A Tweet, a Like, a Share: Honing in on the Audience and Predicting Its Next Steps

Feb 17, 2012

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This article is the second of two, based on research done by Brandi Shaffer, a journalism graduate student at Kent State University. She interviewed a variety of traditional media outlets in northeast Ohio about social media use.

Engaging the Audience

Once the limits and benefits of each social medium are established and the audience is determined, a media company must decide how it will use content to reach readers in this new forum. Most editors agree that they hope to foster interaction--to allow their readers to not only get their content, but also to respond, knowing that the staff is getting the readers' viewpoints.

Engagement is a two-way street, but media companies don't only use social media to stay in touch with readers. For business and trade publications in particular, the readers and the sources of their stories are often one in the same and networking is an intrinsic part of the editorial process.

"The cornerstone [of our social media use] is distributing content," Brooke Bates, from Smart Business says, "hand in hand with that is deepening the relationship with sources we've featured. We tend to not write about someone once and forget them. Social media has been a good way to keep up with them as well as advertisers."

Mining for sources on social media not only builds relationships but also improves editorial content by allowing the best sources to be found. Bates related an instance when she sent emails to the communication director for The CME Group over a period of months and never heard anything back. She happened to follow him on Twitter and retweeted something he'd posted, then sent him a direct message. The elusive source responded within five minutes.

"We need to put effort behind this because we're getting results on it. You could look at 10 people retweeting and those are good, but the best is when social media interaction leads to something more," Bates says.

From social media interaction can come useful editorial ideas. Don Loepp noted that while it's not an everyday thing, Plastics News does get story ideas and angle suggestions from social media followers. But those are not the only tangible benefits.

"Social media provide useful analytics," Loepp says. "You start getting into it, you know exactly who's using it. We had one advertiser who was intrigued by the number of people who followed us on Twitter, so we did a sponsored tweet from the advertiser with a short message."

AP encourages Facebook traffic by offering a two-year subscription to the print edition for $10 if readers are willing to click the "like" button. Annie Zaleski sees page views as a tangible, "invaluable" benefit, combining marketing and customer service to establish a rapport. Plastics News' marketing and editorial departments both use the same social media tools as well.

"It's definitely indispensable," Vince Grzegorek from Scene says. "It's one thing to have everything integrated on the site, but it's not going to reach its full potential for traffic or readers unless you push it, especially since everyone worries about ad numbers."

Not all media professionals agree that the tangible benefits of social media use are so apparent. Though all the editors agreed that social media had value, it's not always easy to see how tweets translate to dollars. "[Plain Dealer columnist Mary Kay Cabot] has [over 20,000] followers on Twitter right now," Thom Flading from The Plain Dealer says. "There's certainly value in it, but you can't put cash value or hard value on that."

Despite the lack of a cents-to-tweets formula, Flading doesn't see social media as anything less than a catalyst for the quality and quantity of work his reporters produce. "If we work Twitter and Facebook into the day, they feed work," Flading says. "It's not a burden or a barrier, they help get work done."

Predicting the Future of the Audience

Ultimately, much of social media use is intuitive. None of the editors had specific requirements for the number of updates or posts in a given day-they go with what feels natural or becomes part of a routine.

"Saying you must tweet 20 times a day can end up backfiring," Fladung says. "It varies from person to person-some people are really into it."

In the short time social media has been put to use, it's already changed. For Plastics News, the foray into Twitter was so stealthy, its own staff wasn't aware of it.

"Someone in sales suggested we start using Twitter and I told them we were already on it," Loepp says. "It's easy to do and people can discover it. We promote it more now but I still think a big part of our audience who's on Twitter doesn't know we are."

For most media companies, there's still plenty of room for advancement. While most editors couldn't predict where social media would go, they also admit that they couldn't have predicted how far it's already come. Bates from Smart Business recognizes her company's shortcomings and intends to address them in the future, implementing some ideas being used in the consumer sector.

"One area where we need to work on is after we push this content out, a lot of it gets retweeted and we don't always have time to go back in and engage with people who have engaged with us," Bates says. "One option we've discussed already is bringing in people who are already here, opening up [social media dashboard] HootSuite and letting editorial participate with that, since they're the ones who have contact with businesses/sources. [We would] let them be the voice and personality of their accounts, involving people already on board."

But the big question on everyone's mind, which relates to digital publishing in general, is how to make social media profitable. If companies are giving away content online, where's the incentive to pay for the print product? Social media is ideal for creating brand identity, and some companies are relying on that identity to make their product more valuable.

"I think we have to figure out how to place more tangible value on social media, to figure out how newspapers can get paid," Flading, from The Plain Dealer says. "I don't think giving it away on Twitter is the answer. Relationships are great, direct access and feedback from readers is great, but we can't give reporters' content and work away."

Editors are feeling the push to be involved in social media just to keep up, but simply maintaining a presence isn't always enough and is not using resources fully. Social media is rooted in interaction and conversation, so ignoring technology's capability to facilitate a dialogue is shortsighted.

Further, some publications use the same content in their print product as they do online. Not all content is created equal, so not all content works on every platform. By simply dumping the same content in the print edition onto social media, editors are giving away their work for free. Online content should be an addendum-an additional route for like-minded content that is more than a retread of what's already available. Social media posts and tweets should supplement and improve upon the paid-for content, serving as an enticing appetizer for the print entree.

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