"We tend to just put information out there and hope it stands for itself – 'oh, people should care about this' – rather than asking 'why would someone want to connect with this, why would someone want to share it, how would they feel about this'?"

This is one of the mistakes newsrooms tend to make when sharing their stories on social media, Joy Mayer, a community engagement strategist and consulting fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI), told Journalism.co.uk in a recent podcast.

Mayer and a group of students spent last year working on the first phase of a research project called Trusting News, in which 14 newsrooms of various sizes tested different formats and approaches for building trust and engagement with their readers on Facebook.

It turns out you really can ask people to share on certain kinds of stories, as long as it's seen as being in the public interest and not just self-serving for the journalistJoy Mayer, Reynolds Journalism Institute

The team initially researched the factors that influence people's trust in journalism, but also outside of it, such as in healthcare or brands, before devising some social media strategies the news outlets went on to implement from May until September. The participating organisations included A Plus, Newsy and the Kansas City Star, and varied from regional magazines to regional TV stations, as well as daily and community newspapers.

"If you think about the constant stream of information and all the choices people make about what to click on and what to believe, share and engage with, I really wanted to drill down on what factors influenced those decisions," Mayer said.

"The more we know about what encourages people to share and comment, the more intelligently and thoughtfully we can invite those interactions."

Explain your value

A number of strategies were outlined for the following three categories: 'tell your story', 'engage authentically' and 'deploy your fans'. 'Tell your story' revolved around experimenting with ways to "invite people to better understand who you are". Newsrooms had to go beyond just sharing a link to a story to trying to provide a glimpse into the reporting process or to explain what made them stand out over their competitors.

"Some outlets really experimented with explaining their credibility, like 'here's how many years of experience our newsroom has', or 'we're your neighbours, we live here too' or 'the reason you can trust our dining team is because it's made up of a former restaurant owner and a former food critic and we really know our stuff'."

Don't be absent

'Engage authentically' encouraged journalists to be "human, genuine and present", particularly in the comments sections on Facebook. Mayer said she was surprised by how often readers ask the newsroom a question about a story or how they uncovered a piece of information and they don't receive a reply.

"We experimented with the tone and the way we wrote, the way we engaged in comments, so fact-checking comments, explaining our processes and hosting conversations – what conversation prompts do people tend to participate in and which ones fall flat and why?"

For example, a post from The Fresno Bee about a hospital in California that was ranked among the best in the US for neonatal care is highlighted as one of the project's 'ideas worth stealing'. The outlet shared the article on Facebook with a caption that asked readers if they had a child who had been cared for at that particular facility, but the newsroom furthered the conversation in the comments by asking the community if they had attended an event organised by the hospital.

Invite interaction in a natural way

The third category, 'deploy your fans', consisted of getting the audience to share stories once the organisations had gained their trust and following.

Again, participating newsrooms experimented with they way in which they invited people to interact on Facebook. Brand pages often ask people on Facebook to tag a friend they would like to share a product or experience with, either for fun or to enter a competition, and the same strategy can work for news outlets too.

"It turns out you really can [ask people to share] certain kinds of stories, as long as it's seen as being in the public interest and not just self-serving for the journalist," Mayer explained. "Just say 'please share this'.

"You can also ask them to tag their friends, which is another kind of sharing. So when you post a story that says 'here are some unheralded hiking trails in the area', say 'tag a friend you want to go on a hike with'. That totally works, some of our newsrooms found."

Each set of strategies had their own set of metrics, and the research team compared the average rate of engagement for the new types of posts with the average rate of engagement for the newsrooms' usual posts on Facebook. Aside from likes, comments, sharing and tagging, they also measured the quality of the conversations and the feedback news organisations had about the performance of the posts and adopting the new strategies.

Mayer is now working on the second phase of Trusting News, in which 30 newsrooms will be gathering face-to-face feedback from their communities about how they decide which stories and publications they trust, to build on the findings from the data gathered during the project's first phase.

The news organisations invited readers to answer a series of questions, such as how inclined they are to trust the news in general, and which three brands they tend to trust and which three they tend to not trust. Based on the questionnaires, each participating outlet will choose four people to speak to in person, and the aim is to get interviewees that are diverse across race, political views, age, and inclination to trust.

"What's been really interesting is that in some cases, more than 1,000 news consumers are replying and many of them are indicating a willingness to be interviewed. It's so exciting to see how many news consumers want to talk about trust."

It's so exciting to see how many news consumers want to talk about trustJoy Mayer, Reynolds Journalism Institute

News organisations or journalists who didn't get to sign up for the second phase can also conduct the interviews individually, as the questionnaires are available online, and Mayer is hoping to provide a round up of findings and lessons before summer.

She is also working on a separate project dubbed Gather, together with a team at the University of Oregon's Agora Journalism Center. With funding from the Knight Foundation, they are building a platform for people working in audience engagement to find support, brainstorm ideas and share learnings and best practices from their roles.

"It's been interesting to watch how audience engagement really develops into a speciality within journalism and how the community of practice around it is evolving.

"Many people doing audience engagement work feel sort of lonely, they don't necessarily have a built in team of people to brainstorm ideas with, to learn from, so what we are trying to do with Gather is build a platform that will both host resources for engagement work and also serve as a point of connection for people doing the work."

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