What “engagement” means to Zach Seward at the Wall Street Journal

Zach Seward is the outreach editor at the Wall Street Journal. When you’re at an organization as large as the Journal, your relationship with your audience is going to necessarily look quite different from those at smaller shops. But I’ve talked this year to some other large newsrooms (including the Associated Press, NPR and the Chicago Tribune) and have found a lot of variety in their approaches as well.

Zach’s name has come up over and over as I’ve asked folks for interview suggestions, and I was glad to get a chance to ask him some questions about his job, his newsroom and his audience. Here’s what Zach had to say:

ON SOCIAL MEDIA BRAINSTORMING: Part of Zach’s job is to talk to reporters and editors about possible social elements to accompany individual projects. He says he approaches those from a neutral standpoint, rather than one of persuasion or evangelism. He allows for the possibility that a social component doesn’t make sense and tries to be more consultant than cheerleader. He says that approach suits his own personality and is consistent with the healthy skepticism journalists often wear. He doesn’t want social media to suffer from over-hype and to feel like a bandwagon every reporter’s got to jump on.

ON THE PAYWALL: The Wall Street Journal’s paywall represents a particular challenge for Zach. He and other editors focus on free content when deciding what to share, and they decide what goes in front of the paywall partly based on which content has the greatest potential reach beyond their subscriber base.

ON THE NEWSROOM: For those of you interested in how the outreach editor in a newsroom as big as the Journal fits into the structure of the newsroom, here are some details. There’s no social media team at the Journal. For those efforts, Zach works with some folks who are involved just because they’re interested, and with the producers in charge of the home page. He also works with four “real-time deputies” who report to the major desks, and with editors and reporters on their specific content.

ON SOCIAL MEDIA PRACTICES: Zach and others, including the overnight folks, try to address Twitter followers who speak directly to the Journal. He doesn’t guarantee an answer, but he tries to be available. He likes that he can form a picture in his head of what followers like. (He also passes on all delivery complaints to the circulation department.) Zach’s feeling about when to use hashtags to solicit responses is that it’s best done when there’s a plan for what to do with the answers. It feels less like true engagement to him if it’s not obvious that anyone’s listening and acting on the information. The Journal also tends to do more question-asking on Facebook than Twitter.

ON SPECIALTY BRANDS OR ACCOUNTS: When faced with a special event (the World Cup, a new election, a project or series), the newsroom grapples with whether to keep the coverage branded with the main @WSJ account, use an existing niche account like @WSJSports or create specialty accounts. A benefit of niche accounts, Zach says, is the possibility to learn about your readers. For the What They Know project on online privacy, the Journal created a separate Twitter account. And while its 4,600 followers are modest compared to the main account’s 688,000, the group represented the clear target audience for the project. “It was clear that they were a defined community of people who were particularly interested in digital advertising and digital privacy,” Zach said. The editors didn’t create a community around that topic, but they stuck themselves in the middle of an existing one.

ON WHAT HE WISHES HE KNEW ABOUT HIS READERS: The Journal uses Chartbeat, Omniture and Bit.ly Enterprise for analytics, and Zach feels like he can get a pretty good idea of what people like and how they’re engaging with the content. Zach says he tends to be obsessive about metrics. What he really wants now is to know more about his followers. What are they doing when they’re NOT reading the Journal? What links are they tweeting from elsewhere? How are they connected to each other, besides as WSJ readers? His sense so far is that there’s little follower density for the main account, but higher density for accounts like whattheyknow. He’d also like to know, more than just anecdotally, how individual followers found the account and what prompted them to follow.

MORE ON METRICS: The nature of metrics is that they’re easily manipulated, and social media metrics are especially tricky. They’re so new that there’s much confusion. Plus, the growth curve is so steep and things are changing so fast that it’s difficult to predict where we’re headed, or to normalize the data. When setting goals, “the best I can do is look at past growth and aim higher,” Zach says. He focuses on the acceleration of growth, not just growth.

TWITTER METRICS, SPECIFICALLY: Zach’s goals will never be based on the number of followers. His four favorite metrics are retweets, favorites, replies and median clicks per link. That last one is his absolutely favorite, for any shop that’s, like the Journal, specifically trying to drive page views through social media. These four metrics combined reveal what percentage of the huge number of followers is actually paying attention to and acting on the content.

ON WHO JOURNALISTS SHOULD BE LEARNING FROM: Zach’s interested in digital communities, and he’s involved in a Community Managers Meetup in New York. He’d like to see journalists who use social media learning from social media marketers, and from community managers at tech startups. He also keeps an eye on what’s up with gaming, advertising, engineering, interactive design and venture capital.

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


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