posts received one or more of the engagement metric being measured (example: post likes = 1+). These statistically significant correlations were calculated through multiple linear regressions and Pearson correlations using Microsoft Excel and the plugin StatPlus. Subsets of data, when used, are specified throughout the study.
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