Journalists, don’t commit the seven deadly sins on social media

Steve Yelvington had a great post recently about the seven deadly sins of journalism companies that has been making its way around the Twitterverse. My favorite from his list is sloth: “No, we don’t need to change. We don’t need to reconstruct our sales forces, create smart incentives for digital sales, take the risky path, practice interactive journalism, try something new.”

His smart list inspired me to come up with my own seven deadly sins, but I direct my sharpened pen at the journalists themselves as they use social media. As anyone who has read even one post on this blog knows, I’m a huge proponent of journalists using social media to connect, reach readers, gather ideas. Journalism, as an industry, seems to be in phase two of its relationship with social media. For the most part, we’ve moved on (thankfully) from “social media is stupid.” But we’re stuck (at least many of us) in the rut of using social media just one way, limiting our use to render it useless, aiming to devote as little effort to it as possible, or dipping in on occasion but not sticking with it. Then we wonder why it doesn’t work.

So, here is my list of seven deadly sins journalists should not committ on social media. Kick these seven habits, and you’ll have a social media plan that you’ll see beginning to work.

Pride: Back in 2009, having a Facebook fan page or a Twitter account might have come with bragging rights for a journalist or news organization. Not anymore. Just having one is nothing to be proud of. In fact, if that’s you all you do with it, no wonder you’re underwhelmed by the results.

A fan page is only worth it if it fosters interaction with readers, gets people talking, and leads to story ideas or sources for reporters. Having a bunch of people “like” your page may be a start, but it’s hardly enough to translate into true engagement.

To get to engagement, you need to participate in your page by posting regularly information, tweeting it, sharing it, actively soliciting followers, and talking to them. Also, figure out how your readers want to use your page. That’s your key on how you should use it. For a look at how a successful newspaper Facebook page works, check out this ranking from the Bivings Group on the best in newspaper fan pages.

Greed: Want to know if you’re committing the social media sin of greed on Twitter? Check the ratio between your followers and those whom you follow. If it’s way off-kilter (or God forbid, you don’t follow anyone), you’ve been greedy. The problem with greed on Twitter is it limits your ability to make full use of the medium.

Twitter is about conversation and networking through weak-tie relationships. To make your tweets worth anything, you need a critical mass of followers. One of the best ways to build followers is to follow people (Remember, we learned this in kindergarten: Want friend; be a friend.) However, if all you have is a bunch of followers, you’ve turned your Twitter feed into a dissemination device. But you’re not engaging. The result: People may read your tweets, but they are less likely to retweet them. So you lose out on the generalized reciprocity that works on Twitter. So you only get access to your actual number of followers. You miss out on the exponential number of readers who might get your tweets from retweets from your followers.

Envy: Your competing news organization gets a big scoop, so you ignore it and wait until you have the story before tweeting it. That may seem like traditional journalistic good sense, but it’s not in today’s world. The web is instant, and your followers depend on you for the latest, most updated news. They don’t care if it came from you. They don’t care if your bosses are mad that you missed the scoop. Your job is to serve your readers (and hopefully your bosses will see that, too).

Sure, go after the story with a vengeance and tweet the heck out of each development that you get. But you’re only thinking of yourself if you fail to tweet a competitors’ scoop to your news-hungry readers.

Wrath: The best social media journalistic plan can be derailed by a bit of anger or rage. Someone hates your story, so they crucify you in a blog comment. They are insulting, ignorant and ill-informed. You feel it’s your duty to fight back. Resist.

Why? In keeping with the religious theme of this post, I turn to the Bible for sage inspiration. Proverbs advises: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly,  or you yourself will be just like him.” That could have been written for the social web.

The problem with arguing with a fool is you just escalate the situation. The person doesn’t listen or learn. You get increasingly strident. No good comes of it. And you end up with a permanent, searchable, online record of one of your least-attractive moments. 

So what’s the answer? Very stringent moderation at newspaper sites is a good first step. A second step is to foster an environment on a new site that makes it clear that idiots aren’t welcome or engaged. This comes from consistent and frequent interaction with readers who offer constructive criticism or thoughtful sentiments, coupled with rapid deletion of vitriolic comments from trolls until they go away like any other bully.

But even with these efforts, the least among us will spout off. Go ahead and rant and rave to a colleague, a spouse, a friend. Just don’t do it online.

Lust: How do journalists commit lust on social media? By tweeting or blogging trash, hoping for a quick rush of traffic that’s actually meaningless in terms of real, long-term engagement. Yes, tweeting or blogging about the Kardashians will generate traffic, as will promoting online stories about entertainment industry hijinks and excess. Certainly, there is a lot of interest in celebrities’ exploits, and I’m not saying it’s a sin to tweet or blog or post about them.

However, unless you’re an entertainment publication, that’s not where you should put most of your focus if you want true reader engagement. You’re just titillating, and there’s very little reader loyalty in that. Plus, if you’re a local newspaper or TV station, people are reading your web site because they want to know what’s happening in their community. They can find out the latest celebrity exploits lots of places; they can only get the local scoop from you.

Gluttony:  If you are snarfing down Twitter accounts like too many cookies at Christmas, you just might be a social media glutton. Yes, Twitter accounts are free. But you don’t need that many. Why is this a sin? Because there is a fine line between tailoring accounts to the specific niches in your readership (a good thing) and confusing the heck out of your readers (a bad thing.)

Unless you’re a big media outlet like The New York Times, you’d probably do better with a main news organization account and a handful of speciality accounts for key topics like college sports or food that likely have very specific audiences in your community.

Leave the rest of your Twitter action to individual reporters, using accounts in their own names. Individual reporters will develop their own following, based on their own beats and personalities. By tweeting under their own name, they foster the kind of conversations that can make Twitter valuable. (People converse with people, not news organizations).

But aren’t we losing a branding opportunity, you lament? Not really. Your reporters should include your news organization name in their bios, and they should tweet regularly from your news organization web site. This will bolster your brand. Plus you still have your news organization-named accounts to brand you.

Another glutinous social media practice that I truly hope will die in 2011 is the creating of special Twitter accounts for specific events that a news organization is covering. It may sound like a good idea, but it’s not. Why? Because readers don’t want to hunt all over to find out what Twitter account is covering the big game or the key political race. They want the account they already follow from your news organization to serve them.

Go to the reader; don’t make the reader cyberstalk you. Also, these “once in a while” Twitter accounts likely don’t have enough followers to make them worth your while. You’ll reach more people with your regular accounts.

Sloth: Sure, we’re all busy. I know. But social media only works if you think of it like a relationship. At the start, the wooing stage, you need to spend a lot of time. Court your followers. Seek them out. Spend time with them. Search for them on Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare.

Put a lot of thought into the sweet nothings you send out. Read every word your news followers/friend say. Of course, as in real-life relationships, this stage does not last forever.

You move into the more solid kind of relationship that’s built on past success and interest. People check out your blog or your Facebook page because they’ve learned to know you’ll have cool stuff there. You’ve developed some trust, but you must maintain it. Don’t take your follower/virtual friends for granted. Be consistent and show them some virtual “love” by retweeting or tweeting their posts, answering their blog comments, responding to their Facebook queries.

The goal isn’t to spend hours a day on social media. It’s a bit like exercise: 30 minutes three days a week is better than a full-bore workout only once a month.  It’s OK to take a vacation or skip a few days. Relationships, even virtual ones, ebb and flow. But whatever you do, don’t stop communicating completely. We know what happens then: divorce.

– Gina

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