“If a tweet worked once, send it again” — and other social media lessons from The New York Times

Michael Roston at Nieman Journalism Lab has an excellent and interesting article about the New York Times’ social media desk.

With over 5 million followers on Twitter, The New York Times has some very pertinent advice and hard lessons, many of which are relevant to unions and other progressive organisations.

The reason I encourage you to read the entire article is that increasingly, union campaigns are “content creators” — that is, an (often unspoken) objective of the campaign is to create “shareable” content (blogs, memes, images, graphics, videos, etc) that summarise the campaign’s issues or spur people to take action.

Additionally, some unions, especially peak bodies like the Australian Council of Trade Unions, are getting into the content game wholesale, through the launch of the news and opinion site Working Life. Many unions have blogs or Tumblrs, either for the unions as a whole or for a specific campaign.

I summarise the main points from the article below.

Understand why people follow you (or fan you) and give them what they want.

Readers come to @nytimes for many reasons. But in major breaking news situations, it becomes abundantly clear that large numbers of readers are glued to our Twitter feed and waiting for the next update. And while Twitter’s misuse in breaking news situations was well lamented in 2013, it is what readers are coming to us for more than anything else.

I’ve said before that unions should know their audience — especially if that audience is their membership and potential membership & supporter base) better than anyone else. Understand who is currently following you or likely to follow you, and make sure you deliver.

Empower your officials, organisers and front-line union staff.

The Times is fortunate to have skilled, deeply sourced reporters all over the world, covering major news as it develops. When they are early to a story and share the news via Twitter, retweets from @nytimes are responded to heavily by our readers.

Letting our trusted reporters deliver some news first helps them connect directly with an interested audience, and delivers news in a timely manner without sacrificing our commitment to accuracy.

Your elected officials, organisers and other staff, and especially your delegates should be powerful advocates for your union and its campaigns. Don’t think that the institutional union social media account should automatically be the only channel to get your message out. Most people build rapport on Twitter with other individuals, so be prepared to retweet them instead of giving all the good tweets to the union’s official account. Instead, empower the individuals in your union and use the union’s institutional account to amplify what they say.

Use your institutional account to amplify discussions.

Beyond clicks and retweets, our institutional Twitter accounts, of which we have several beyond @nytimes, were effective tools to advance storytelling by the Times’s journalists. Some methods, like sending callouts for sources on major stories used a variety of methods, including social media. Others relied solely on Twitter.

One effective method was organizing highly structured Twitter Q&A sessions with reporters using institutional accounts as a moderator. At times when there was a heightened reader interest in a complex, developing news story, New York Times Twitter accounts curated discussions with Times reporters.

Social media is about discussion and dialogue. The example given by the NYT — the curated Q&A session — is a good one for unions to consider experimenting with. The recent ACTU Organising Conference 2014 for example had a specific “official” Twitter account for the conference that retweeted conference attendees questions during certain sessions. Think about how your union’s institutional account could be used to engage in creative dialogue, or to highlight existing discussions, rather than just broadcast.

Have someone actively in charge of your accounts (but it’s OK to have an autopilot too).

On a Twitter account that was automated at the time, the error snowballed around social media and the web for hours. When our hands are minding the feed, errors like that either don’t happen or have less of an impact.

In other cases, a small amount of editorial effort was the difference between one of the best tweets of the year and a headline from print that was less effective in the context of social media.

The NYT auto-tweets it’s articles when there’s not someone “on the desk”, but when someone is actively thinking about what to tweet, the results are better. For a union, this means that setting up an auto-broadcast system for your union’s web updates or campaign news is “OK” (according to the NYT), but you’ll get more engagement and better results if you have someone curate them.

Clarity is better than click-bait.

Ultimately, we don’t always need to try so hard to write an unforgettable tweet, or one that tempts the reader too much. Clarity and straightforwardness around interesting subject matter are ultimately rewarded by substantial reader interest.

By “click-bait”, I mean those viral-sounding “Upworthy-style” headlines which are cryptic or ambiguous, and seem designed to get you to click on them. While you may get some clicks through this style of manipulation, the view of the NYT is that by being clearer and straightforward about what the article is about, you will get greater engagement.

Repetition and evergreen are key.

Many New York Times articles, videos, slideshows, graphics, and blog posts don’t need to be read only at the very moment they were published. There is an enduring interest in coming back to them at moments that are more convenient for the reader. That’s why we see some articles floating on The Times’s Most E-Mailed list for a week or more. The same is true of Twitter.

During 2013, we began consistently scheduling multiple runs of tweets highlighting some of our best enterprise material, especially during weekend hours and overnight, when @nytimes is mostly automated. It goes without saying that if you tweet more, you’ll get more traffic overall. But what we found when we scheduled tweets on Saturday and Sunday was that the average click per tweet grew substantially. What that meant to us was that a story that was of great interest to readers on a Tuesday afternoon is likely to be of interest to readers grazing Twitter on a Saturday night who didn’t see it the first time around. It also encouraged us to think about how our Twitter accounts can better serve The Times’s global audience.

I have certainly found with this blog that some content from several years ago continues to rank highly in traffic and referrals; for unions this means that some content on your website may be “evergreen” — for example articles about rights at work.

The other thing to bear in mind is that the way that Facebook and Twitter work is that if you send an update once, only a proportion of your fans and followers will actually see it. By sending it again (in a slightly different way) you can ensure that people who are logged into Facebook or Twitter at a different time also have a chance of seeing your content. For national unions in countries crossing time-zones, this can be especially important.

Success is difficult to predict.

We tweeted some stories without any expectation that they would be popular on social media. But suddenly a story buried deep in the paper, targeted toward a niche audience, was widely and heavily shared across social media. We couldn’t always pinpoint the origin of the great interest in an article, but we liked finding the nowhere from out of which a wave of social media attention came.

The example given by the NYT is of a celebrity tweeting a link to their fans. While not everyone has celebrities on call to share updates or retweets, the elements of “viral” are increasingly understood.

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