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The role of social media in delivering news and engaging with readers has become more important than ever. Homepage traffic is declining as increasingly readers find news via social networks – coming in through the 'side door' – and news organisations continue to experiment with ways to cater to this change in audience behaviour.

For local news outlets, which tend to have smaller teams and fewer resources, responding to this digital turnaround may be more of a challenge.

So we spoke to some experienced digital journalists about what has worked for them on a local level.

1. Facebook vs Twitter

There are important differences between Facebook and Twitter, both in what the platforms offer news organisations in terms of distribution but also – perhaps more importantly – in how readers use them.

We're always mindful that people are reading [stories] alongside pictures of their kids, so we try to bear that in mind when we're posting on FacebookMaria Breslin, Liverpool Echo
Maria Breslin, the Liverpool Echo's digital editor, said two thirds of visitors from social media platforms to the oulet's website are from Facebook, where the Echo has more than 400,000 likes, and the other third from Twitter, where the outlet currently has 142,000 followers.

"It is the human stories and the stories that people can relate to that have some sort of engagement I think," Breslin told Journalism.co.uk of the Echo's Facebook following, which is by far the largest of local UK news organisations. "It's less the hard news and we're always mindful that people are reading [stories] alongside pictures of their kids, so we try to bear that in mind when we're posting on Facebook."

In general, harder news stories are posted to Twitter, she said, but the team is keen to make sure that it is "not just a news feed", keeping the feeling of community central as it is "the locality that people like".

Sean Bradbury, social media editor at the Echo, said that readers tend to "open up a lot more on Facebook" when journalists ask for co-operation or input around issues.

"Things like anti-depressants and social issues," he said, "and it's remarkable the take up [we] have on that, asking people to send in their stories if they'd like to speak.

"It'll be in confidence and we'll put various caveats but we'll often find dozens of private messages from people saying they'd like to get involved."

The Echo is experimenting with Instagram and Pinterest but as the core social media audience arrives from Facebook and Twitter – "where you can develop a community and have a two-way process in engaging with people," Bradbury said – the focus remains there.

2. Timing

The timing of posts can have a large effect on the level of engagement posts receive. Facebook's Insights tab shows page administrators when most of their followers are online, therefore pointing to the best times to post, but Twitter can be a little more ephemeral.

"A couple of years ago we would have been geared around a lunchtime desktop spike around social," said Bradbury, "but the pace has changed. Mobile is becoming dominant and it's not far off mobile first, so a lot of sites are reporting more unique users from mobile than from desktop at various times of the day."

We wanted to inject personality into the live breaking news, where it's appropriateMaria Breslin, Liverpool Echo
So instead of thinking about when "people are going to be sat at their desk with a sandwich, looking for a bit of lunchtime news", he said, the more pertinent questions is in asking when people might be picking up their phones to look at the relevant social networks.

When Trinity Mirror announced their 'newsroom 3.1' model in March, editorial director Neil Benson told Journalism.co.uk the publisher had identified eight traffic spikes across the day, including a large proportion of mobile users in the evening, so social media teams will be regularly working towards those times to push content on social media.

3. Tone

Giving the publication a voice that people can connect with is just as important on social media as it is in the publication itself, and Breslin said the Echo's team had worked hard to develop a consistent tone.

"It's obviously easier to do on Facebook because we're not limited," she said. "We're not just posting links, we may have an opinion and say it's sad news or 'this is outrageous'."

That personality has been central in how the Echo's social media presence has grown, she said, and using that same voice to engage with the audience around key times, stories and topics has proved fruitful.

One way this has been realised is in a permanent live blog on the front page of the site, updating readers with stories and involving social media as much as possible.

"Again we wanted to inject personality into the live breaking news, where it's appropriate," said Breslin. "The philosophy behind it being 'we're a laugh, join us'.

"[Recently] Paul McCartney called for everyone to eat fish for the day and then we asked people if they could think of any fishy Beatles songs. Those kind of punny things. We've used social to put that out and it does phenomenally well. It's not Watergate but it's good audience interaction and it's fun."

Bradbury gave another example, based on a story about 6,000 chickens falling off a lorry and blocking the M62 motorway, in which a call out for puns and jokes had received a large response from readers.

liv echo chickens
Screenshot from a Storify put together by Sean Bradbury of chicken puns from readers

"So we try to be chatty, to be witty, to have a bit of attitude and remain authoritative without preaching," Breslin said. "We work quite hard on our tone and for us it's just another publishing platform. It's not a means to an end, it's an end in itself and another way of publishing the content that we create."

4. Engage

This engagement can – perhaps should – be of a more serious nature as well, and often encourages story leads and ideas from the audience.

"Key elements of what we try to do is treat the Facebook page and the Twitter feed like a community and a publishing platform in its own right," Bradbury said. "One aim of any newspaper brand's Facebook page and Twitter feed is to try to drive traffic back to the site but it's about much more than that. It's a conversation.

"So we will do our best to engage with people as much as possible and do our best to respond to tip-offs and to encourage general interaction. Viewing it as a two-way process tends to reap the most rewards."

In 2013, the Liverpool Echo was ranked second in the UK for publishing and media brands on social media by social agency Headstream, based on the level of interaction on social networks.

This put them way ahead of the BBC, Sky, the Guardian and other much larger publications by Headstream's criteria, and Breslin believes this is due to their willingness to regularly interact with the audience.

"It is still our intention to never let comments go," she said, "and try to gauge what we post with the mood of the audience."

As the number of followers on social media has grown it has become harder to respond to everyone – a feat made almost impossible for larger publishers who may have followers in the millions – but responding to posts where possible and encouraging interaction is good for both reader and publisher.

"We try not to limit it to just content on our site," Breslin continued. "We'll share beautiful pictures. Try to drive engagement with that feelgood factor."

Although hard news is the staple of news organisations, and should not be dismissed, there are certain types of stories that often receive the most engagement on social media.

5. Personal stories

"People and community stories, on Facebook particularly, tend to do very, very well," said Breslin.

As an example, she offered the heartbreaking story of Sophie Jones, 19, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer after previously being denied a test because she was deemed to be too young.

Jones died in March and the story of her death became one of the most engaged with stories on Facebook for the Echo, Breslin said.

The outlet subsequently led a campaign to review guidelines on cervical cancer screening, which reached Westminster in May.

"That was very interesting for us as our demographic is quite male," she said, "and it made us realise that we need to look at many women of a certain age who are on Facebook and make sure that we're catering to their needs as well, and grow that part of our audience.

"But it's definitely human stories first, community and human and things which people can tap into."

6. The weird and wonderful

Bradbury noted that it can be the more bizarre or amusing stories that also draw readers in through social media.

"I suppose the quirkiness comes into it, which could be a factor that comes into the shareability of a story," he said. "Take today. Our top two stories that have been shared today, and the ones driving most traffic to the site.

"One is a video purporting to show a orb-like shape that is a ghost in a pub beer garden. It's been shared and speculated upon. The other one, is the kind of thing that takes on a life of its own and that might make for the paper, but because of the nature of it it's done very well online today."

That other story was the 6,000 chickens on the M62, which fostered engagement in a number of different ways. The digital team reacted quickly and wrote a quick nib, as well as updating the breaking news live blog, as well as finding video from YouTube and Twitter pictures from the scene.

"Other stories that have done well on Facebook or Twitter of late are those that are a little out of the ordinary, hopeful stories, ones with an upbeat message or quirky ones," Bradbury continued. "Obviously you don't get 6,000 chickens spilled onto the motorway every day but when you do it's one that people are going to want to tell their friends about and want to be able to share, take part and engage with."

7. Original, evergreen content

In late December last year, Wales Online decided to experiment with shareable content alongside its traditional output.

In January, their 18 things English people won't know unless they've lived in Wales article received over 3.5 million page views within five days of going live. The outlet has continued to experiment with light-hearted lists and other types of shareable content, with an open Google doc gathering ideas from around the newsroom, and the experiments continue to be successful in engaging local readers.

"A lot of them revolve around Welshness and Wales and things that make you proud to be Welsh," Paul Rowland, head of web for Media Wales, told Journalism.co.uk at the time, "whether that's great places in Wales or things that only Welsh people do.

"It's all about our readership identifying themselves as being unique to English people, or people who don't know Wales the way they do."

Speaking at Journalism.co.uk's news:rewired conference in February, Rowland identified eight key principles which Media Wales learned from creating shareable content, and that could apply to other, local media organisations:

  • Understand what your audience identifies with
  • Shareable content requires every bit as much effort as "conventional journalism"
  • Learn from successes, apply those principles widely
  • Don’t get greedy
  • Stay true to your brand values
  • Don't be discouraged by negativity
  • Lists: they’re part of the mix. Nothing more, nothing less
  • Don't lose sight of the content mix your loyal readers expect
8. Events, listings and food

Recommending events and local business can also prove to be popular for local news outlets on social media, as it can often be the place where readers plan their own social lives.

"We do do a lot of local type guides," Sarah Cohen, Going Out editor of the London Evening Standard, told Journalism.co.uk, "whether that's a guide to a particular area, like a guide to a particular festival or type of cuisine, and then we would include restaurants or bars from different parts of London."

Sharing events previews, reviews and guides to local business and events can lead to a reciprocal relationship on social media as well, Cohen said, as the business owners share can share the articles as well.

Calls to action and prizes around events can also be fruitful, as this tweet about Field Day Festival from the Going Out team shows.

9. Images

The use of images in social media has long been heralded as a way to ensure more engagement, and Cohen said the outlet try to include an image in almost every tweet or post, whether that's of a specific story or just pictures of what the team are doing around London.

"So if our team is out and about in London saying 'we're just doing this or just doing that', quote often with photos," she said, "and quite often with things we've eaten. Foodstuff tends to do the best, I think people seem to like sharing that kind of content."

At the Echo, Breslin also stressed the importance of always using an image when posting to social media, where it is possible and appropriate.

"We start the day off with a front page of the print edition, which always gets tweeted out," she said, "and there's something people quite love about that.

"The photographers here have gotten into a battle of taking the best sunset picture of the evening which will be shared on social and they go worldwide which is great."

Bradbury said that while images are important they should be used with a sense of time and place.

"With Facebook the key thing is to reach the right medium for updates that are going on," he said. "So if you have a strong story, like the chickens, we put a link and the story and a picture. That's encouraged a lot of funny responses to the story and a lot of comments.

"But at times, with a strong video you might just link to that on the Facebook page as a link share. Often a text update itself, if we're after a lot of comments and views on things, then you put text on the page and you get the most comments."

Integrating small videos into the page can add variety, but the medium used depends on the type of response you are looking for, he said.

10. Make the most of popular reporters and celebrities

When Grace Dent, a regular columnist for the Evening Standard, writes restaurant reviews that are published under the Going Out social media accounts, they say "a massive spike" in engagement because of her 200,000 followers, said Cohen.

"Similarly, we have other features written by well respected food bloggers," she continued, "so London's best burgers by this burger blogger called Burgerac. He, or she, is very well respected and has a lot of followers and he spread the word."

Sports writers can also have a large following, said Bradbury, especially in Liverpool, so when some of the Echo's popular sports writers tweet about a story it "shoots up the charts" in terms of responses.

"We're looking for not only those with a big following but a lot of the guys are very interactive around their own timeline and feed," he said, "and they'll respond to people's questions so they're a good source of news and links."

Writing about people with a large Twitter following can also be effective, said Cohen. An interview with the actress Katherine Prescott, who was in a new play but had previously been in the television show Skins, went "completely mental" on Twitter, she said, because Prescott has a large number of followers.

"Those are fortuitous easy wins," Cohen added, "just to get our tweets re-tweeted by prominent people with Twitter accounts and followings."

Shameless plug: The next news:rewired conference from Journalism.co.uk, on Wednesday 23 July, will include a "social media toolbox" session led by Wall Street Journal social media editor EMEA Sarah Marshall and Richard Moynihan, social media editor at the Telegraph.

The following day, Luke Lewis, editor of Buzzfeed UK, will be leading a course on "creating a buzz" through social media.

Tickets are still available for both, including a reduced bundle option to attend the conference and training courses the following day.

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