Simply put: "humans produce better tweets," the BBC's head of social media, Chris Hamilton, told Journalism.co.uk when explaining the reason for the investment of resources in its Twitter account.
Unlike the New York Times cyborg experiment, which switched off its feed for a month, the BBC's move is more of an evolution of human-generated tweets rather than a trial.
"I think it is going to be successful and our plan is to continue with it and to look at whether we roll it out further," Hamilton explained.
Along with @BBCWorld and @BBCBreaking, @BBCNews is one of the news corporation's three "core accounts". @BBCBreaking has been human and "entirely curated for quite a while", Hamilton explained. Until this week the other two were both bots, pushing out automated news feeds with the addition of hand-crafted tweets during breaking stories or to highlight particular features.
"We're not trying to make any great claims that this is going to turn the world on its head," Hamilton said, "but it's obviously a significant step in terms of resourcing and it feels a bit like you're flying solo when you switch off the auto-feed.
"We had to think quite carefully about how we were going to do it and what we were going to do."
The humans behind the @BBCNews account, which has over 370,000 followers, are four members of the BBC's breaking news team, which sits in the main newsroom at the BBC. The team looks after the three core Twitter accounts "almost 24/7" as part of a wider role, which involves writing some copy and distributing material to the various news teams.
Reasons for being human
Asked the main reasons for going human, Hamilton said:
"I think the evidence is pretty clear, anecdotally and research-wise, including from the New York Times experiment earlier in the year, that auto-feeds are fine for getting your stuff out but humans produce better tweets: they are more likely to drive engagement to get people interested in what you're saying, encouraging them to pass it on, to click-through, and to talk about you."humans produce better tweets: they are more likely to drive engagement to get people interested in what you're saying, encouraging them to pass it on, to click-through, and to talk about youChris Hamilton, head of social media, BBC
Tips for other news outlets
Journalism.co.uk asked Chris Hamilton to share his tips. It comes with a note from him that "none of this is prescriptive, it's how we've approached it".
1. You need to add value
"The big thing that we talk about is that you need to add value", Hamilton said. "There's no point tweeting the same line or a very slight variation on the line that everyone else has got."
2. Play to your strengths
"Obviously we've got a role to get the breaking news and top stories out there but to our mind it's all about what else you can do. If you consider the potential that we have in terms of our newsgathering operation, global reach and the content that we're producing everyday across platforms, there is a lot of potential there that we can surface - and that's what we are focusing on."
3. Think about your brand
"We're also trying to think about what we represent as a brand. Think about how you want to be seen and represent yourself."
4. Use hashtags intelligently
"We do use hashtags as they are useful for us and for our audience. We don't have a particular rules for which ones. One of the things we don't want to do is hashtag every significant term in a tweet on the off chance, we want to try and do it intelligently."
The logistics of tweeting to 370,000 followers
The tweets written by one of the four @BBCNews humans are always checked by a second pair of eyes. "It's a principal that we have across our output online," Hamilton explained. "It is a challenge but for us accuracy is absolutely key to what we do and it's something that, at the moment, we feel comfortable with."
Logistically, the subbing process works by another member of the team from the newsroom checking what one of the four has written.
Future human evolution?
The move from robot to human took place for @BBCNews on Wednesday (26 October) and Hamilton is encouraged by the reception.
"We've had a very nice and positive reaction when we first started it so we're just going to keep an eye on how it goes and we may tweak things."I'd like to get us to be more social as in to use Twitter for what it's really good at: for two-way conversations – but we're not there yet
Asked about whether we might see @BBCNews becoming more social, Hamilton said: "I'd like to get us to be more social as in to use Twitter for what it's really good at: for two-way conversations – but we're not there yet. I think that any major organisation faces this challenge of how you can really use the platform to its full potential in terms of being more social and having those conversations, so that is something we're thinking about and is something we are going to be looking at."
The @BBCNews account already retweets other BBC accounts, such as @BBCr4Today and tweets from its correspondents. Asked if he envisages a time when @BBCNews will reweet non-BBC content Hamilton said: "Part of the strategy that we very much want to make more use of what other bits of the organisation are tweeting about, whether they are our official correspondents or other programmes, as there are some excellent BBC accounts out there and we want to open up what our colleagues are doing to a wide audience."
Hamilton referred to the BBC's aim, which it is on target to achieve, in doubling the amount of click-throughs it generates by linking out to non-BBC content. At Journalism.co.uk's news:rewired conference earlier this month, the BBC's online editor, Steve Herrmann, explained the importance of linking to other organisations, such as the police, and other news providers.
"I terms of opening out even further, again, that's definitely something that we're thinking about and considering how we do that," Hamilton said.
"We wanted to nail our core proposition first before we start thinking about how we might do other things, but how we look outside the BBC is something we are considering."
Reflecting on this week's changes, his tips and the logistics of how the BBC breaking news team now operates he said: "Everything is up for grabs because it's a really fast-moving environment, digital media and social media in particular, so what we are doing here is not necessarily what we are going to be doing in two years' time."
Hattip: Nieman Journalism Lab's article: Cyborg no more! The BBC moves to human-edited Twitter feeds.
Image: BBC's social media editor Chris Hamilton speaking at news:rewired: connected journalism, Credit: Mark Hakansson
Free daily newsletter
- 5 key research findings on distributed content strategies from INMA
- Tip: Here's how to get started with Facebook Live successfully
- How can drones be used to generate data for in-depth journalism?
- Two BBC local radio stations experiment with 24 hours of mobile journalism
- Tip: Check out these 13 tools to help you tackle social media more effectively