On a typical day, The Wall Street Journal publishes about 500 or 600 stories. And with correspondents spread across the globe, those stories go up around the clock. To match the frenetic pace of publishing, the Journal employs social media editors in its New York, London, and Hong Kong bureaus to share Journal content on all its social channels.
But the Journal has more than 80 institutional Twitter accounts, and only the main Journal Twitter brands, like @WSJ or @WSJD, are run manually by the editors. The rest are mostly automated, a feed of headlines.NPR is only the latest news organization to find that tweets written by humans generally see better engagement than regurgitated headlines. But many news organizations struggle with the return-on-investment question — is the extra engagement worth the extra effort?
We asked seven large news outlets — ABC News, the Associated Press, CNN, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, and the Journal — to share how they deal with the human-vs.-bot divide. These are obviously large outlets with significant resources, so what works for them isn’t guaranteed to work for smaller shops. But here’s what they told us, very lightly edited.
Eric Carvin, AP social media editor:
Also, if you look at Twitter in particular, the Twitter Card design — where a tweet opens up to reveal more information about the link — will show the same headline twice if you use it as the text of your tweet.
This doesn’t mean we’d never experiment with automation for our social output — it might work for certain types of feeds, and we’ve done a bit of it on business-side accounts to efficiently deliver information on content to our institutional customers. But for most accounts aimed at sharing news content and encouraging conversation around it, we prefer the human touch.
Anna Gonzalez, CNN social media manager:
We have done extensive testing and experiments. We can say with confidence that tweeting headlines will indeed generate some engagement. And a great headline can increase the amount of retweets, favorites, and replies. If you add a fact or detail to a tweet, engagement increases even more. But the highest engagement is a direct result of tweets with voice. That doesn’t mean you editorialize stories, but you take the radical approach of tweeting like a human.
The core social team respects social as its own platform and produces content for each social network. Every post is carefully crafted for our audience. How would you tell this story to a friend? Would you share this if you came across it? Those are a few of the questions we think about when crafting posts.
Ryan Osborn, NBCUniversal News Group vice president of innovation and strategic integration:
We do experiment with auto-generated feeds on smaller vertical accounts, but our data shows that users are more likely to engage with a person than a bot. A person also creates an added layer of editorial care when a story moves from the web to being promoted on social media.
Daniel Victor, New York Times social media staff editor:
Mary Nahorniak, USA Today social media editor:
I like to say that the bar is higher for Facebook posts than it is on other social networks, particularly Twitter, because we post less on Facebook but see bigger impact from each post. A post can show up in the News Feed for days after it goes out, which adds to virality and half-life.
The main Twitter account is a more complicated situation, and it’s a blend of automation and manual tweets. The automation is a custom RSS feed that’s meant to tweet out the top four stories on the USA Today homepage. All breaking news alerts are also tweeted through our breaking news tool. We add in manual tweets throughout the day, making sure to post engaging stories, with strong wording and images.
I have a love/hate relationship with the feed. While I know it’s not the best experience for Twitter, it also covers us in getting important news out 24/7, and that’s important for a national news organization that also has an international readership, to be active across time zones. As far as finding a balance, I don’t worry too much about what the feed is doing. It runs in the background, and we post manually as much as possible throughout the day. It does sometimes mean that the same story is tweeted out a few minutes apart, but even then, I don’t see much negative reaction to that — I think we’re often hitting different users even at those close-together times, and people are used to seeing the same story more than once. Of course, the manually written tweet almost always performs better than the automated headline, when we do compare, but there is still engagement on the feed headlines.
Allison Lichter, Wall Street Journal social media editor
In addition, our followers have doubled every year for the past two years:
In July 2012: 1.5 million
June 30, 2013: 3 million
May 2014: 4.4 million
We also think our manual feed heightens accuracy and prevents errors, since writing tweets ourselves keeps us accountable for them in a way that an auto-feed would not.
While our major accounts (@WSJEurope, @WSJAsia, @WSJD for example) are run by editors, the Journal does have several sub-branded accounts that are automated. We have encouraged our reporters and editors around the globe to take ownership of those accounts and, at the least, create a mix of automated headlines and manually written tweets. Because we know images help drive engagement, we have encouraged editors to include images in their tweets, which has had the effect of reminding editors of the importance of publishing great visual content to accompany their written stories. In addition, we created a “social headline” field in our backend publishing system that provides a social-friendly headline that can be shared by readers who come to our article pages and that feeds some of our automated accounts, so that the automated headlines, when used, are as engaging, direct and conversational as possible.
Micah Grimes, ABC News social media editor:
We use TweetDeck to manually schedule handwritten posts, and we will schedule handwritten Facebook posts in the platform itself, but for the bulk of the day and evening, there is a human mind and human hand driving the social presence of ABC News.
The people ingesting content are humans and there should be a human providing the content to them; we’re not an automated bank or cable phone line — we’re people, and the people we reach are people, and they can sense the way posts are produced. They know the voice of individual editors and producers, and when it comes out artificial, they can feel it.
I schedule tweets with specific times for specific stories, to hit target audiences. If you go and look at Topsy data, you will see that we slow down when people make their trips home for the evening, and then have a long spike in the evenings into the mornings when some of our manually scheduled content fires. We’re a global news outlet and there is always a live audience there reading and interacting with content.
There may come a time when we have computers smart enough to be more intuitive than just picking up on a spike in traffic for a certain post. But right now, they are not smart enough to replace the analysis and judgment of the people of ABC News, with an expert understanding of the material and platforms they’re pushing.