You're doing social wrong

Social journalism is modern journalism—and it's crucial to your B2B audience development.

BY Chris Blose
VP, Content, Imagination

If Hallie Jackson had been a White House correspondent for TV news a couple of decades ago, the logistics of a live reporting segment would’ve been a bit simpler. Find the right background for the shot. Prep your intro. Remember your talking points.

The modern checklist for the rising NBC broadcaster—now chief White House correspondent—adds a few elements. Do a quick real-time Snapchat Q&A. Tweet some behind-the-scenes intel. Think about social follow-ups for later in the day.

“Hallie Jackson carved out a real niche during the presidential election and after,” says Anthony Adornato, assistant professor of journalism at Ithaca College and author of Mobile and Social Media Journalism: A Practical Guide. “She knows the younger demographic is not watching news the same way. She’s bringing people under the NBC News tent now on Snapchat in the hopes that even on other platforms in the future, they’ll follow.”

The phrase “other platforms” stands out. Brands, associations and other groups who create content sometimes feel paralyzed by options as they wait out trends and corporate battles. Will Instagram Stories spell the death of Snapchat? Is Facebook still worth the effort as the algorithm grows increasingly inscrutable to the layperson? Can we break through the solicitation on LinkedIn to provide thought leadership stories?

Those questions aren’t as important as this one, though: Where’s your audience?

“I’ve always tried to be an early adopter,” says Adornato, a former reporter himself who now teaches future content creators. “But it’s not really about what the specific channel is, it’s whether we can use them to connect with our audience. At the end of the day, we’re really working for our particular audience.”

For Jackson and NBC News, that audience—or at least a hoped-for future audience—was on Snapchat, so they got good at Snapchat. They didn’t assign it to the intern. They made it part of daily reporting. They simply made it part of their journalism.

Heed that as you craft your own social strategy.

The tl;dr explanation of social media journalism is that it is modern journalism.


F*&k the Fad—This Is Journalism

The tl;dr explanation of social media journalism is that it is modern journalism.

“I wrote a book with social media journalism in the title because social media is a fundamental part of journalism nowadays,” Adornato says. “This is how people engage with stories. This is no longer a novelty.” Explaining the way journalists use the tools of social media is more instructive.

And content creators are indeed using social media. In the 2017 Global Journalism Study, produced by Cision and Canterbury Christ Church University, nearly half of the 257 responding journalists said they can’t do their jobs without social media. The study identifies a range of users among these reporters, editors and other content creators, with “Architects” being the most active and most positive about social media’s effects and, naturally, “Skeptics” at the other end of the spectrum.

You’ll find varying definitions online, but they all roughly come down to the same question: What do social media journalists use social for?

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1. Find

So much of a journalist’s time—whether they work for a newspaper or for a brand’s content marketing program—is spent in search mode. Searching for stories. Searching for facts for stories. Searching for sources for stories.

“Social media has changed how we gather content, how we do that digging,” Adornato says. “That’s true for sources and research, but also think about how it has changed breaking news.”

Think of the Arab Spring. Think of the US Airways crash into the Hudson River. Think of on-the-ground reports from Charlottesville.

In the longer term, professional storytellers did thorough reporting jobs on all of the above—triangulating facts and providing big-picture context. But they did so with breaking news, sourcing and information hunted and gathered via social media.

Brands, Be Aware: Your content marketing program probably isn’t in the business of breaking news, but you can still learn from the best practices of socially savvy news orgs.

Be active in the social search. Use social monitoring tools—either native to each social channel or specific tools such as Hootsuite, Brandwatch or a seemingly endless array of options—to track both the topics that matter to your readers and what readers are saying about you. And when you’re crafting stories, remember that your audience may actually be a source of expertise.

That’s particularly true if you’re a member-based group. For instance, AACC, an association that serves a highly technical audience of clinical chemists, has its own members-only social platform called The Artery. It started purely for peer-to-peer social communication, with members asking and answering questions, but has turned into a rich source of ideas for the association’s magazine as well as newsletter articles and scholarly discussions.

“We’ve even found that the information that we’re getting is so rich … that we have now, this year, scientific sessions at our annual meeting that are coming out of those conversations,” says Molly Polen, AACC’s senior director of communications and PR. “We’re having some papers that have been written for our journal, that the kernel of the idea for the paper came out of those peer-to-peer conversations.”

2. Share

As far as social media functions go, sharing and distribution still top the list. In the 2017 Global Social Journalism study, 67 percent of respondents rated publishing and promoting content as very important to their work, at least 7 percentage points higher than any other function.

“For individuals, that means during the life of a story, sharing content along the way and also optimizing content for social media specifically,” Adornato notes.

In other words, it’s not just about one tweet or Facebook or LinkedIn post with a link to your story. Savvy reporters often post facts and behind-the-scenes intel from their reporting before the story even comes out, building anticipation in audiences and providing context and transparency along the way.

Creative packaging goes a long way, too. Take Shorty Award (short-form social awards) nominee Michelle Ye Hee Lee of The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker,” for example. Her posts go far beyond simple teasers and links and use GIFs and images full of pop culture, personality and humor. What better way to make fact-checking modern politicians fun?

Brands, Be Aware: If a fact-checking news column can have fun with pop culture, so can you.

For example, the American Optometric Association (AOA) started to see the results of tapping into social conversations back in 2015.

Remember #thedress debate, when everyone in your Facebook feed argued vociferously about the color of a dress in a lo-res image? AOA wrote a story featuring a doctor of optometry’s explanation of the visual phenomenon at work in the debate, then packaged it up with playful social posts. The result was the organization’s most successful digital story and social posts to date.

“That was an important moment for us, because it was a member expert explaining the science in a way people could understand,” says Dave Sherman, director of AOA’s communications and marketing group. The association has built on that success by tapping into other pop culture discussions, including multichannel posts about the trouble with the NFL’s “color rush” jerseys. The problem: They weren’t good for people with a color vision deficiency, who couldn’t tell the teams apart. The AOA informed members and the public about the issue—and earned authority in return.

Its biggest hit came with the solar eclipse of 2017, though. In addition to ongoing stories about how to watch the eclipse safely, the team created a video for social sharing and posted it multiple times in the lead-up to the totality. People clicked to the tune of 180,000 views, a record high for AOA. More important, people shared and reacted.

3. Interact

Distribution may still be the most-used tool for social media journalists, but the most active and most successful users know it’s but one tactic. Jackson’s Snapchat Q&As aren’t about traditional distribution. They’re about audience development—and audience development requires interaction. “We’re not just telling you the news anymore. That doesn’t work,” Adornato says. “Audience engagement requires a two-way conversation.” Numbers support this. In the same social study, 60 percent of journalists report using social media to interact with an audience.

Would FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver have the same level of recognition as a journalist without his persistent Twitter presence? Doubtful. But take a quick look at that presence, and you’ll see an engaged thinker who is every bit as likely to discuss current issues with strangers or fellow journalists as he is to distribute and promote his own work. And when people take issue with his work—specifically his work, not personal attacks—he responds with well-reasoned rebuttals drawn from his own statistics-heavy reporting.

All of which leads to an important question: What are the rules of engagement? It’s worth noting here that many news organizations have turned off commenting altogether given that the spirit of debate was less than helpful. But social commenting remains.

“With audience engagement, journalists nowadays are getting a lot of comments—and that interaction is often related to nonjournalistic things,” Adornato notes. “If you’re a reporter and people are attacking you for your look, or just making attacks that cross the line, there’s often a case for reporting, blocking or ignoring them. But if they’re asking questions or making comments about the substance of a story, that is worth a response. It actually can lead you to things you never thought about.”

Brands, Be Aware: No matter what topic, industry or profession you serve, people will be talking about it online.

You can be part of the conversation by not only sharing your original content on those topics but also encouraging your content creators to be active in those ongoing discussions. Answer readers’ questions, either in an organic fashion as they occur or in pre-planned Q&As. Provide links to original content that answers them, when appropriate.

Take a cue from National Geographic, whose photographers are especially active on Instagram (highly appropriate for such a visual brand) and always seem willing to interact with curious readers.

But do set your own rules of engagement on everything from responding to profanity to standards for dealing with personal attacks. This will save headaches for you and for the people out there representing you.

And yes, there are headaches in the world of social, circa 2018. Even those who grow weary of the phrase “fake news” must recognize its existence—and know that real news is the only way to counteract it.

“For organizations like us, it’s important that the real gets through,” says AOA’s Sherman. “We should be rewarded for good, legitimate, evidence-based information.”

When social media journalism is integrated into a content program and finds enough of an audience, that reward will come.

But do set your own rules of engagement on everything from responding to profanity to standards for dealing with personal attacks. This will save headaches for you and for the people out there representing you.

And yes, there are headaches in the world of social, circa 2018. Even those who grow weary of the phrase “fake news” must recognize its existence—and know that real news is the only way to counteract it.

“For organizations like us, it’s important that the real gets through,” says AOA’s Sherman. “We should be rewarded for good, legitimate, evidence-based information.”

When social media journalism is integrated into a content program and finds enough of an audience, that reward will come.

Imagination Guide to B2B Social Journalism

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