How should publishers engage with social platforms?

Facebook and its ilk have become an important part of digital content distribution and promotion. But how should publishers navigate the minefield of tech giants and social platforms to reach a global audience without losing direct contact with their readers, or losing control of their data? There was plenty of debate at the FIPP/VDZ Digital Innovators Summit in Berlin about social strategies; in this article I have summarised what seems to be working on both sides of the Atlantic.

How to dance with the devil – future for Facebook

Even before the Cambridge Analytica data mining revelations, publishers were falling out of love with Facebook: instant articles hadn’t delivered the traffic or ad revenue anticipated, changes in the algorithm had demoted publisher articles in news feeds, and the standardised format of the platform was eroding the distinctiveness of long nurtured news and media brands. Facebook as an organisation has had a reputation for remoteness and arrogance towards media owners, although they have started more recently to develop joint projects with some publishers, including Axel Springer.

Google has always felt like a more amenable partner, and AMP has fuelled a recent surge in referrals to publisher sites, edging ahead of Facebook.

Vivian Schiller (Independent Editor in chief, Weber Shandwick, and Board member of the Scott Trust which controls The Guardian) warned DIS delegates that social media activity is not always what it appears: there is a black market in growing followers, fake accounts and vanity shares: more in this article

Recent RISJ research rather alarmingly discovered that readers often can’t recall the news brand, but only the platform they saw an article on… so publishers have to think harder about how to differentiate their content on third party platforms.

So what are the alternatives to Facebook for content promotion? Publishers are advised to diversify, and try out Apple News, Twitter, Flipboard, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat…

It’s better for publishers to use Facebook primarily for lead generation: and build richer content experiences on their own platform, to create a deep relationship with the customer.

Media brands need to help their audience create daily, weekly or monthly rituals: email newsletters still work, and provide good data on engagement levels, while podcasts are having a renaissance.

How then can established media brands work best with platforms? There were some useful insights from several speakers at DIS:

Vogue on Instagram

I interviewed Hannah Ray, Head of Instagram for Conde Nast International and a former Instagram staffer, for an insight into Vogue’s strategy. Vogue editors knew that Instagram was an important channel in the fashion world, especially for younger women, but hadn’t yet worked out how to interpret their magazine and web content for the platform.

According to Hannah, the key was engagement, taking the time to listen to the community and then prompting them to contribute their own ideas, from interpretations of Vogue covers to observations about their personal fashion favourites.

A series of backstage videos at major fashion shows, in a vertical, informal style, filmed on smartphones, reinforced Vogue’s exclusive access to top models and designers. Videos from Fashion Month achieved 11 million views internationally.

Hannah’s team analyse data intensively, working out what makes a video work, what projects get most engagement, and iterating rapidly. With 22 international editions of Vogue, it takes time to coach individual editorial teams in production skills and encourage cross posting, but their Instagram coverage is now growing traffic, winning awards, and changing perceptions of the brand among a young and influential audience.

View the whole interview with Hannah here.

Economist on Snapchat

A platform with very few users over 24 might not appear to be the ideal fit for a 175 year old political and business publisher like the Economist, but Multimedia Editor Lucy Rohr believes that the content they are publishing on Snapchat Discover is changing perceptions of the brand among an audience who will be important to its future growth.

The Economist has focussed on deep dives into single topics, using graphics, stats and short video in engaging swipeable stories that explain and intrigue without oversimplifying. So far they have driven 7 million uniques a month, elicited positive comments from the audience, and generated a modest amount of ad revenue.

BBC and HBR building social engagement

BBC producers of series like The Missing and Line of Duty have driven greater engagement and viewing with reactive social campaigns. Based on listening to the audience, and seeding some pre-prepared content, they have also reacted to comments and contributions in real time during the series, which has in turn generated far greater engagement. For example, viewers started to create and share their own spider diagrams with theories on a murder, and the team then amalgamated these into a 360 spider diagram without disclosing the plot.

Harvard Business Review has created a series of 100 Facebook Live white board sessions with business and management experts and academics.

Learning from digital native publishers

Bleacher Report describes itself as being about sports culture for millennials, so social channels are crucial to its content. BR’s videos, games and animations for Snapchat, Instagram and twitter are designed to be original, engaging and shareable. They achieve up to 4 times the engagement rate of their closest competitors.

Cheddar is a news channel for millennials that focuses on short form content distributed on all social and OTT channels, now reaching 10million views a month in the US. Their presenters reflect their millennial audience; the style is both quicker and snappier than traditional news programming and designed to prompt social engagement. They monitor analytics closely and keep adapting their content and format in response to their audience.

Key advice for publishers

• Diversify the channels you use, don’t rely on Facebook
• Differentiate your content so your branding is evident, even on social platforms
• Adapt your content to suit the style of the platform/ audience without compromising your editorial values (eg Economist on Snapchat)
• Listen to your audience and develop opportunities for them to engage (eg Vogue on Instagram)
• Develop original content that people want to share (eg Bleacher Report)
• Experiment, test and keep a close eye on the data to see what is working


This article is part of a series based on speakers and panels at the Digital Innovators Summit: you might also want to read:

Seven new digital business models for media owners

The new digital storytelling rules: how journalism is changing

How publishers should engage with social platforms

New thinking on digital subscriptions: 8 successful strategies

Five future tech trends that publishers need to watch


If you’d like to discuss how to distribute your digital content feel free to get in touch to have a chat over the phone or over a coffee.


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About the author:

Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on digital publishing strategy.

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