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Feb. 4, 2011, 3 p.m.

#DemandAlJazeera: How Al Jazeera is using social media to cover Egypt—and distribute its content in the US

Mark noted in today’s This Week in Review that “the organization that has shined the brightest over the past 10 days is unquestionably Al Jazeera.” Most viewers in the US, though, have had to watch the news network’s coverage of the uprisings in Egypt on their computers rather than their televisions: Al Jazeera isn’t part of most U.S. cable packages.

So, hoping to cement an “I want my MTV” moment, Al Jazeera is taking to Twitter to find its way onto TVs in the US. The network is using a promoted trend on Twitter, #DemandAlJazeera, to make the case that it’s time for the Qatar-based broadcast to debut on TVs here in America.

In using Twitter, Al Jazeera is tapping a network that has been particularly beneficial to it as events have unfolded in Egypt. If you’ve been online in the past two weeks, it’s almost hard to escape Al Jazeera’s coverage of the demonstrations and political turmoil around Cairo, whether in the channel’s breathless reporting on its site or its updates on Twitter. But it has largely been the channel’s online livestream that has caught the attention of many in the US, and the result has been big traffic.

“We’ve had a lot of people writing about ‘Why do we have to watch this online, why can’t we get (Al Jazeera) in the US,'” Riyaad Minty, head of social media for Al Jazeera, told me. “Almost 50 percent of traffic to our livestream is coming from the US.”

Al Jazeera has explored using promoted trending topics on Twitter before, Minty said, but couldn’t find the right conditions for it. Do you use it to promote single stories, broader coverage, or the network itself? Egypt, however, provided the right opportunity for experimentation. “We knew a lot of people would be turning to Twitter to get news as we’ve seen in past world events,” Minty said. “Specifically in breaking news events, people use the search function quite a lot.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a news organization use a trending topic on Twitter to try and promote itself: This past fall, The Washington Post sponsored the #Election hashtag on Election Day. With #demandaljazeera, though, Al Jazeera is trying to promote itself in a slightly different way: by simply ensuring that people have access to it. The channel wants to help build momentum to try and convince cable providers to carry it in their lineup. Twitter users who follow the link off the trending topic will be taken to page where they can fill out a simple form to notify the cable operator in their area that they want it to offer Al Jazeera English (the English-language sister channel of Al Jazeera). Al Jazeera is also coordinating meet-ups in over 200 cities around the world.

“Specifically because of our coverage from Egypt, the whole world, you could say, has turned to watch our screens,” Minty said.

The network has been receiving praise and winning fans for its Egypt coverage, and Minty attributes that to a combination of old-fashioned shoe leather reporting and ingenuity in using new media. It all starts, Minty said, with the simple fact that Al Jazeera was in place when events set to motion in Egypt.

“The biggest key to all of this has been mainstream media,” he said. “We’ve had traditional media on the ground in Egypt before the story broke.” That included not just reporters, producers, and camera teams on the ground, but also a network of bloggers and citizen journalists Al Jazeera had identified in advance, Minty said. All of that became more important, of course, as Internet access was shut down in the country.

“Generally, from previous experience, what we realize is: Once communication goes offline, you need to be able to deal with old technologies in a new fashion,” he said. “So new media doesn’t only mean the latest trending topic that’s out there or the latest social network.”

When people couldn’t tune in because their broadcast signal went down, Al Jazeera distributed pamphlets with the latest updates and information about alternate ways to access its news coverage. It also published phoned-in reports using Scribble Live and Audioboo. Online staffs, Minty said, have been using Storify internally to curate and keep track of citizen videos and other social content. (And as many noted last week, the network has also offered up some of its coverage through Creative Commons.)

The non-stop news coverage and resulting traffic has also taken a toll on Al Jazeera’s site, at several times causing servers to crash. But Al Jazeera’s distribution across social media helped there, too. “Even if people couldn’t access us on our domain name, we had our social campaign that was up and running,” Minty said. “So we could just redirect traffic across to other platforms and people could still see us and access us.”

Al Jazeera faces a more difficult path than most in trying to crack the US TV market, something Minty acknowledges. For many in the US, there’s been a lack of understanding about the network, coupled with some misconceptions about its mission and philosophy. In some ways, the #DemandAlJazeera campaign will be a test of people’s perceptions of the network, providing something like market research on its brand within the US. But its coverage of the turmoil in Egypt has demonstrated Al Jazeera’s capabilities and value, Minty said. And that’s something the network intends to build off of.

“We believe that our product speaks for itself,” Minty said. “It’s just a question of sending people to our website. Read our news, watch our packages on YouTube, find us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or watch our stream online — and you’ll know what Al Jazeera is all about.”

POSTED     Feb. 4, 2011, 3 p.m.
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