“Any time there is a reporter on Periscope that goes live, I will tune in. It’s raw and unedited and unscripted and usually has a more personal perspective. You’re getting the closest you can and there’s no time limitation on interviews. It leaves time for emotion, and a real story. Not a story as a reporter sees it or as a news company sees it, but as the people experiencing it see it, which has been lost from news for the better part of the century.”
— Ben, age 30, San Francisco

Most media companies know by looking at their analytics that the days of audiences coming straight to a homepage are rapidly disappearing.

Prateek Sarkar’s research for The New York Times showed that even with national brands such as the Times and BuzzFeed, Millennial readers visited stories through the filter of social media.

He says his user experience research team put together a video for the Times newsroom showing interviewers asking Millennial subjects, “When was the last time you went to the homepage of a news site?”

The response from younger readers? “There were a lot of blank stares and a lot of those, ‘I don’t even understand the question’ reactions,” Sarkar says.

Millennials stay connected to current events through personalized social media feeds from their favorite sources. Newsrooms ignore these networks at their peril. Social media is more than a marketing tool; it’s the way digital natives make sense of the world.

As mentioned in an earlier section, our study of Millennial news habits found that digital natives are starting primarily with Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. These habits become more specific if you look at younger Millennials (who use an average of four social platforms) versus older ones (who average three).

Millennials stay connected to current events through personalized social media feeds from their favorite sources. Newsrooms ignore these networks at their peril.

“For most Millennials,” the study’s authors report, “the way they learn about the world is a blend of actively seeking out some news and information and bumping into other information as they do other things throughout their day. Many of their encounters with news occur online.”

In short, publications need to be distributing work on social media and making their work highly shareable, so it is among the news that Millennials “bump into.”

Social networks also double as valuable sources for reporters looking for news tips, trending topics, and breaking stories. Following the most popular content creators on each network offers a sense of the nuances of engagement there too. Editorial teams should be connecting with readers on social media as well, engaging in conversations as time permits while connecting with readers on their turf.

The experts and examples we studied show that even newsrooms with limited resources should be crafting and improving upon a social media strategy that fits the organization, focusing on these key factors:

  • Experiment with different strategies for social content by platform.
  • Don’t be late trying to understand how a social network works long after your audience and your competitors have made it second nature.
  • Hand responsibility for specific social networks to employees personally engrossed in the nuances of engagement there.
  • Use social media to cover breaking news and events in new ways, or to offer the public behind the scenes perspectives.

Experiment with different strategies for social content by platform

The first step in making sure your organization has a compelling social media presence is realizing each platform has a different value for its user.

The editors we interviewed generally found that their audiences currently go to Twitter for breaking news, to Facebook for more emotional content and graphic-heavy videos, to Pinterest and Instagram for visually-focused stories (think interior design and outdoor lifestyle), and to YouTube for a more raw, intimate reporting style.

So editors should be tailoring the content strategy for each network, and then testing how those approaches are working.

Sarah Frank, executive producer at NowThis, says editors should be asking questions like, “Is this a platform where you go to share, or where you just want to look and observe?” and “How do we use the platform and how do our users use it?”

Understanding these kinds of nuances between networks helps ensure that your engagement on a platform feels authentic.

Don’t be late trying to understand how a social network works

As editors decide which social networks to spend energy on, first consider where you will reach the most valuable people. Who you reach is more important than direct measures of monetization and referral traffic — at least at first.

“We have to be on Snapchat because that’s where our fans are, so if we want to keep learning about them and keep up with them, we have to be where they are,” says Jennifer Corbett, vice president of audience development and marketing for Discovery’s Millennial-focused Discovery Digital Networks. “Snapchat could be super big and if you aren’t on it and you’re trying to catch up and learn the platform, it’s too late. You’re already lost in the market.”

She adds that gaining a foothold in these platforms now means that when they are monetizable, media companies that innately understand how they operate will be top players.

NowThis’ Sarah Frank says for her team, reach is the metric that “lifts everything.”

Who you reach is more important than direct measures of monetization and referral traffic — at least at first.

“On Instagram there is no actual ‘share’ feature, but we notice tons of our users tagging their friends in the comments,” she says, “and we think it’s a great signal that something resonated so much with our audience that they wanted to tag a friend.”

Enterprise stories should move across as many platforms as possible, with editors targeting the relevant visual or emotional or newsy piece that caters to that specific medium.

This was the case for New York magazine’s groundbreaking cover story on Bill Cosby; after the website got hacked, the editorial team was forced to publish relevant pieces of content across Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter, and they discovered a new strategy for enterprise stories in hindsight. By preparing your approach in advance, you can capitalize on social media audiences even further.

Former User Experience Researcher Prateek Sarkar says the New York Times editorial team wasn’t just launching its expose on nail salons into the world and hoping it would go viral. For enterprise stories like that one, audience engagement teams identify influencers and communities for whom a particular story will be important and make sure as the piece comes out, they are publishing it to those targeted groups. Reporters should be very active on social media discussing enterprise stories and having a dialog with readers.

Hand responsibility for specific social networks to employees personally engrossed in them

Discovery Digital Networks’ Jennifer Corbett describes handing over the company’s involvement on Reddit to a 19-year-old on her team because he’s immersed with the platform on an organic level. “Not many news places would hire a 19-year-old,” she says. “But I’d rather have someone who knows the audience super well and knows the content and can speak the language.”

This works even when your editorial team is tiny. Unravel operates with “two or three people,” says Tony Elkins, making it tough to create a robust social strategy. Yet he understands the importance of giving the publication a presence on platforms popular with a Millennial audience, so Unravel’s Instagram feed is managed by a photographer, for example.

If you’re going to have a large social footprint, let the people who love those platforms work on the content.

”She’s a Millennial who’s kind of my deputy editor at Unravel, but she also manages Instagram because she’s a photographer who gets it,” says Elkins.

At both NowThis and the Millennial news and culture site Mic, the newsrooms are full of people who spend much time on social platforms.

“Everyone in our newsroom is active on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and Snapchat and all these different apps,” says Slade Sohmer, director of editorial strategy at Mic. “It’s not a situation where someone wakes up and says, ‘We should really do something on Snapchat.’ We know this stuff so well and our newsroom is really made up of people who actually have to go out of their way to not see this stuff.”

“If you’re going to have a large social footprint, let the people who love those platforms work on the content,” says NowThis’ Sarah Frank.

Use social media to cover breaking news or offer behind the scenes perspectives

NPR’s Social Media Desk recently documented how it successfully turned a story about drought in Australia into content for Snapchat, with behind the scenes snaps viewed by 8,800 people in 24 hours. The social team also temporarily changed NPR’s Twitter avatar to its Snapchat icon in order to drive awareness to its account, adding hundreds of new Snapchat followers in the process.

Another recent example of successful experimentation: a journalist for the German newspaper Bild humanized the Syrian refugee crisis by using Periscope to report on people fleeing Syria. The Guardian reports that Paul Ronzheimer used the live-streaming app to offer an unvarnished look at the communities he was crossing from Greece through Europe with, and to take questions from viewers in real time.

Ronzheimer’s Periscope footage also became content on other mediums for Bild — he turned it into video clips, and his news team mined those clips for screenshots that could accompany his stories.

We do a lot of research at newspapers, because we’re reporters, and sometimes we analyze things too much instead of taking a risk and doing it.

The editors we interviewed have conducted numerous experiments in social content, including covering big events and festivals via Snapchat; streaming protests, private media events, and going behind the scenes with their sports teams and newsrooms via Periscope; and reporting on a new public transportation option in a humorous YouTube video.

Editor Corey Inscoe says when Charlotte installed a new streetcar, CharlotteFive decided the best way to inform its audience was to film his co-editor racing the streetcar and post the clip to YouTube. “We thought, I wonder if Katie can beat it, so we just tried it,” he says. “And that one did really well. The streetcar was an example of something that everyone knew was opening but [we had] a fun, interesting new angle,” he says.

In the end, the key is to get social and editorial teams out there experimenting.

“We do a lot of research at newspapers, because we’re reporters,” says Unravel’s Tony Elkins, “and sometimes we analyze things too much instead of taking a risk and doing it.”

Shira Lazar, co-founder & host of the live YouTube series What’s Trending, says successful media companies have shifted their social strategies from being driven by executives to working off the feedback and responses they’re noticing from the consumers and communities using these networks. “When you see something that works, be quick to move toward that thing,” she says. “Leave your ego at the door because this space it rewards people that are curious, creative, and collaborative.”

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