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April 14, 2011, 2 p.m.

What works for news orgs on Foursquare? Opinion, reviews, evergreens, but maybe not the news

Editor’s Note: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism earlier this month, one of the most interesting papers presented was from Tim Currie, an assistant journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada. His subject was newspapers’ use of the tips function in Foursquare to spread their content — what works and what doesn’t? And what does “works” even mean? I asked Tim to write a summary of his findings for the Lab; you can download the full paper here. I’ve also embedded his slide deck below.

Many news organizations, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Canada’s Metro chain of free dailies, began experimenting with the location-based social network Foursquare in 2010. They were adding editorial content — mainly restaurant reviews — as tips at locations that people could check into using the Foursquare app on their smartphone.

The newspapers were trying to explore what some social media editors have called a promising tool for news organizations. These journalists say Foursquare offers the possibility of targeted news distribution and finding on-the-scene human sources during breaking news events.

Online editors at these outlets were putting only a fraction of their paper’s editorial content into Foursquare; the number of tips left by each of these newspapers in early 2011 numbered, at most, in the low hundreds. So I was interested in determining what it was about the articles they did choose that editors thought worked well in this location-based service. I also wanted to know how editors were crafting the tips and what their goals were.

I chose Canada’s Postmedia Network as a case study subject because its member newspapers were among the most active in North America for placing editorial content into Foursquare. As of early March, Postmedia newspapers had 1,901 tips cumulatively in Foursquare. I studied three newspapers — the National Post, the Edmonton Journal and the Vancouver Sun — through in-depth interviews with the online editors that were responsible for putting content into this social network.

Asked to characterize the articles they placed into Foursquare, the editors used phrases such as “feature-y”, “evergreen”, “opinion”, “not hard-core news” and “useful to people over a longer period of time.” They cited successful efforts in using editorial content such as a film festival guide, a commentary on transit users and reviews of hip urban restaurants.

In general, the newspaper content they placed into Foursquare had at least one of these five characteristics:

An opinion, review, guide, or first-person account: The articles had a strong narrative voice and usually offered recommendations. The editors said they were using lots of restaurant reviews — but also travelogues and commentaries.

Described with the goal of inspiring action: The articles contained opinions selected specifically to inspire interaction. The editors chose editorial content likely to spark an emotional response in readers. They hoped this response would lead users to click the “I’ve Done This” or “Add This To My To-Do List” buttons in Foursquare — or begin a conversation in other social networks such as Twitter or Facebook. The editors said they crafted their tips to highlight these opinions. One or two worked specifically to link editorial content with Foursquare’s interactive buttons. Some editors cited relatively weak functionality within Foursquare for discussion and traffic measurement. Consequently, they looked to push conversation to social services that had more robust support for interaction — and analytics.

Timeless — or about an event lasting more than 2 days: The editorial content had an “evergreen” quality” about it that made it relevant for a long period of time. Foursquare users value immediacy, the editors said, and articles about long-past events have little appeal. The editors said they rarely placed articles into Foursquare concerning events that took place on a single day. Some said they had initially placed profiles of single-day concerts at clubs or concert halls but ultimately found the workload demanding in light of low user response. One editor had also come to worry about “clogging up” entertainment venues with multiple tips. A majority of editors said they used articles about music festivals or sporting events — as long as the events ran for at least three days. One editor said that’s enough time to attract adequate attention within Foursquare and to use other social media services such as Facebook and Twitter to drive traffic to Foursquare.

About a specific location or an activity typically done at a location: Articles left as tips were about locations with a street address, such as a restaurant or a school offering a cooking class. However, they were also about activities typically done by people at a specific kind of location. For example, they were about things people do at light rapid transit stations or about issues of interest to people who shop at an Apple Store.

Placed at a location where people gather socially: Editors rarely placed articles at venues such as homes or small businesses. Instead they placed tips at venues where people gather in groups: at music and theater festivals, sports events, transportation hubs, educational classes — and restaurants. These are places where people interact in the real world and where the editors guessed people are likely to interact online as well.

News content rarely used

While most participants said they were open to the idea of putting news stories into Foursquare, few cited instances of doing it. One said it would be “jarring” to know someone had been robbed or beaten recently near where they were. This editor added that Foursquare’s nature as a tool for exploration (“unlock your city” is its slogan) was at odds with violent news content: “I think indicating where there have been shootings and where there are robberies would be indicating why you should stay in.”

The editors drew almost all of their articles from the newspaper or the website. They frequently used the headline or deck of a published article as their 200-character tip in Foursquare. Some, however, said they searched an article for vivid descriptions of physical surroundings or distinct flavours in a restaurant dish. They subsequently used these descriptions to craft a custom tip aimed at attracting a user who might be holding a menu or gazing around them.

A small number of editors said they were working with reporters to create content specifically for Foursquare — such as a guide to Christmas light displays in town or a list of travel tips integrated with Foursquare’s To-Do List. The aim was to prompt users to click Foursquare’s “Add This To My To-Do List” button or “I’ve Done This” button on each tip screen. However, some of the editors described these button-clicks as weak measurements of engagement. As one put it, “It’s an inaccurate term for what we have [published] because it isn’t really a ‘to do.'”

Here at the Lab, there’s been discussion about news organizations’ discomfort with the awkward nomenclature of social media sharing buttons, such as Facebook’s Like button. Buttons that signal agreement can be a tough fit with content from news organizations, which have been “traditional bringers of bad news.” There’s also been some emerging research, conducted by my colleagues at Dalhousie University and others, suggesting a link between positive emotion and online sharing.

The results of this study suggest editors have acknowledged this association. Their goal of promoting engagement seems to have influenced their selection of articles for use in Foursquare. They chose a narrow range of content that supported the mood of people out on the town, having a good time and looking to explore. In general, they indicated they looked for light-hearted recommendations users could mull over, not weighty, impartial reporting to digest.

This choice reflected an observation made by former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller at the conference at which this paper was delivered. She called the notion of platform agnosticism “misguided.” News organizations need to tailor their content to specific platforms, she said. In this study, there was indeed a certain type of newspaper content that Postmedia editors thought was suited to this particular social platform.

In other findings:

— Some editors said they formatted key points with bullet lists to help users view recommendations on small screens.

— None of the participants used Foursquare to find sources for stories.

— A majority said they regularly removed tips from Foursquare to avoid presenting users with out-of-date articles.

Goal is engagement, not monetization

None of the editors I spoke with had made any attempt to monetize Foursquare content. They all cited engagement as their primary goal, with one saying, “The ROI on this stuff is going to be five or 10 years. It’s getting people reading your stuff [now] who would never normally read it in any way, shape, or form.”

This study did not investigate audience numbers. All of the editors suggested their Foursquare audience was relatively small — in keeping with a study that pegged the number of Americans who use a location-based service with their mobile phone at 4 percent of online adults.

In general, the editors said their main goal was simply to be present where people interact with each other. They framed this presence in geographic terms: at venues where people use their phones while eating, playing, shopping, and travelling. They also said it was simply important to be present in the social media spaces populated by young, connected adults — such as Tumblr or Foursquare — even if those spaces aren’t yet crowded with users.

This study used a very small sample size — five editors at three news organizations controlled by a single company. One can’t extend these results to other location-based social networks or to the use of editorial content in location-based services generally. Much more research is needed.

POSTED     April 14, 2011, 2 p.m.
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