How news organizations are playing the social media game

There’s been more hand-wringing than usual in the media industry this week, after confirmation that Facebook is close to forming deals with mega-publishers such as Buzzfeed and The New York Times to host their content within the social media platform.

It was wishful thinking to hope that Mat Yurow, Associate Director of Audience Development at the NY Times, would shed some light on his company’s top-secret talks when he appeared on the panel at last night’s Daily News Innovation Lab.

Little is known publicly about the mechanics of these deals: how advertising revenue and data will be shared, whether smaller publishers will be strong-armed into the same models or simply left out in the cold, what impact it will have on publishers’ brand identity, and what the whole experience will be like for the user.

All we really know is that rather than directing users to the publishers’ own websites, as is the current practice, the news will be brought to them in Facebook. It will necessitate a fundamental shift in strategy for most publishers, although for many that shift began last year when Facebook prioritized the display of videos hosted directly on its platform.

It’s the latest step in Facebook’s seeming attempt to become the Walmart of the internet: a place where you can catch up with friends, record personal milestones, shop, do your banking, and stay across the day’s news.

At the Innovation Lab, Yurow, along with Mashable Founder and CEO Pete Cashmore, Yahoo! Head of Audience Development Alex Leo, and The Intercept’s Digital Engagement Editor Rubina Madan Fillion, shared a number of useful insights into how each of their four distinct organizations negotiates the murky-yet-essential waters of social media and algorithms.

1. Decide what value you put on engagement

If the aim of your social media activity to drive users to your website, what do you want them to do once they get there? How are you facilitating that? Over-promising and under-delivering on content posted to social media will lead to disillusionment and a loss of trust.

“If you don’t give [people] what they expect when they get to the page, that’s not adding value,” says Leo.

Fillion says small news organizations are best-placed to get high value out of social media engagement “because the fans are so much more engaged.

“It creates this feeling of community that really isn’t there for big global brands.”

In contrast, Cashmore says Mashable’s strategy is focused less on getting people to their website and more on meeting their audience where they are. “We’re agnostic about where that happens,” he says, adding that Mashable aims for its voice to sound like that of a trusted Facebook friend.

“Engagement is king…it’s not about us, it’s about the reader.

2. Value quality

These days, it feels like a social media algorithm change can generate waves bigger than when Zayn quit One Direction. But trying to game these algorithms by giving users substandard content won’t work forever, Cashmore says.

“If you’re a human and you look at it and it’s not good, the algorithm is eventually going to figure that out.”

It pays to keep your real audience in mind: “It’s people you’re ultimately creating for.”

Yurow views algorithms as “the best thing that’s happened to niche content in a long time,” due to their ability to personalize what a user sees and deliver them things they may not otherwise have discovered if that decision remained purely in the hands of an editor.

“They’re serving you the content that’s going to make you want to click, even if no-one else is.”

3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

“We need Facebook a lot more than they need us,” warns Fillion. Everyone on the panel supported experimenting across a number of social media platforms, because of the imperative to be wherever their audience is.

Mashable ensures a single platform is not responsible for more than one-third of its traffic. “It’s very important not to over-optimize for any network,” says Cashmore.

I think it’s important to stay across trends and changes as much as possible, but there does come a point when you have to stop second-guessing where the platforms will swing next and just trust that you know what your audience wants. Better still, let them tell you. Ask them questions, look at the data.

Right now I’m experimenting with my own brand, Kitchen Chapters, to try and develop a distinctive social media voice and following. It’s a challenging and time-consuming thing for one person to do from scratch, especially because there’s so much noise out there already.

How can I do my bit to help, I hear you say? Easy! Follow along: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest. We are not yet Meerkatting (yes, it’s a verb already), but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.