How a newsroom can make the most of Facebook during breaking news

Facebook breaking news checklist for social media editorsBy Paula Wethington @WethingtonPaula

If you have had any experience as a digital editor or web producer for a newsroom, you’ve certainly noticed Facebook doesn’t handle breaking news well.

The problem is Facebook has such a huge impact on social-generated traffic that many sites us it as their sole social media platform — and sometimes their primary content management system through embedded widgets or autofeeds to other social channels such as Twitter.

What you need to remember is that you don’t own that news feed. Facebook does. That is the KEY reason to treat Facebook as just one platform in your efforts to cover the news. It’s an important piece, but don’t make it the only one.

Here are the problems you’ll run into:

  1. Actual “news” is not a priority in the news feed. Instead, Facebook gives preference to content from friends and family. Because of that, users do not see all the posts made every day from all the news and lifestyle pages they follow, much less see that content in real time.
  2. Facebook comments are not seen by all. Fans who add comments to your Facebook page expect everyone else to see their contributions to the conversation. This is not necessarily the situation. When someone shares the original post on Facebook to their friends, the share does not include the original comment thread. An entirely new conversation has spun off.
  3. People don’t go to the trouble of resetting their news feeds. You can switch the view of your news feed from “top stories” to “most recent.” You can toggle the settings of any page or person you follow to “see first” rather than “default.” You can give likes, shares and comments so to increase the chances you’ll see future content from that page or person. You can hit “hide post” for content you don’t want to see – thereby giving clues to Facebook on those topics. You can unlike or unfollow pages you are no longer interested in. … But how many of these steps do you routinely use in your own Facebook experience? If you don’t use them, how can you expect casual Facebook users to do any of this?
  4. The best timing for posts is when your audience is on Facebook. This has nothing to do with deadlines and production schedules – or even when breaking news happens! To find your timing curve, get into Facebook administration panel, click on “Insights / Posts.” Then consider this: You reach about 50 percent of your potential audience in the first half hour and 75 percent of your potential audience during the first two hours of that post. While that’s from a 2013 study from Wiselytics, based on my experience scheduling content on pages I believe the theory is still valid.
  5. Facebook posts can circulate for couple of days. If content proved to be popular soon after posting, Facebook will continue to show it to people who may be interested over the next day or so. In a newsroom example, this means Facebook doesn’t understand that a tornado warning you posted two hours ago has expired. It just knows that post was popular and more people might want to see it. This also explains why daily reach may not coincide with posting dates for content that went viral – the content could have found a bigger audience as it continued to circulate.
  6. Facebook has a “today in history” feature. This feature encourages people to reshare a favorite memory. This might benefit your site with additional traffic for older content. But sometimes people mistake a reshare for current information and unfounded rumors result.

Here’s what to do on Facebook:

How do you compensate for the news feed not synching with the news curve?

You watch the conversations and reactions from your target audience; and tweak how, when and what you do on Facebook. Here are some action steps:

  1. Be specific with dates and times in time-sensitive content. For example, type “the 1978 blizzard anniversary is Jan. 26” instead of “the 1978 blizzard anniversary is today.” This provides clues when people are scanning through the news feed just how immediate (or perhaps outdated) the content actually is.
  2. Be specific with city or neighborhood locations in the content. It annoys me when TV stations send out a Facebook post that says “in our viewing area.” A “viewing area” on social media is the entire world! Besides, the newsroom has now missed missed an opportunity to catch the attention of the audience where that headline will matter the most. If you live in Fremont, Ohio, are you not more more likely to notice and share a Facebook post that says a newsworthy headline happened in Fremont? Think about the target geography for that headline and write accordingly.
  3. Tell Facebook fans where they can find faster updates. A mobile audience often can’t get full websites to load up. That’s why they tend to stay on Facebook and the “I saved you a click” conversations start. But Facebook-only followers will not get every detail in a timely manner. This is why during breaking news, I’ve sometimes added this pitch: “please watch our Twitter feed or go to our website for updates, Facebook does not handle real time information very well.” Now they have been reminded about the options: follow the links or hope for the best on a hit and miss news feed.
  4. Provide Facebook-only content during breaking or ongoing stories. Facebook Live video is an obvious choice; although that’s limited to situations such as press conferences, meetings or live action. If you wish to provide a quick glance update, then create a simple infographic sized for Facebook via Canva, Snappa or another image creator. Post that graphic on Facebook and include key phrases and words in the description. I’ve found simple infographics work amazingly well for keeping a Facebook-only audience happy and boosting engagement.
  5. Give thank you comments and likes to pages that share your content. If you want to encourage another page’s admin to continue sharing your page’s content, then follow up with a like or comment back as your page on their page. Remember that shares from one page to another generally do not do well in terms of reach. Your response as the page can boost the reach of that share in addition to encouraging such action in the future.
  6. Pay attention to continuing likes, comments and shares. Make edits or hit “refresh share attachment” for the website link. I have often used “UPDATE …. PREVIOUS POST… ” and other page admins do as well. On really old stories that pop up randomly, consider editing the post to add “THIS IS A STORY FROM 2014” or whatever is appropriate to clear up confusion.
  7. Schedule follow content during Facebook’s peak audience times. Because Facebook uses keywords in the description to guess who may be interested in particular content, a repost with the same content tends to be shown to the same people as before. They won’t appreciate seeing the same story twice. Instead, introduce the latest details you can provide have into posts such as “We have updated our developing story about …,” “We now have a photo gallery about …,” “This is the latest video about …”
  8. Plan as much as 48 hours lead time for advance content. While this isn’t directly related to breaking news, it can be. Let’s say a city council agenda includes a high interest topic, or the town’s Christmas parade will take place this weekend. You’re probably preparing an advance piece. Get that content up on your website and Facebook about two days ahead. In addition to providing useful information, the fact that the same words and phrases as will be seen in follow up coverage is a way to trigger views later.
  9. Use the “stop news feed” switch for time-sensitive content. If you have a few minutes wiggle room for a post that will be dated quickly, program it as a scheduled post and include the “stop news feed” time. Scheduled posts can be within about 10 minutes, so even in most weather situations this is very useful.  With this setting, content won’t be fed to new people after the cutoff time.
  10. Use the “pinned post” feature. Pinning puts content on the top of your page. Here is how that works: When visitors expect you to provide information in a timely manner on a specific topic, they are likely to go directly to your page and not wait for it to pop up on the news feed. They will appreciate finding the information quickly, especially if other posts are a mix of topics. When reach for the pinned post slows down or the campaign expires, pull the pin off or replace it.
  11. Explain how to set the “see first” instead of “default” view on pages or profiles. This helps teach Facebook what you want to see, remind readers to try that if they complain about what topics they are seeing or how little they see from your page.  That being said: in my experience, “see first” does not completely override what Facebook has decided through other metrics what to show me first.
  12. Worst case senario: delete the post. The best workaround should old content cause a problem (as in feeding rumor mills) is to edit the post with updated information. But if the original poster deletes the content, it’s gone. This is one of the theories behind the ask on Facebook for “please copy and paste / repost rather than share.” The original posters want to get a message or idea circulating while protecting themselves from a deletion. (Read why “copy and paste” is so popular.)

Here’s what to do beyond Facebook:

  1. Understand everything your website can do to prioritize content. Do you have a “breaking news” or “featured” spot in your web template? If you are on WordPress, do you know how to pin a post or page to the front of your site? Do you know how sidebars, categories and tags can assist and redirect readers? With visual cues for content priority, someone who came to your site for one topic might notice another and the traffic spills over.
  2. Understand how SEO works on your website. People use Google and other search engines to find content they know or hope is available somewhere on the web. This is why you need to program alt tags on images, include keywords in the headlines and description box, and link related content to each other. Good SEO strategy can attract views for content that doesn’t quite catch on in social media or has long faded out of social conversations. Because of a very SEO-friendly headline and content, I got traffic for nearly two years on a blog post that discussed a one-time shift in food stamp schedules! That’s despite the fact that social posts were long off the news feeds.
  3. Build a targeted Twitter audience. The Twitter audience may be smaller than on Facebook, but I find it is much more predictable. Twitter doesn’t play games with its stream – your fans will see your content if they they are logged in when you post. Twitter also takes well to “in case you missed it” posts when that strategy can easily backfire on Facebook. Do some investigating on Google Analytics as to how long Twitter leads stay on your site as compared to Facebook leads – you might be pleasantly surprised.
  4. Learn how your newsroom’s email newsletter works. This is the best opportunity for overlooked content to get links. Do you know how people opt in to the newsletter? Do you know which keywords or categories trigger an article being added? Can you plan ahead of the deadline to make sure time-sensitive content gets in the next edition? Have you looked over examples so to understand whether headlines are too long and which photo formats work best? Are you adding related links such as photo gallery or video embeds into articles whose headlines feed into the newsletter?
  5. Use mobile news app notifications for breaking news. I don’t think anything can beat the ROI on app alerts after people have opted in. This has not just an immediate impact, people continue see the notifications for the next few hours as they check their phones. However, be picky with when and why you send mobile app alerts. One of the TV stations I subscribe to sends a “good morning” post with the weather forecast of the day. I don’t care for that at all. Use your email newsletter subscriptions for daily briefings, and save app alerts for “here’s what you need to know that can’t wait.”

If you are a newsroom web editor / social media producer, you can learn a lot from the experience and research of social media professionals and agency owners. Take a look at the huge collection of social media pins I have on my Pinterest account.

This post was written in February 2017 and updated in May 2017.

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5 steps to apply SEO strategy to news content

SEO strategy for newsrooms blog postBy Paula Wethington

Consider this scenario: An editor looks over the search engine results on a story that your news outlet broke a day ago. She notices that the competition’s news report, which was posted some time after yours, shows up higher than your newsroom’s news article.

What’s up with that?

Shouldn’t Google recognize you posted the story first, that your newsroom actually had a reporter at the event, or that it happened just blocks away from your newsroom when the competition usually focuses on another zip code?

Here’s what happened: Google – and other search engines – doesn’t understand the context your audience might take for granted. What search engines do understand are keywords in specific spots in the website coding, inbound and outbound links, shares from social media, and general traffic patterns.

How to get your content to be understood by the search engines – and therefore get more traffic as people look for content – is the concept called Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Most books, courses and articles that discuss SEO use marketing content or corporate websites as the examples. But when reading these discussions, it’s hard to imagine how testing and formatting marketing, lifestyle or undated content to be SEO-friendly is applicable to news content.

SEO lessons also typically use website programming language. But the Content Management Systems (CMS) many newsrooms use apply different phrasing or terms to the programming steps. Even the menus in WordPress do not translate exactly to the backdrop of web programming.

As a result, journalists need to learn through training or experimenting what exactly those boxes, spaces and checkmarks do in their particular CMS. But once you understand the functions in your CMS and how they translate to website coding, you can apply SEO concepts to news content and boost your traffic!

Here are five important details that are universally applicable to news organizations:

  1. Write a clearly understood headline. In website programming, the headline is known as the page title. On the web, a title must stand alone. Puns don’t translate well out of context, neither do common headline words such as “city,” “local” or “area.” When that headline goes out on mobile app notifications or Twitter, a reader sees only one line of text. And when a story gets forwarded around on Facebook to friends of friends, you have just lost control of the geographic area that your audience is typically understood to be. To compensate, you must include specific keywords such as this headline “Winter storm watch in effect for Monroe County” — and even then be prepared for misunderstandings among a web audience as there are Monroe County communities in other states. If the headline character length isn’t long enough, and it probably won’t be to clearly explain the news report, read step 2.
  2. Write a clearly understood description using exact words, names, numbers and phrases. Journalists are familiar with writing a lead, lede or nut graf – a snippet that gives more content and information than a headline can do. Copy and apply that summary into the description box on your website’s CMS. When used correctly, this box can help get link clicks! Here’s why: this is the short paragraph some search engines add just under the headline in results. In some websites, this paragraph appears under the headline. It’s also the paragraph that Facebook will import when a story is linked to on Facebook. So this is how I use a description vs a headline: When I post a news report about a traffic accident, my headline relates how many were injured or whether the highway is shut down; and then I use the description box to relate the time, date and location of the incident.
  3. Type specific words such as a person’s full name in the image file name and alt tag. The words typed in the alt image box are meant to help visually impaired readers understand the image. A file name with keywords instead of a number can help you find that image in your library the next time you want to use it. But these spaces also describe the photo that is attached to that article to the search engines. Remember that a computer can’t “see” the photo the way people can! An easy hack to fill the file and / or alt slots for photos in your CMS: write a short version of the caption you are placing on reader view.
  4. Learn how to find the keywords and phrases people use when landing on your website. Even if you don’t check analytics every day, take a minute to do lookups of incoming traffic during breaking news. Look past the top two or three phrases to see if anything in the top five to seven give you ideas for a fresh headline, a rewrite, a spinoff story or follow up. Keyword research is how I brainstormed every possible angle for my former personal finance blog during the federal government shutdown of 2013 – and got huge traffic as a result.
  5. Watch for older articles popping up on search engines. You can see this via your website analytics. If you notice a spike in interest in an older or expired story, send those viewers to the newer content by adding note at the top of the story with “See update at …” or “See related story at…” You can also add a paragraph at the top with a detail such as “the tornado warning was expired at 7:30 p.m.” You now have provided helpful information those visitors might share. In most cases, you won’t need to delete an article that has old details just because people are still looking it up. From a reader’s perspective, it’s very frustrating to follow a social media link or search engine link to a website – only to find a 404 notice and no explanation why or where to go next.

If you want to dig deeper into SEO theory and best practices, here are some reference articles:

Reading a library book on SEO tactics was one of my “a-hah!” moments years ago on learning how and why certain things I did on websites worked. But my expertise is more in social media. Follow me on Twitter at @WethingtonPaula for those conversations.

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