Ten Strategies for Newspapers to Improve Social Media and Audience Engagement

Over the past few months I’ve had several conversations at different newspapers about how to use social media. Anyone who has looked at website analytics knows what a tremendous driver of traffic social media is, particularly Facebook.

The same conversation came to a forefront in media circles recently, after Buzzfeed published an internal New York Times report on the company’s digital strategy and struggles.

The takeaway message was that the Times was still focused on its print product almost to a fault. The paper was losing ground to online-only outlets.

Media types rushed to write analysis pieces, but there was one post from Forbes that stuck with me, written by Chris Perry. At the very end of the post Perry writes that because the Times is still focused on A1, they are comparing their competitors on content instead of strategy. And what’s different about their competitors’ strategy is their approach to social media. It’s a much bigger part of their staff, their budget and their day-to-day operations.

Too often the times Times has good content, but it’s not distributed in a digestible way to its audience, or the scope is so narrow it’s  not reaching a new audience.

For many newspapers (especially ones in smaller markets), social media is barely something reporters and editors are using, except for maybe a main newspaper page. For others, a good strategy consists of posting links with catchy teaser text several times a day. There are some out there who are doing great work by engaging with their audience as well as sharing links on social media, but those are few and far between.

First, a few stats to keep in mind. Facebook shares in a post that TIME’s referral traffic from the social media site grew 208 percent from September 2012 to September 2013. We saw the same type of numbers at Patch, with the majority of our site traffic coming from the Facebook pages of our 900 sites. If you look across all social media platforms, the number of referrals a site could get from social media alone is stunning, according to data from Shareaholic.

I have experience both at newspapers as a reporter and editor and also in online news, social media management and audience engagement for Patch. Here are some things I would do if I were in charge of social media strategy for a newspaper.

1. Build out niche verticals for your content, beyond the basics such as the main newspaper page, sports and arts coverage. Or, many large metropolitan newspapers focus more on the Twitter brands of their individual reporter, instead of the beats that they cover. So much of online content is now developed by category, and in many ways that’s how blogging grew. Blogs like Smitten Kitchen were started online, and people found it because they were searching for good recipes online,  but yet the blog’s presence is also huge on Facebook. Content is shared on social media the same way.

For the online readers of your newspaper or your non-subscribers (new audience), you want to reach them with information they are looking for on the platform they are on.

At Patch, we had success with growing Parent Station from 100 to more than 1,000 followers by posting an article on our sites as well as very small paid campaign. We used that page to push our parenting content, which our 900 sites had plenty of, but it wasn’t always easy to find on your home site.  (Full disclosure: I helped launch the page and manage it for two months, but was laid off from Patch in January and have no knowledge of how the page is being handled now)

What would it look like if news coverage for Baltimore was organized a little more by topic and a little less branded by the media name and reporter. Many sports departments already do this (the Sun is a good example with accounts such as Sun Varsity and Ravens Insider), but there are tremendous opportunities for crime and business. These accounts don’t have to be in place of main Twitter handles or Facebook pages, but can supplement it. They can also serve as a hub of aggregation for user content on the topic. Politico does this well on Twitter, with its Morning Defense handle.

Thinking aloud, what would it look like if there was a Baltimore Crime Facebook page, and operated in the similar way that the Baltimore Trash Talk page did, sharing Sun links, reader information and other relevant content about crime? Readers who want to know specifically about crime could also turn there for specific content, instead of following the main Sun page, which posts an average of eight Facebook posts a day.

And for all of those large media personalities on Twitter that are tied with one publication, and then up and leave? How much traffic did the Washington Post lose to Wonk Blog after Ezra Klein left? The same for Nate Silver and the New York Times?

2. Tag, mention and use hashtags when appropriate. This is basic, but a lot of media companies don’t do this often enough. Every time you write a restaurant review, tag the Facebook page. Every time you mention the mayor, tag him or her. Does a prominent athlete get arrested? Tag him or her. Using hashtags for city-wide events, such as #openingday #artscape, or develop your own for special events, such as #marylandgovernordebate. If you have a review of #gameofthrones, be sure to use that hashtag (#got) and consider posting last week’s review just before this week’s episode starts.

Hashtags and tagging aren’t gimmicky things, they are ways to help readers to find your content, especially new readers interested in a certain topic. Why not use them?

3.  Shorter, shorter text for links on Facebook. Study after study after study shows that shorter posts increase engagement. Kiss Metrics reports that posts with 80 characters or less get 66 percent more engagement. The longer someone has to read, the less likely they are going to have that impulse to share. For any posts longer than 160 characters, the continue reading link will show up, which will definitely impact sharing.

Look at a long post from this page:


And then how much better and more engagement a shorter post has:


4.Make sure to highlight your best photos as a stand-alone post, or with a shortlink in the sharing text. What are some of the most engaging things on social media that you like? When I think of what I see in my news feed, photos from Humans of New York comes to mind.  The photo and a brief story that are posted can get more than 1,000 shares.

Humans of New York screen shot

5. Use fill-in-the-blank questions to crowdsource readers. Feels too unprofessional? Ask a question to your readers on whatever topic is trending on the site or what is driving a lot of comments on the site. The Times wants to know: ___.

Look at how much this fill-in-the-blank tweet stands out in a Twitter feed:

NYTimes twitter

6. Use emotion more. Too often newspapers are afraid emotions are expressing opinions, or using them will make them sound…less important? I don’t know.

Here are some good examples of short tweets that share emotion:

This. Is. Amazing. Woman gets revenge on online dating creeps by drawing them naked w/tiny packages PHOTOS (NSFW):http://slate.me/1id1X1p

Can’t watch this video without cracking a smile,@juliemore writes. See Navy baseball players lip sync “Frozen” song:http://bsun.md/Pr3lXj

8. Using social media to engage your audience with reporting. This is a great example from the Guardian, that involved a callout for reader reaction on a Google form and a Twitter embed on the topic of Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to ban bossy.

9. Building off of Reddit’s AMA, use Facebook or Twitter to crowdsource a question with a famous local person. We’re interviewing XX person for a story on X. What is the one question you would ask him or her? Share that question in the post on the story. Reader XX asked this question via Facebook, and here’s what so-and-so answered.

This is a way of being transparent about the process of reporting the news, as journalists still have exclusive access to local figures such as the police chief, mayor or football coach. Why not involve your readers more in that access? Then they may also be more likely to read the story later.

10. Use social media as a way to explain how to use your site more. Just like a customer navigating the Verizon website, your site is a living, breathing entity that readers use every day. Use social media occasionally to share a quick post on how to post to the community calendar, or how to comment, or to highlight a new feature or tab.

Five Ways for Nonprofits to Use Photos on Facebook

If you’re a small to medium-sized nonprofit, chances are you are struggling to find the time to create compelling content for your Facebook page. Maybe a volunteer is doing it, or a staff member who has other responsibilities.

And with all of the changes to Facebook’s news feed algorithm, you’re already fighting an uphill battle to get your content in front of your audience. The likelihood that even half of the fans of your page will see your post is pretty slim.

What’s an easy way to get more eyeballs on your content? Enter photos.

In a blog post on the pages posted in January, Facebook shows examples of how photos can create more engagement than a text or status update. When linking to a web url (whether it’s an article or blog post from your site), the preview image is now higher quality and larger than a few months ago. That’s because photos are more engaging (93 percent of most engaging content, according to Social Bakers) than any other type of content on Facebook.

Why is this? Think about what your mouse hovers over or what you like most often on your own feed. Is it a photo? Think about successful pages that are often shared: Humans of New York, I F*cking Love Science or even the Ellen DeGeneres selfie taken after the Oscars. Sure that was on Twitter first, but we all saw the photo at least three times the next morning on our news feed.

So how do you choose what photos to share, or what type of content to create around it? Here are few ideas, pulled from some of the best practices I’ve seen around Facebook from nonprofits.

1. Update your cover photo and change it at least every few months.

The act of updating your cover photo will trigger a notification in the news feed, which is an easy way to engage with your audience. Your profile picture will likely always stay your nonprofit’s logo, so the cover photo is the one place on your page where you can get creative.

For the Facebook page of the climbing organization (Mid Atlantic Climbers) I manage, I’ve changed the cover photo after every time we’ve had an event and taken a group shot. This photo has our banner in it (again establishing our logo/brand), shows the work that we do (trail cleanups), establishes a sense of place (fans may see the photo and recognize the place) and shows actual people. All of these things connect our work back to a people, place and idea, which gives more of a connection to the audience.

Here’s an example from the United Way of Central Maryland, which is using the space for more brand messaging:


And the folks at Baltimore Bike Party definitely know the power of a cover photo, because it illustrates how many people come to their monthly ride!

Baltimore Bike Party Facebook cover photo

2. Use a photo with a text overlay to promote an event or share an idea.

Creating a Facebook event for all of your events is a pretty much a requirement for good page management, but how about using a photo and adding a text overlay? This can help create buzz around an event, even if it’s a few months away.

Here’s another best practice from MAC. Note the number of shares on this photo:

MAC event promotion

The National Guard isn’t technically a nonprofit, but they use a ton of amazing photos on their page. Here’s an example of how they convey a simple message on an amazing photo:

National Guard photo

3. Uploading a poster, flyer or pamphlet that is meant to educate your audience on a specific issue. 

Any graphic design work that you do for mailings, flyers, etc. should be shared on your Facebook page. You likely pay someone to or work hard yourself to create a good design, so why not share it with your Facebook audience?  

A poster can be used to educate your audience or promote a cause, such as in the example from the Access Fund illustrating how long trash will last in the wilderness (again, not the number of shares):  

Access Fund poster

The American Red Cross shares a simple image posing a question to its audience, which is meant to spur action. Note the number of shares (again), the short link (providing the place for the audience to act) and the brief amount of text:

American Red Cross

4. Posting photos of your staff, volunteers or people connected to your organization doing your organization’s work.

Nothing is better on Facebook than seeing a great photo of a person tied with a story, which is why Humans of New York again is so successful. For many nonprofits, their staff, volunteers or the people they help are their biggest assets.

Here’s a great photo telling the story of a woman helped by Lutheran World Relief (headquartered in Baltimore):


Here’s a great photo of the folks at Leave No Trace on the road doing their training and meeting a famous person:

Leave No Trace showing people at work

The text with this photo explains all the important elements to tell the story: the staff at work (Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers), who they met (Secretary of the Interior and former REI President/CEO Sally Jewell) and where they were (Salt Lake City). Also note the tagging of the public figure, which  means the post will show up on her page as well, therefore increasing the post’s reach.

5. Create Facebook albums for any event that you host or participate in.

This is something I actually don’t see happen that often, with the exception of organizations that have a lot of social events. But if you’re a nonprofit who hosts a retirement party, a ribbon cutting or an open house, be sure to post photos.

Oftentimes nonprofits will waste time trying to pre-promote this event to the press so a photographer can come out and take photos. But these days journalists at ribbon cuttings are a rare find, so it’s better to take your own  photos, post it as an album, and then share the link with the press. If the content is good and complete, it’ll likely get picked up and shared in some form.

At Mid Atlantic Climbers, we do this for every adopt-a-crag we host. It helps illustrate to prospective volunteers what the work looks like, how many people show up and how much fun people are having:

Adopt-a-Crag photo album

Volunteers can also tag themselves (and I tag all of the people I know in the album), which increases the visibility of the post.

Again the folks at Baltimore Bike Party are great examples of this, as they have a professional photographer who does a photo booth at every event. What better way to promote your brand than an image like this:

Photo album image from Baltimore Bike Party

Do you have any other great examples of brands or nonprofits using photos to engage with their audience on Facebook? I’d love to see them!

What’s Up with Upworthy?

This is the homepage of Upworthy. Who ever goes there?

This is the homepage of Upworthy. Who ever goes there?

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine in the past year, you’ve been bombarded with Upworthy headlines:

“The most inspiring story you’ll read ever!”

“You won’t believe what this person did to confront some racist/horrible deed.”

“This latest corporate greed act will make you so angry.”

Those are not actual Upworthy headlines, but they are basically the same formula you see in the stories that populate in your feed.

What’s impressive about the site is its rapid growth (thanks to traffic from Facebook) in such a short period of time. At the end of last year, its traffic was up there with Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post.

Why is this content so popular? And more importantly, how did it get so popular on Facebook?

1. Staff write up to 25 headlines per story (Source: Kiss Metrics and Business Insider) and may release two versions and then change the headline based on which one gets better pageviews early on. With that amount of user testing on a headline, you’re bound to gain a ton of traffic.

2. They curate from social media, not from existing websites (Source: Business Insider), which means they are pulling from conversations and stories that are already what people are talking about.

3. The photo that goes with the article matters (Source: Kiss Metrics). We all see memes in our feed, amazing photos from friends, etc. and we all ‘like’ our friends photos more often than we like their posts. The better the photo with that crazy headline, the more people are going to share it.

So now that we’ve established that Upworthy is putting a lot of effort (probably more than most traditional news sites out there) into making sure you click on that content, here’s a primer on what’s been happening since they cracked the Facebook sharing code.

Spoiler alert: Everyone copied them, their traffic dropped and Facebook changed its news feed algorithm.

Towards the end of last year, traffic started dropped for brand pages across Facebook. When I was still working for Patch at the end of last year, we saw the same thing, as did other brands in AOL.

The same thing happened to Upworthy, with the unique visitor number to the site dropping by almost half from November to January (reports from Newsy and Business Insider).

According to a release from Facebook, the changes to the algorithm are meant to show more “high quality content” in the news feed, which again according to Facebook is:

“-is the content genuinely interesting to you or is trying to game the news feed distribution?”

“-would you complain about seeing this content in your news feed?”

Those are just some of the points emphasized in Facebook’s criteria, but when you look at those reasons, you could easily apply that to Upworthy.

As an aside it’s important to note that Business Insider shares some data showing that sites similar to Upworthy (complete clones like Distractify or Buzzfeed) did not see as precipitous of a drop in their traffic.

So what do news sites take away from this rise and fall of traffic, all at the mercy of Facebook?

Anyone who publishes on the web that traffic from links shared on Facebook is a huge boon to pageviews  (referral traffic to media sites from Facebook grew 170 percent year to year). At Patch, we saw a ton of traffic from posts shared on the Faceook pages for each local site.

But depending on what type of content is being shared on Facebook in the same time, how it’s being presented and who is clicking on it are all factors that determine how many clicks a story will get.

It’s a game that’s constantly changing, and as the Atlantic said, Upworthy is playing the same clickbait game as other news media outlets (namely the Huffington Post) have been playing for years.

So if you’re sick of seeing Upworthy  headlines in your news feed, take heart that they may be diminishing, but be wary of the next upstart who figures out the algorithm and then tries to beat it.

One final link for you, from the New Yorker, with the title: “The Six Things that Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate You.”

What a clever headline.

Social Media Advice for Nonprofits


If you run a volunteer organization, chances are you’ve often felt you need a stronger social media presence, but you don’t know where to start. Or maybe you have heard conflicting advice. After all, there are a lot of so-called social media experts out there!

I’ve spent some time working on social media in both the news media world and the volunteer world (see about page of this blog) for the past few years and I’ve compiled a list of the basic things any administrator of a basic Facebook page can do to boost their presence online.

1. First, let’s start with the anatomy of the page. You’d be surprised how many pages are categorized incorrectly.

From your admin panel (the top of your page when you’re logged in as yourself or the account associated as the admin of the page), click ‘edit page’ and ‘update page info.’


What is the category listed for your page? If you are nonprofit, make sure you’ve selected that category. The category is what helps content show up accurately in Facebook’s graph search, which will help people find your business or group.


Make sure you have as much accurate information as possible in the other fields, including the correct website, products, company overview, long description and general information. It’s good to check this page every six months or so, as sometimes features and fields for an admin page will change over time.

2. The next thing that nonprofits or page admins often struggle with is how often to post. It may not be a high priority to post content to Facebook with so many other tasks to do.

If you’re struggling with remembering to post to Facebook, just start out with a small attainable goal and grow it from there. If you’re posting once a week, set a goal to post twice a week. If you’re posting several times a week, you will see a large bump in your engagement if you start posting every day.

Why should you post more often? Every day a Facebook user could potentially see thousands of articles, updates, photos, etc. from their network. Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm filters out a lot of that (source: Social Media Fuze), so the likelihood that your post will actually be seen by the fans who like your page isn’t very high. The shelf life of a newsfeed is also a few hours, so even if you posted on Monday, your users may not see that post if they haven’t logged on in 24 hours.

Want some more stats about Facebook? Here are some basics I put together for a presentation on reaching social media and youth for a conference for rock climbing organizations in late 2013:


The entire presentation about social media can be found on the site here.