Newsrooms test social media strategies to forge relationships with audiences

When it comes to social media strategy, it’s not enough for journalists to “be where the audience is” anymore.

At least half of U.S. adults get news from social media, yet less than 12 percent of those who do, trust the information they get there. Journalists can’t simply occupy social media spaces; they need to be intentional about actively building relationships there.

“Too often journalists just check the social media box and put everything they publish on social [media] without thinking enough about how social media is really about building relationships, which are fundamentally about trust,” RJI Fellow Joy Mayer said.

To get journalists in the mindset of building relationships on social media, Mayer designed strategies that 14 newsrooms tested via Facebook over the course of the summer. Each strategy fell under one of three categories:

  1. Engage authentically. Listen and respond. Invite people to get to know you. Participate in a way that feels natural to the user. Admit what you don’t know. Be human.
  2. Tell your story. Offer users a way into the story of you as an organization. What are your values? What do you offer? Talk about the “why” of what you do, not just the day-to-day “what.” As an organization, make sure you know what user needs you fill.
  3. Deploy your fans. Encourage healthy choices about news consumption and sharing. Invite users to make a relationship with you part of their social identity, and to join you in your mission to make the world better informed.

Our partner newsrooms chose strategies that would be a good fit for them and committed to at least one strategy post per week. Though Mayer often offered advice, the newsrooms were completely responsible for the ideation and execution of these experiment posts. Over the course of the fall semester, Mayer and three convergence students at the Missouri School of Journalism analyzed every post and identified trends and best practices.

Come January the key takeaways from this project will be available on The site will also include a searchable database of all the social posts from this experiment and resources to help other newsrooms implement the strategies.

Highlights from our partner newsrooms

Many types of news organizations, audience sizes and specialties were represented among these partners: A Plus, the Fort Collins Coloradoan, Enid News and Eagle in Oklahoma, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas The Fresno Bee in California, the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, Florida, The Journal Record in Oklahoma City, The Kansas City Star in Missouri, KLRU-TV in Austin, Texas, Newsy, the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, Religion News Service, St. Louis Magazine, and WCPO-TV in Cincinnati.

“One of the reasons I was so excited to have such a diverse group of newsroom partners is that they all interpreted the strategies pretty differently,” Mayer said. “I learned a lot by seeing what journalists in those newsrooms already knew about their audiences and how they interpreted the strategies to best serve those individual, unique audiences.”

For our 14 partner newsrooms, testing these new strategies meant spending time outside of their normal social media routines. In order to craft social posts designed specifically to earn trust, our partners thought critically about the relationships they have and hope to build with their users. In the audio piece below, five editors challenged themselves to try on a new social media mindset for a few months and learned about their online communities along the way.

Voices in this piece belong to Maricar Estrella, Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Kathy Mahan, The Fresno Bee; Abby Rogers, A Plus; Ann Elise Taylor, the Standard-Examiner; and Sara Robertson, KLRU-TV.

Here are a few of our favorite, highly successful examples of the strategies. More examples and detailed analysis will be posted on

Engage authentically: the Ogden Standard-Examiner

The Ogden Standard-Examiner started a series called #SEFaceToFace, which gave local law enforcement and activists a space to discuss how their community should be policed. This is a fantastic example of the “Host meaningful conversation” strategy since the Standard-Examiner also invited its audience to weigh in on what Black Lives Matter means to them.


Tell your story: Newsy

In this video about indigenous activists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, Newsy used the term American Indians instead of Native Americans. Anticipating that their audience might question the decision or find it offensive, Newsy had an explanation ready to share. Newsy’s comment explaining the editorial decision earned 627 likes and was one of our favorite examples of the “Share the process of a story” strategy.

Top comments

Deploy your fans: St. Louis Magazine

St. Louis Magazine saw much success when they asked their audience to share a story about segregation in St. Louis. The magazine invited readers to help them continue having “informed conversations about race relations” with their community and the post earned more than 400 shares.

St. Louis Magazine

The challenges of measuring success on social media

Measuring success on social media requires taking several variables into consideration. Our biggest challenge throughout this project was recognizing that it’s not always possible to attribute the success of a post to its implementation of a strategy.

Did this “Deploy your fans” post overperform because the newsroom asked its users to share  or was it because the content was popular and interesting? In most cases, it was probably a combination of both. But without more scientific A/B testing it’s impossible to be sure. That’s why we made sure to consider multiple metrics when holistically judging the success of each post.

Engagement rate. We defined engagement rate as Facebook’s “Lifetime Post Reach” divided by “Lifetime Engaged Users,” which boils down to how many people saw the post and how many people did something with it. We compared each experiment post’s engagement rate to the newsroom’s average engagement rate, which gave us a good benchmark for measuring performance.

Number of reactions, comments, shares. Similar to engagement rates, we compared each strategy post’s performance to the newsroom’s average number of reactions, comments and shares per post.

Comment interactions. Comments provided important qualitative feedback that helped us determine the effectiveness attempts of certain strategies. Especially for the “Host meaningful conversation” strategy, the number and quality of comments a post received were critical measures of success.

Though the newsrooms did their best to influence these metrics, it’s important to acknowledge that Facebook’s algorithm gives journalists no control over post reach, or how many people see the post in their feeds.

“Facebook’s lack of transparency about who sees what and why is just crippling for journalists,” Mayer said. “There’s a lot that we can’t know about how audiences responded to the work these journalists were doing because Facebook didn’t show the post to enough people to be able to test how people would respond.”

Audience trust has to be earned consistently over a long-term social media strategy, which makes it difficult to measure within the context of individual Facebook posts. But throughout this experiment we saw news organizations engage in listening and relationship-building, and we think that’s a pretty good start.


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