Q: What “works” on social media? A: That’s a bad question

** Where you see asterisks, I’ve elaborated since the original publication.

I’ve had meetings with several students lately who want to work professionally in or do in-depth research on social media, and I was reminded of dozens of chats I’ve had with professional journalists.

The journalists (student or professional) had this in common: They have a firm grasp of tools and enjoy using them, but they haven’t thought through deeply enough some key questions.

Please, let’s build a social strategy around these questions:

1. Why am I doing this?

What’s the purpose behind the post, prompt, invitation or link? To drive visits to your website? To invite connection between journalists and users? To find sources? To promote brand awareness? To get a window into users’ values or opinions? The answer of course differs between brands or newsrooms. And it should most certainly differ between posts. What do you hope to achieve with each post, and are you mixing it up?

2. What do I hope will happen? 

What does success look like? And how does that differ based on the goals listed above? Is your answer measurable or trackable? Journalists say way too often that they want to know what “works” on social media. That depends entirely on what “working” means to your newsroom, or this specific platform, or this specific post/story.

3. How will I track what works and use that feedback to craft future strategies?

Journalists should be more experimental, and in experiments, we repeat what works and stop doing what doesn’t work. The analysis component is key. So is comparing apples to apples. One-size-fits-all measurement helps no one, and actually hurts. If you’re looking for sources, perhaps getting the right two comments will improve your journalism and counts as success. If you’re asking for opinions on a hot-button news issue, two comments would likely NOT be seen as wild success. Compare a crowdsourcing effort to other crowdsourcing efforts, not to breaking news links.

When my newsroom posts the score of a Mizzou football game (no link, just the score), we get tons of likes or retweets. The goal of that post is clearly completely different than what we hope will happen when we post a photo gallery from the game (when we’re hoping for clicks and shares). Or when we post an invitation for people to predict the score (when we’re hoping for comments).

Here’s a little example of what I wish journalists would do. In my class this week, groups of students wrote four Facebook posts for the same story, with four distinct goals (and therefore success metrics) in mind:

  • A straightforward presentation of the news
  • A goal of as many clicks as possible (**added: in which case, measure clicks as a ratio of reach, so you have context)
  • A goal of as many likes/comments as possible (**added: in which case, measure likes/comments as ratio of reach)
  • A goal of quality discussion/sourcing

Now that they’ve had that discussion, we’ll put it to practice in the newsroom, asking: What’s the tone of the content? What’s your goal in sharing it? What specific behaviors are you trying to encourage? And how will you measure whether it was successful?

**Addendum: In my newsroom, discussions of strategies and intended outcomes falls under the umbrella of “it depends.” “It depends” is almost always the right answer, especially when followed by a thoughtful reason.

The logic can be applied to a lot of what we do. How about comments?

  • If you’re going for as many comments as possible, measure the number.
  • If you’re trying to turn attention into conversation, measure comments as a ratio of page views to pages that can take comments.
  • If you’re trying to encourage more discussion, pay attention to return commenters and responses.
  • If you’re trying to encourage more civil discussions, do that qualitatively, and also take a look at users’ use of flagging comments, or activities by staff to reward civility and punish abusers.
  • If you’re trying to encourage more informed comments, invest staff time in fact-checking and participating in the threads, then measure improvement or user response.

All together now: Let’s ask good questions. Until then, step away from the keyboard.

What do you wish more journalists were asking? Let me know here or at @mayerjoy.


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