News organizations often ask the question of “who’s our audience?” But that’s not enough, according to two engagement experts I spoke with this month. “Ask yourself the following: Who is our audience? Who are we to our audience? We say that X is our audience, how are we reaching them?” suggested Hannah Wise, audience development editor at Dallas Morning News. I asked Wise and Meghann Farnsworth, director of social media at WIRED, the same questions to see how they utilize social platforms so that it benefits readers and does justice to the journalism their newsrooms produce.
How did you get into social media & engagement? Did you always have a passion for it?
Farnsworth: I started in social media and engagement by accident. In 2007, I had just graduated from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and was looking for a job. The PBS NewsHour’s online team was really innovative and were thinking about how to engage their online and broadcast audiences. I was hired for the role of Associate Editor, Forums where I was tasked with coming up with an idea to help bridge the two audiences. I was hooked. It was so rewarding to hear from our audience, to talk to correspondents, reporters and others about questions they had. But I didn’t get fully into engagement until I started at The Center for Investigative Reporting. I started out as the Distribution and Online Community Manager there and I was able to work with a really amazing team of people who embraced engagement and social as part of the reporting process and wanted to try new things. We were really able to test out ideas that, at the time, were really new like live tweeting election results and holding Twitter chats, complete with hashtags. All of that is standard now but it felt super different and new back then.
Wise: I started working on the audience team at The Dallas Morning News two years ago after stints with our entertainment site, GuideLive, and on our breaking news desk covering politics and protests. I have always been passionate about how journalists reach their readers, how readers receive that information and how to strengthen those relationships. I view social media as a great tool to help do that at scale, but there are many, many flaws. You honestly can’t beat having a face-to-face conversation with a member of the public.
What would be your advice to newsrooms who don’t know where to start with their social media strategy? First steps?
Farnsworth: I think some newsrooms can get overwhelmed with the idea of social media and feel like if they don’t have a ton of resources then it’s not worth it. Social media can be very confusing and it is a 24/7 job. But that’s also just the news industry that we live in now, it doesn’t stop. Ask questions. Don’t always point to a link. Link to articles from other orgs if you think they would add value to your followers. Be the place they go to for news. Don’t have a lot of visual assets? Screen grab a powerful paragraph from your story online. Make a simple quote card by putting text over a black background in Photoshop. Use Twitter threads to break up complicated stories. Try out polls. Have your reporters go live and answer questions regularly. And don’t just hand your social media over to interns without management or guidance. Pay attention to it just like you do with the rest of your content.
Wise: Ask yourself the following: “Who is our audience?” “Who are we to our audience?” “We say that X is our audience, how are we reaching them?” (This is an opportunity for actual quantitative research) Go to the audience and ask them about their impressions of you. Do they really use your product? Do they even know who you are? Do they know what your role in the community is? (This is a great opportunity for qualitative research.) To take it to the next level, do all those things, but from the framework of, “Who are we missing?” Odds are your community is larger than your existing audience is and you’re excluding someone. The TL;DR version: Don’t assume anything. Get out of your newsroom and actually meet the people. Be ready for some honest reflection on your impact.
Do you have a different strategy for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? How much do they differ, and do you think they should be treated as completely different strategies?
Farnsworth: Absolutely. All of these platforms have different kinds of audiences and should be thought of uniquely. While similar topics might work well on all of them, how we produce it is different for each platform. And of course, once you get comfortable in how you do something, the platforms change their algorithm, add new features or tweak their goals. Then you have to reassess what you’re doing and see if that’s still the right thing to do. Welcome to social media! Wheeeeee.
Wise: Each of these platforms is different. There is definitely crossover between them, but we approach them as individual audiences with their own preferences, tendencies and expectations.
A lot of newsrooms just link to their work with their headlines as tweets, what are your thoughts on that?
Farnsworth: That’s some social media 101 and of course you should link to a story. But ONLY doing that is a big problem in terms of building loyalty, engagement and service for readers. Even if you only link to stories, a bigger question is are you writing original copy to go with your tweets, or are you using the same copy as your headline? Are you thinking about second, third hits that pull out different angles of the story? Are you tweeting out graphics, photos, or quotes to help find different ways to provide content and information to your followers? We all need traffic to stories but as with anything, it’s important to think about all the different ways to add value and help readers really understand a story.
Wise: To me, this is a fine way to get the basic news out. This is especially true if you are a small staff. What we tend to do is yes, tweet nearly everything we publish, but then we pick our spots to provide greater context or special treatments. We are also not afraid to have fun on Twitter.
What are three main things that newsrooms can do to improve their engagement with readers?
Farnsworth: Think about your social headline, image and share language and how they go all together. Do they make sense together? Is it something you would want to share with other people? Is it clear? Would it make you stop scrolling and look at it. When you ask questions or run a poll, really want to know the answer from readers. Don’t just do something to do something, readers can tell. Jump in the comments on Facebook or the mentions on Twitter. If you see questions, try to answer them if they are good faith ones. Your brand could answer or you could have reporters or editors to jump in. Think visually. Social is a visual medium – how can you take story and tell it differently even if it’s through quote cards, simple infographics, or by going live to answer questions on a topic.
Wise: Be human. Listen to your community. Provide essential benefits to make their lives better.
How do you measure success for engagement? Are you focused on numbers, on replies, what do you look for to show you that your readers are engaged?
Farnsworth: I think any good social engagement strategy is a blend of these. Of course we care about numbers. And of course we want to see that our readers are engaged and share our content and comment on it. But as we’ve seen with the rise of misinformation spreading across social, just because your article has comments on it doesn’t mean that it’s doing “well.” We have to be careful about using language that provokes responses for the sake of responses. But hopefully, our content is both something people want to share, click on and comment on. Of course, social isn’t the only way that readers access our content, so we look at all the different ways readers can access us (SEO, newsletters, Apple News, Pocket, Flipboard, and more) to see where it’s really resonating.
Wise: This is a difficult question to have a succinct answer. We focus on a number of key metrics in the newsroom: conversions, number of return visitors (visitors back to the site within 30 days), total number of engaged minutes and social shares. When you add in our audience engagement efforts with tools like Hearken and Groundsource, we are looking at volume of questions, are the engaged people subscribers, do they come to events or community office hours? Ultimately, we are a subscription business and we measure engagement by our total number of subscribers.
Do you have any favorite social media / engagement tools that you use? And for each one, why do you love it?
Farnsworth: I love Dash Hudson and Social Flow, two tools we use at WIRED. Both definitely make it easy to re-optimize, schedule and track metrics really easily. Crowdtangle is also essential for tracking what’s going on across social and also seeing who is sharing links. I’m kind of old school though I love using the native tools – I’m always on Twitter.com and I absolutely refuse to use Tweetdeck, don’t @ me on that.
Wise: I love Hearken and Groundsource because we hear questions and concerns directly from readers, then can keep them organized as we work to involve them in how we report out the answers to their questions. Because Groundsource is an SMS texting platform, it has been great for reaching community members who may not have a strong awareness of the newspaper or our digital presence. I also love thinking of public libraries as an engagement tool. Newspapers and libraries have a shared mission to help make individuals’ lives smarter and better. It makes sense to hold events and create programming together.
What do you think is the future of engagement? Where do you see us heading, what do we have to look out for?
Farnsworth: Whooo boy if I knew that I’d solve all of media’s problems. And given the craziness of the past couple of years I don’t think anyone can really say for sure where we’re going. I think the era of putting all our eggs in one basket (not that that was EVER a good idea) is over. You have to diversify where you are and your entire organization should be behind it. Your social/engagement team is only as good as the desire of your newsroom to be on it, engage with your followers and be creative as platforms change almost weekly beneath our feed. We can’t do it alone!
Wise: My goal in 2019 is to work with my colleagues in our business intelligence, marketing and product teams to build engagement roadmaps for different audience segments so we can better understand how each product we produce and choice we make in the newsroom reaches our readers and how it deepens their relationship with The Dallas Morning News.
How do you incorporate visuals into your social media engagement, are they treated as important as the words? Do you use videos, memes, original content… what do you feel is important for newsrooms to think about when attaching visuals to a headline or story?
Farnsworth: I feel really lucky to work at WIRED because we have such stellar photo and design departments. They are so creative and thoughtful about how to visualize stories and are so fun to talk to about how to approach storytelling on social. So yes, without a doubt, images are as important as words. Visuals get you to stop scrolling endless through a feed and get you to look at something. Bonus if we can make it into a GIF that catches your eye and can highlight an interesting aspect to something. I love doing Twitter threads for our content to help break down complicated stories, and we often will create unique GIFs, images or video to go with each tweet. I think that really helps add value to people following us and trying to understand a story, plus it gives us additional opportunities to find ways to capture people’s attention with a variety of images rather than just one hit.
Wise: Visuals are critical to every story we tell. Full stop. They draw people in. They help tell a story.
Do you feel that social strategy has anything to do with the market size/community? Do you think that different strategies will work for different publications, or that some general dos/donts apply no matter what?
Farnsworth: Yes and no. There is no cookie cutter social strategy. You have to understand the goals of the organization, the audience it currently has, its resources and how regular the content is. There are best practices for social media and definitely dos and don’ts in terms of how to write good social copy or ways that you can do effective Facebook Lives or Twitter threads or Reddit AMAs … but as with anything you really have to dig into the analytics and see what people are responding to before crafting a strategy. And you might try something that doesn’t resonate with your audience and you have to be OK with it. But that’s kind of the fun with social — discovering the unique opportunities to your organization. If you’re a local news organization, maybe going on a local subreddit for your city is a better strategy than investing heavily in Twitter. Part of building an effective social strategy is really understanding the goals of your organization, what you’re trying to build and who you’re trying to reach.
Wise: Definitely. This goes into how you define your audiences. The larger your market, the harder you will have to work to make sure you are working to reach as many distinct groups as possible. I think a lot about how we can improve our accessibility for readers in suburban communities as well as those that have long gone underserved by Dallas at large. I’m often jealous of journalists who work in rural communities or at college papers. When you run into your readers at the grocery store, it is hard to ignore their concerns or questions. It also helps the audience view you as a human, not a monolithic institution.
A lot of popular brand accounts on Twitter like Wendys or Melville house have very specific voices — playful, sarcastic, witty. Do you feel that newsrooms could adopt a little of that to help engage with communities in the same way to have their accounts be seen as more human, or is it better to keep it completely professional?
Farnsworth: I think that really depends on the content and your organization. I think the Washington Post does a great job of being cheeky on Twitter around certain stories. And of course writing copy that is catchy and smart is key to getting people to stop and look at your story. But I don’t think that being playful for playful’s sake is a good idea, especially if you’re writing about a serious topic. Being smart, providing facts and staying true to your brand is far more important that being witty.
Wise: There is a time and a place to have fun. We do it pretty frequently. Again, we are people and that is what audience engagement is about — developing relationships and treating readers as valuable members of your community. When you show you have humor, also when you correct your errors, you are acknowledging your own humanity and making your newsroom more relatable to your audience.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Farnsworth: I feel like I hear that social is the place that people burn out. And that’s really sad to me. Social is hard, demanding and rigorous. But it’s also one of the most direct ways to reach readers and make an impact. And hopefully your organization is aware of how hard it is and is cognizant about giving people breaks. But I would never change my path in journalism because it’s so rewarding.
Editors note: These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.