What “engagement” means to Lauren McCullough at the Associated Press

How do you build a relationship with a global audience, personalizing a brand and involving users in your coverage? The Associated Press is going for it, with aggressive social media strategies and a reliance on its 3,000 journalists.

“Fundamentally, we think people want to interact with people,” says Lauren McCullough, the AP’s manager of social networks and news engagement. Lauren and her team try to personalize the AP’s corporate accounts, revealing who’s behind them and using initials in the tweets, but “at the end of the day, we’re three people in New York.” That’s why a cornerstone of the company’s social media strategy is training the individual journalists on the benefits and practices of social media and hoping they feel comfortable enough to embrace it and run with it.

The folks at New York’s Nerve Center (the global headquarters) will help out with local/regional coverage for breaking news. But in general, a reporter covering agriculture in the Midwest is encouraged to be an authentic person (while maintaining objectivity) and to engage with his or her local communities using social media, both on behalf of the company and individually. That reporter, then, should know how to make Twitter lists, how to interact on Facebook without sharing pictures of their kids and why both platforms can be valuable reporting tools.

The fundamental shift at the heart of these and other changes at the AP is a strategy involving more business-to-consumer approaches, not just products designed for other media outlets. They’re trying to introduce people to the AP brand, Lauren says, and personalizing that brand is the mission of the flagship social media accounts.

Part of understanding social media for the AP is playing to the strengths of different platforms. The company has far fewer fans on Facebook (31,199 as of this morning) than followers on just its main news Twitter account (167,392). But while the numbers are lower, the Facebook page boasts a quality of conversation and developing community that they’re not seeing on Twitter. The user investment level on that more personal platform is different. (A quick look at a few days’ worth of posts on both accounts shows that, as you might expect, users are sharing more personal experiences and asking questions of the AP on Facebook. The Twitter account has been used mostly to share links to stories, with a few replies to specific users inviting them to get in touch with a staff member.)

Judging by more than just numbers is a challenge for the AP, as it is for most news folks these days. The staff is trying to figure out how to best take advantage of social media metrics that move beyond numbers into real understanding of influence and quality of the interaction. Lauren says they’re looking into options and are nearing a decision on a service to use. For now, she manually tracks growth in followers, uses a bit.ly enterprise account and spends time with google analytics. It’s not a scientific analysis, but it gives her a sense of impact and reach.

Social media is definitely at the heart of what “engagement” means to the Associated Press. The investment so far includes 11 Twitter accounts managed by the editorial department (a couple of them are @ap_fashion with 105,134 followers and @ap_Top25 with 12,566), and Facebook and YouTube presences. Most of the official accounts are handled in New York, but when asked specifically about some engagement strategies, Lauren returned to the power of the army of 3,000 reporters. If the AP is going to interact with users around specific content, it’s likely to happen on the part of individual journalists. I asked if there’s been an effort to get content out to specific users who might be interested in it. She said it’s something editorial has talked about with the marketing department, and they’re still together figuring out if that would cross any lines or how it might best be done.

Part of the job of Lauren’s team is to pay attention to what’s being talked about online, and report back to the rest of the nerve center. On the morning we had our talk, Prince William and royal wedding were trending topics. Information like that gets taken to the morning news meaning, along with news about how stories are getting played elsewhere and new products or innovations to keep an eye on. In addition to their news judgment (which Lauren says is still the most reliable and trusted tool) those factors are taken into account. The goal is to respond to the coverage people want.

“A big tenet of AP’s social media strategy is that we have to be humble,” Lauren says. “We can’t live in this model where we as an editor say, “Here are the top five stories you need to know about. We don’t care if you want them or think you need them.”

“We’re trying really hard to break down those walls and to be approachable.”

UPDATE NOV. 18: As I start to interview some large news organizations, it’ll be so interesting to see how differently they approach their engagement efforts. Check out this interview with the Chicago Tribune. And let me know what engagement means to your newsroom.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.


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