Defining a content strategy for a journalism start-up

NowThis: How to create great content that works for any platform

For video news publisher NowThis, social platforms have become even more important since the publisher effectively shut down its website early 2015. At a recent journalism event, NowThis-editor Sarah Frank talked about how to make content fly on various social platforms.

«NowThis, founded in 2012 by former Huffington Post and Buzzfeed veterans, already emphasized off-site distribution of its short-form, millennial-focused and mobile-optimized video clips, pushing content to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and other networks,” when it shuttered its website in February 2015 (full story here).  

In many ways, this reflects how the media landscape is changing, as e.g. ex-Chartbeat CEO Tony Hail talked about at the annual conference of Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) last year, NONA16. Among other things, he said traffic to news sites increasingly come from social apps and people trust the apps more than they trust the stream:

“It causes trouble for how we think about the economics of content because content [in the media industry] has always been bundled… New companies with a very different cost base are starting to pop up, they don’t have their own sites – their strategy is just to be out there on the platforms.” (full post here)

NowThis is one such company, and at this year’s NONA conference, NONA17, NowThis’ Sarah Frank gave an inspiring talk on how to create successful content for various social platforms. Below are my notes from her talk:

Social Platforms 101:

  • Platforms are not just traffic generators or promotional tools. They are complex personalities and deserve focused attention.
  • Platforms have a purpose. They were built for something before publishers entered the equation.
  • Platforms are about people. The users are the most vital part of the narrative.
  • Listen to your audience. They tell you what they feel without explicitly telling you.
  • Find your voice. Personalities flourish on platforms, find yours.
  • Look at your worst practices. That’s where there is most room to improve.

So… what works where?

  • Facebook: Short, emotional, worthy of a share

“On Facebook, NowThis mostly does video - and shorter and shorter video. These days often 10-20 seconds.” On FB a view is 3 seconds into the video. Use A/B testing.

  • Twitter: Speed matters. Live events & reporting flourish. Mix of text, photo, video, gif. Can successfully link back to site.

“Breaking news works. Will often mix formats to stand out in the feed, especially in a situation with breaking global news you really need to stand out.”

  • Snapchat Discover: Highly visual, short quick headlines for 16-25 year olds

“I often joke that Snapchat Discover is like the Harry Potter-newspaper. It’s very resource demanding, most people I know who work with it have rings/bags under their eyes.”

  • Instagram: Highly visual, leans lifestyle, sourced from the platform.
  • YouTube: Deep dives, explainers, personality-driven.
  • Various “stories” products: Experiment! Personality driven, can link back.

To understand what works, think like a user:

  • Would I share this on my feed?
  • Do I actually care about this story?
  • What’s the most compelling part?
  • What emotion am I trying to convey?
  • How will I get users to finish and share?
  • And, if you wouldn’t share the story to your own feed it’s useful to ask yourself: why wouldn’t you?

"Emotions tend to drive shares on all platforms. There’s got to be some sort of reaction you had from the story that you can use when pushing it to an audience."

"It’s useful looking at where in the story you get bored."

As for the kind of employees NowThis is looking for, Frank said: "We are looking for employees who just “get” social, that is easiest to determine by just going to their social media feeds. My team members can do everything and what they don’t know how to do they’ll go figure as they like to learn. We look for digital natives but that’s not necessarily about age, it’s about mindset, and people who just “get” social. New media stars can write, shoot, do everything."

Editorial + data=BFFs

We began to have this editorial check list for what works and what doesn’t work. It enabled us to back away from topics that neither we nor our audience felt passionate about.

So get your programmers on your editorial team, our two teams go to lunch together and are in constant conversation via Slack etc.

Measure success by looking at failures:

  1. Focus on the bottom-performing stories and look for clues
  2. Have the right conversations
  3. Propose a solution
  4. Test
  5. Create best practices
  6. Repeat

When to join a new platform:

  1. Can we say something that feels right for the platform? Do we understand how users use the platform?
  2. Determine your goal. Traffic back to site? Engage new audiences? Just an experiment?
  3. Team bandwith. Determine the "lift" of testing on a new platform.
  4. It's okay to start small! Give someone a project... Start small. Start with 1-2 people, someone already dedicated to it.

A few other interesting points form Frank's talk:

Recently we brought on two people from Reported.ly, Andy Carvin and Kim Bui. And that’s amazing.

We have a slack-room called breaking news, the first person to spot something alert everyone.

When the terror attack in Manchester happened, everyone had left work. One of our producers who was at home recovering from tonsillitis cut the video like a champion, our news editor headed into our HQ like fast where we have the best internet connection and could redistribute etc, we had people going through social and checking for permissions etc. It was a big operation.

SarahFrankNona17

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