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Feb. 8, 2017, 9 a.m.
Audience & Social

Don’t ask users to tag unemployed friends (and other lessons for newsrooms on Facebook)

“People want their social feeds to reflect the best versions of themselves.”

You wouldn’t leap into a conversation by asking a stranger to write you an editorial on respect for human life, or name friends who have trouble affording childcare. But news organizations are making some of those same mistakes in attempts to engage readers on Facebook.

It’s important to, instead, “interact like a human”: That’s one of the not-so-surprising but apparently-not-obvious findings from Trusting News, a new report and website out of the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.

“If you’re talking to a person at a party, you pay attention to what the person you’re talking to is interested in, and if they’re not interested, you readjust,” said Joy Mayer, a community engagement strategist and the project lead. But “journalists are often not great at writing like human beings on social media.”

Mayer and her team of journalism students (Anna Brugmann, Amanda Byler, Katie Grunik, Emily Rackers, Micheala Sosby, and Hannah Smith) spent a year analyzing 14 news outlets‘ efforts to gain readers’ trust on social media. “What we learned can help journalists influence what the public chooses to believe and to pass along,” they write in their report, which was released Wednesday along with a website that includes a database of nearly 500 searchable examples of Facebook posts (helpfully arranged in categories like “Steal this idea” and “fell flat”).

The RJI team settled on three different themes — “Tell your story,” “engage authentically,” and “deploy your fans” — and outlined a number of different strategies in each: When it came to “Tell your story,” for example, one strategy was to “offer users a way into the story of you as an organization. They asked newsrooms to pick a few of the strategies to test on Facebook, and to commit to at least one post per week for each selected strategy, for about three months. The newsrooms logged each post to track how the audience responded, noting metrics like the post’s reach, engaged users, likes/reactions, and shares. (Facebook’s algorithm isn’t transparent — “a constant source of frustration” — and while the team tracked posts’ engagement rate, “we had to accept that there were things we weren’t going to understand,” Mayer said.)

While there was a lot of variety in what worked, there were a few consistent themes among successful posts — for instance, “they were about things people are already inclined to interact with,” they read as if they were written by real people, and “respected the organization’s existing relationship with its users. Newsrooms that had worked hard to build engagement and trust already had success with bigger asks — with asking for conversation or sharing on more difficult or personal topics,” the authors write. “Newsrooms starting from scratch have to earn the right to ask that much of their users.”

Among the successes highlighted by the report:

KLRU hosted a town hall event to identify common ground and work toward a kinder, more open minded community. The station live streamed it on Facebook and got a huge response in terms of reactions, comments and shares. That helped spur the creation of a Facebook group with 1,100+ members, focused on continuing the conversations started at the event. There’s even a spinoff book club that bubbled up from conversations in the group.

Would your newsroom be brave enough to ask “What does #BlackLivesMatter mean to you?” The Standard-Examiner hosted in-person conversations in the newsroom and published a series of videos. The resulting online conversations were mostly productive and civil, due in large part to a history of productive discussion on the page. And when users shared the videos, oftentimes they started a conversation with their network or praised the concept of the project. It was particularly great to see that when a commenter was confused about why a police officer in the video didn’t weigh in on an issue, the reporter who worked on the series took the time to clarify, and his comment got positive feedback as well.

Here are a few things that didn’t work:

  • Posts that feel like assignments. The Coloradoan asked users to “share an editorial with their friends and talk about how to respect human life.” That’s a big ask. It’s a weighty subject with a very broad question attached.
  • Posts that are so general they’re not useful. Newsy asked users to get and share the facts about Trump and the RNC. Because that sounds like it covers so much, it doesn’t give users a specific jumping-off point. It also doesn’t offer anything to react to. It’s a label, not a story.
  • Posts that are late to the game. Why did Fort Worth get 850+ shares on its post about Yahoo passwords but Fresno got just one? One reason: Fresno’s was a day later. The conversation had moved on.
  • Posts that pinned engagement on topics people don’t necessarily talk about publicly. In a post about a job fair, WCPO invited users to tag friends who are job-hunting, something people aren’t always open about. The Coloradoan asked people to share a post with friends who can’t afford child care. Perhaps the posts were shared privately, but they’re not going to be topics people discuss with their whole networks.
  • Posts that asked users to call out friends with unpopular opinions. Some users surely want to publicly accuse a friend of narrow-minded views on Muslims, but it’s likely a small group.

“Social media feeds are aspirational,” Mayer said. “People want their social feeds to reflect the best versions of themselves. If you ask them to share something with a friend, or tag a friend, make sure that it’s the kind of thing that people in this community, on this platform, want to share with a friend.”

Users also wanted to share things that were in the public interest. “We saw huge share rates on posts that warned about a food recall or public safety scam, or that drew attention to positive action taken by law enforcement or a standout citizen,” Mayer said. “Basically, users demonstrated over and over that they want to share things that will make their friends safer or highlight ‘good stories’ about the community. “

For the next stage in the project, Mayer is recruiting newsrooms to have face-to-face conversations with news consumers. Even after the research she’s already done, she said, “I can’t tell you for 100% certain the reason a post did really well” (though you can search the database to try to draw your own conclusions). “The next stage of the work needs to be eyeball to eyeball.”

You can find Trusting News here and read the full report here.

Photo by SkyLuke8 used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Feb. 8, 2017, 9 a.m.
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