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.