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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

What kinds of local stories drive engagement? The results of an NPR Facebook experiment

Not every story has the same capacity to connect with an audience on social media. Enter the land of Topical Buzzers, Curiosity Stimulators, and Feel-Good Smilers.

Editor’s note: In February, our friends at NPR Digital Services told you about an experiment they were trying to localize content on the network’s Facebook page, which has a massive 2.5 million fans. Today, NPR’s Eric Athas and Teresa Gorman are sharing some findings from that experiment.

When you come across a story about your town, city, or state, what makes you want to share it?

That’s a question we’ve been asking here at NPR Digital Services. There are hints about what causes sharing — we know emotion and positivity play roles. We know the headline can make or break a story’s potential. But we want to know specifically about local content. What is it about certain local stories that make them more social than others?

To answer this, we conducted a study to define what types of local content cause the most sharing and engagement.

Background

Earlier this year we told you about an experiment where we geotargeted local content on the NPR Facebook page. In that experiment, we posted stories created by Seattle member station KPLU. We geotargeted that content so that only people in Seattle could see it on their Facebook News Feeds.

We measured success using this metric: Of the unique people who see each post, what percentage like it, share it, or comment on it? We found that the geotargeted posts were six times more successful than posts that were shared to the global NPR Facebook following.

The experiment helped KPLU earn record site traffic and confirmed that the NPR Facebook following is eager to engage with and share local content.

In July, we expanded our project. We are now geotargeting content from five member stations in five different regions — KQED in San Francisco, KUT in Austin, WBUR in Boston, KPCC in Southern California, and still KPLU in Seattle.

Since expanding, we’ve found continued (and often greater) success from all five stations. Geotargeted stories continue to register a high success rate and gain an average of 223 combined likes, shares, and comments per post.

But early on in the project, we noticed something that’s probably familiar to any news organization with a Facebook page — certain stories took off, accumulating hundreds of shares, likes, and comments on Facebook and jolting the Chartbeat meter. Other stories fell flat.

So rather than geotargeting just any news story that a station creates, we are selective and calculated with the types of local stories we post. Content must have compelling headlines. It must be locally relevant and meaningful. And locals should be likely to share it, like it, and comment on it. The editors with whom we’re working closely with at KPLU, KQED, KUT, WBUR, and KPCC are terrific at identifying and creating content that meets these standards.

But…what does that actually look like? What types of content will locals be more likely to engage with on Facebook?

That brings us to our study, which aims to answer those questions and pinpoint the kinds of content that locals are compelled to share, like and comment on.

We looked at every story we geotargeted during the months of July, August, and September 2012, focusing on the ones that the localized NPR Facebook following liked, shared, and commented on at a high rate. From this group of successful stories, we identified similarities which allowed us to create nine distinct content categories. We then dissected each successful story to decide which category it fell into.

To identify a story’s category, we asked a series of questions. Why did people share this story? What reaction did people have when they shared it? What is the story actually delivering to people — an explanation, a video, a hard news story?

We repeated this exercise several times for each piece of content until we were confident placing it into a category.

Before we get to the results, we should point out a few things. First, we aren’t implying that the nine types of content below are the only kinds of content that exist or matter. Rather, we’re articulating data-backed trends we discovered in an analysis of content geotargeted to four cities (KPCC joined the project after the measurement period) over a span of three months. Finally, as you look at examples, you might notice that there is overlap. Some stories fit into multiple categories. We placed stories into categories based on their primary defining characteristics.

Here are the 9 types of local stories that cause engagement:

Place Explainers

Every city has traits, quirks, and habits that are begging to be dissected. These characteristics are well known to locals, but no one ever stops to explain why they even exist in the first place. Place Explainers investigate, answer, and explain these questions. In our project, KPLU tipped us off to this content type with its I Wonder Why…? series, which explores the “endearing, odd, even irritating” attributes of the Pacific Northwest. For example, why does Seattle have so few kids and so many dogs? A story by KQED pointed out the 26 signs you’re in Silicon Valley and a KUT piece listed what draws people to Austin and what drives them away.

Crowd Pleasers

We all love to brag every once in awhile about the area we call home. Crowd Pleasers zero in on that feeling of pride. These stories provide an opportunity to celebrate everything from beautiful weather in the Pacific Northwest to the athletic prowess of California athletes who won 93 Olympic gold medals. When Austin was ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek as the eighth-best city in the country, Austinites cheered on Facebook with comments such as “Yaaay!! GO Austin!” and “Whether Austin ranks 1st or 100th, I still love living here :)” That’s exactly the type of reaction you’ll get from Crowd Pleasers.

Curiosity Stimulators

You know those stories you come across that you can’t turn down? The ones that have you hooked at the headline? Curiosity Stimulators get that a lot. It’s the type of story that captures a geeky and quirky side of a city. And after people click through and read a Curiosity Stimulator, they often feel compelled to share it because they get the sensation of stumbling upon a local gem. The Curiosity Stimulator is a 4,000-pound spider-robot named Stompy. It’s a woman who married a corporation. It’s the discovery of a hidden video game city.

News Explainers

Event-based stories chronicle the news of a city. This bill was passed. This person was hired. That person was fired. News Explainers make sense of the news. Rather than just telling you what happened, News Explainers dissect why or how it happened. For example, here’s what people in Washington should consider before possessing legal marijuana. Now that Austin has declared support for same-sex marriage, here’s what happens next. Here’s why it’s been unusually chilly in San Francisco. Leading up to the 2012 election, ballot question guides such as this one by KQED were perfect examples of News Explainers. They took complex local topics and made sense of them for people.

Major Breaking News

Cities are saturated with everyday news stories such as traffic jams and fires. But Major Breaking News has a much bigger impact on a city or a region. Massive storms are an easy example of this because they tend to make life difficult for entire regions. But Major Breaking News doesn’t happen often — a few examples from this project include the coffeeshop shooting in Seattle, Hurricane Sandy, and the approval of legal recreational marijuana and same-sex marriage in Washington.

Feel-Good Smilers

Think “awww,” think “awesome,” think “hilarious.” Most of all, think positive: this category is made up of happy stories. A Feel-Good Smiler is a 10-year-old girl who convinced Jamba Juice to stop using foam cups. It’s the birth of an animal that locals love (Seattleites, apparently, are obsessed with orcas). It’s a nighttime Austin marriage proposal that found its way to Reddit. And is there anything more feel-good than warm cookies delivered by bicycle to your door? Humor, which tends to make people feel good, also plays a role in Feel-Good Smiler content. Cue Seattle’s Colonel Meow.

Topical Buzzers

A Topical Buzzer is the story of the moment that everyone’s talking about locally. When the Space Shuttle Endeavor flies overhead, a Topical Buzzer shows you photos of it. When the mayor of Boston writes an epic memo to Chick-fil-A, a Topical Buzzer tells you about it. When Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis serve coffee at a local cafe (and mobs of locals pack the streets to catch a glimpse), a Topical Buzzer rides the viral coattails of the story. The key to deploying a Topical Buzzer on your site: knowing when something is beginning to buzz.

Provocative Controversies

Have you ever come across a story about your city and you could feel your blood beginning to boil? That’s usually what happens when people encounter a Provocative Controversy — they get ticked off and highly opinionated. In Washington, when state officials killed a pack of wolves, locals had a lot to say about it. KQED’s story about the California State Parks Department sitting on a $54 million surplus for 12 years has dozens of comments. In Boston, a story about a doctor refusing obese patients elicited Facebook comments such as “SOOOO ANGRY !!!!” and “Shame on them.”

Awe-Inspiring Visuals

“Whoa…” You know that feeling? It’s the feeling you get when you see a killer whale catching air in Puget Sound. When you’re spooked by the images of a 75-year-old L.A. hotel wing. When you look into the cold dark eyes of sharks swimming in Cape Cod. When you’re haunted by a people-less time-lapse of Seattle. We already know people like to gaze at beautiful images. People love to goggle at beautiful images of their city. Awe-Inspiring Visuals capture that wonderment through photos and videos.

Graphic by Russ Gossett. Cross-posted from the NPR Digital Services blog.

                                   
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“A lot of people check their phones before they get out of the bed in the morning, and they check social media before the news sites.”
  • http://www.consumermojo.com/ ConsumerMojo

    Interesting. Stories like these always engage viewers, readers, listeners and users on any platform.

  • MaggyHR

    Basically, all kinds of news. Mostly good news, but this covers a wide spectrum. Anything stand out most among these nine categories, in terms of most engagement?

  • http://ericathas.tumblr.com/ Eric Athas

    In the study, Major Breaking News, Place Explainers and Crowd Pleasers performed best (in that order). But there weren’t any outlier categories.

  • http://twitter.com/benilfeld Ben Ilfeld

    That was a great round-up.

    For news orgs this is some great direction, but for local brands with a social media presence this is GOLD.

  • Caroline

    This is helpful to have it broken down into categories like this. I’m wondering if we can break down international stories into components that particular US cities may be interested in as well… i.e. desert town to desert town.. something like that. Thanks for the article!

  • NPRKate

    Caroline, that’s actually one of our challenges. Though we have exceptions, as a general rule, we don’t have the same level of success (as measured by like) with the NPR Facebook audience and international stories. 

    I’d be interested to know what other news organizations have found.

  • AndrewSpearin

    One kind of posts that had the most engagement on our local community weekly’s FB page are photos from events with people tagged in them. Many festivals, concerts, fundraising events, etc, we covered with simple photos of people posing for the camera. Many of those people we knew and could tag on Facebook. It drove the likes on our page up and always had high rates for comments and likes.

  • AndrewSpearin

    To see what I mean, check here: https://www.facebook.com/BridgesYXE

  • http://curiouscity.wbez.org/ Curious City

    Thanks for this excellent article! We’ve been finding out the same thing at WBEZ on an anecdotal level and the project we’ve started (curiouscity.wbez.org) is all about items 1) 2) and 3) on the chart. So far so good! 

  • http://ericathas.tumblr.com/ Eric Athas

    Curious City came up in conversations when we were going through some of these, especially the Place Explainer category. Would love to talk about your project and what you’re seeing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.bakker.52 Dave Bakker

    Am I reading this right? You want to pick news stories by how many
    people ‘like’ and share the stories as opposed to what is important
    news? I’m saddened to hear this… 

  • Caroline

    At the Pulitzer Center, all of our stories are international… which means I think we tend to have lower clicks/likes/etc., although some types of stories and photos do tend to be shared more. It’s a challenge because we’re trying to get people to read stories that they may not typically read.

  • http://twitter.com/lisavgray Lisa V. Gray

    So what kind of posts did NOT get shared?

  • http://www.amplifi.com/executive.htm DrKull

    Interesting categorization. But does it go beyond simply: “man against man, man against nature, man against himself?” Methinks not. Still somewhat useful and certainly colorful. 

  • Bob Britten

    Great taxonomy – I’m excited to use this in my classes. A few questions:
    1. Is publication (e.g., something cite-able) planned beyond the website?
    2. You mention stories drawing likes, shares, and comments – were there any interesting differences within these (e.g., I’d expect Awe-Inspiring Visuals to draw the most shares while something like explainers and controversies would pull Likes)
    3. Any chance of releasing the data?
    Even if the answer to all of the above is “no,” I loved reading this breakdown and your explanations of why/how the data was obtained.

  • http://ericathas.tumblr.com/ Eric Athas

    Great question, Lisa. We haven’t defined this in any official way, but I can share a few anecdotal observations. 
    1. Headlines matter. I can’t stress this enough. A shareable local story with a weak headline is more likely to fall flat.

    2. Timing matters in some cases. If something’s buzzing now and we create content in a few hours, the content won’t be as successful. This of course doesn’t apply to our evergreen categories (Place Explainers, Curiosity Stimulators, Awe-Inspiring Visuals).

    3. Many times, we found stories fell flat because they just didn’t affect enough people. Affect can mean different things. A story about a big storm affects me because I could lose power. A cool time-lapse of my city affects me because I’m impressed by the visually appealing scenes of a place I live. A News Explainer affects me because I learn something. But a story about a traffic jam on the interstate will only affect me if I’m taking that route. A story about a city council meeting will only affect me if the issues discussed somehow interest me or alter my life. So often it comes down to knowing the region, the audience and the topics that make it tick. 

    Anything we posted that wandered from these three points tended to fall flat.

  • http://ericathas.tumblr.com/ Eric Athas

    Hi Bob.

    1. Nothing planned.

    2. Crowd Pleasers and Feel-Good Smilers tend to get a lot of likes because of the positive reactions they get. Provocative Controversies and Place Explainers tend to get a lot of comments because they’re easy to argue/talk about.

    From the study, on average:
    Most Likes: Feel-Good Smilers (Crowd Pleasers a close second)
    Most Shares: Place Explainers
    Most Comments: Place Explainers (Provocative Controversies a close second)

    3. I’d be happy to share some breakdowns of the data if you want to e-mail me: eathas@npr.org

  • JD Adam

    Well, it looks like Corporate advertising money is paying off!  I don’t know if I want to cry or laugh villainously?