Erica Palan of 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 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.

When crowdsourcing

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.

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