How to find success on the social scene

Being “real" seems harder than it needs to be for news organizations, says Saul Hansell, entrepreneur in residence at Betaworks and former New York Times technology reporter. Hansell gave a presentation on the power of social networking at the INK+BEYOND conference in Toronto on April 27, 2012.

News organizations, Hansell says, are so busy looking at search engine metrics and page view counts that they lose sight of what really draws readers. "Checklists are deadening for publishers," he explains, “because the focus then turns to crossing objectives off a list and getting as much content as possible up on as many different channels as possible, without taking the effort to put quality content out that actually draws people.”

For example, Twitter accounts used only to regurgitate the daily headlines of the day are monotonous lists that do nothing to increase a news organization's exposure or engage with the audience. In these cases, social media is vastly underused, and very few, if any, readers care to share the links to their social circle.

Hansell notes that publishers must ask, "Is anybody going to say thank you to us for doing this?” “If you can’t figure out why somebody is going to like it, then don’t do it.” “You might as well use your time doing things that will actually connect to people."

The implication to all this of course, is that in order to constantly write about what people are interested in at any given moment, news organizations must constantly monitor web usage and what is relevant every day, in real time. No project managers are needed, and monthly reports can go out the door. By the time all the important information gets to them, Hansell says, it's already too late.

Instead, news organizations must provide answers to the questions people are asking in order to take advantage of the power of sharing through social media. But Hansell also warns against the assumption that 'social' is becoming the new 'search' when determining what sort of content and headlines should be put out, because the two have different functions.

While searching is something people do to ask questions and receive concrete answers to things, social is for connections, and its main job is to provide material for people to talk about.

"It's important to understand that when I say connections, I don't mean just listening to comments on a chat board," he adds. "The data is the conversation. What they're clicking is the conversation."

The two then, must strike up a balance, one that is easier said than done. News organizations walk the line of what headline makes the best use of search engine optimization (SEO) while still being appealing to people. Organizations must also determine how much content will be based solely on what's relevant and how much of news will be produced - coverage that should matter to society, but on occasion fail to hold attention as effectively as Lady Gaga's latest exploits.

Obviously, search engine numbers and the revenue generated from content don't mean everything in a newsroom. Hansell quips, if news organizations listened only to those numbers, a newsroom would have to "hire somebody dedicated to reporting on Lady Gaga."