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How the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel grew Facebook reach 6x in a year

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel developed a social strategy to reach new audiences with three parts: best practices to encourage sharing, programming Facebook and creating social-exclusive content.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.

This “win” comes from Emily Ristow, social media editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: Big picture, and simply, we wanted to grow our digital audience. We had set a broad initiative to “transform into a digital storytelling powerhouse that reaches audiences where they are and develops new ones.” We’d then funnel that growing audience into a loyal, paying audience in an effort to double our digital subscriptions in one year. Totally easy to tackle, right?

It was clear from the beginning that social media needed to play a big role. Unfortunately, social had been put on the back burner the past few years as we struggled to adjust to taking on more digital responsibilities with a shrinking staff.

How could we get back on track with social media and really take advantage of using platforms to find new audiences? We decided to start with our flagship Facebook page.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: Our social strategy was initially tied to Table Stake #1 (“serve targeted content to targeted audiences”) and Table Stake #2 (“publish on the platforms used by your target audiences.”) Pretty straightforward. But as we began to see big increases in our reach and followers, especially on Facebook, we saw opportunities to grow the top of our funnel, which was important for Table Stake #4 (“funnel occasional users into habitual, paying loyalists.”) Not only do we want to turn occasional users into paying loyalists, we want more occasional users.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We’ve always planned for print, and we were starting to plan better for digital posting. We decided to bring that same discipline to our Facebook pages.

Creating and following a schedule:

We developed a schedule for our flagship page down to the half-hour. Each slot was assigned a topic (news, business, sports, social story, etc.) or a content type (we included videos and photos, too, not just links). We saved some of our best stuff for those prime evening hours. For times when most of our audience wasn’t on Facebook, we went to hourly posts and skipped some hours overnight. Breaking news would always trump the schedule, but our goal was to program only our best social content, not just randomly post.

We then followed this schedule religiously. We had a designated point person for each shift who would schedule out the best items as they published online. This meant that sometimes a story would post on our site at 9 a.m. but wouldn’t be shared on Facebook until 7 p.m. This was new for us — and it was scary.

After a couple of months, we did a deep analysis of what was working and what wasn’t. Were certain time slots underperforming? Did our audience not connect with some topics? Did some things overperform no matter what time of day they were scheduled? Was the newsroom creating the content we needed to stick to our schedule?

Using that data, we reworked the schedule. More importantly, we reworked some of the content we were creating. This was the most difficult part for us because it forced people out of their comfort zones. But it was also the most important component. Without content aimed at a social audience, our social strategy wouldn’t work.

Creating content for a social audience:

Up until about a year ago, the content we shared on Facebook was stories created for print and published on our website.

We gradually moved into writing stories with the intention of sharing them on Facebook. We didn’t care if or when they ran in print. The idea was these stories would connect with that social audience and bring them to our site, where we’d guide them toward other content we thought readers would also love.

Our biggest leap came in creating content exclusively for Facebook. Sure, we’d done Facebook Lives, but those were usually tied to some event we were also writing about.

The first piece of content we created exclusively for posting on Facebook was a poll encouraging people to react and comment on where they think “up north” in Wisconsin begins. That poll quickly became our most popular non-video Facebook post ever.

We ended up creating content for our website based on the Facebook post, bringing together the best comments in a story. The popularity of the “up north” poll continued to grow over the next couple of weeks. So we recruited our development team to create an interactive map that let people draw the line exactly where they wanted “up north” to begin. The interactive proved to be a big success on our website and when it was shared on Facebook.  

Adapting to Facebook’s changes:

When Facebook rolled out changes to its algorithm we were back to tweaking the schedule and some of our pure social play posts — which were now being deemed “engagement bait.”

Giving social a visible and vocal presence in our newsroom:

Now we have a giant, laminated schedule displayed prominently in our breaking news hub in the middle of the newsroom. Marking down what we plan to schedule out and checking off what’s complete each day helps us hand off to the next shift. But more importantly, its prominent placement and physical presence communicate to the newsroom that this is a priority.

We also started talking about daily social wins and misses at every morning news meeting. We explain why certain posts overperformed and talk through reasons others underperformed. People outside the core digital team regularly pitch stories for social sharing, sometimes even including suggested share language, by messaging one of our Slack channels.

Q: What worked?

A: Following a set schedule has definitely paid off for us when it comes to increasing page likes and reach. When we started following the schedule a year and a half ago, our page had just 62,000 likes. Now we’re closing in on 130,000. We’ve also seen growth in reach. Before, our average weekly reach was around 500,000; now it’s about 3 million.

We’ve also seen a noticeable increase in our interaction rate. By focusing on programming and limiting the number of posts we do, we’re forcing ourselves to really think about what our best social content is. Before posting anything on our flagship Facebook page, we ask ourselves, “Would other people (people — not journalists!) also share this story with their family and friends?” If the answer is no, we won’t post it. Even an answer of “maybe” won’t always get an item posted.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Some topics we expected to do well fell totally flat. That forced us to look at the content we were creating. If it wasn’t finding a social audience, we had to take a hard line. Either the content had to change, or it wouldn’t be shared on Facebook anymore.

Our newsroom takes great pride and pours resources into our investigative and watchdog work. Unfortunately, those meatier pieces can sometimes be a tough sell for a social audience. We know not every story is a good fit for social, but these investigations are our bread and butter, so we weren’t satisfied with simply not promoting them on Facebook.

Instead, we’ve gotten creative with when and how we share these pieces. Is there a component or angle that could work for social? Can we break out key facts and make a social video to share? We’re always looking for ways to reach that social audience and then bring them into the larger investigation. Getting social involved sooner in the process and finding creative ways to share is an ongoing process.

In many cases, we will also boost posts related to our investigative work to target them to a specific audience beyond our Facebook followers.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: In many cases, those social/online only stories we created to share on Facebook ended up in prominent places in print. In one case, one of our social stories landed on the front page of USA TODAY.

Why? Because we started by thinking of our audience from the beginning. We were writing things we knew people would want to read, including the journalists in our newsroom deciding our print lineup.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We would have started creating content specifically for social sooner. We were several months into our Facebook programming before we started creating pure-play content on social.

We got extremely lucky and struck gold our first time out. Not all future efforts were as fruitful.

Failure is an OK outcome sometimes as long as you treat it as a learning experience. Every attempt is also a chance to gain data and insight that can help craft future posts.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Four things:

  1. Give social a seat at the table and make it part of the story creation process. Social planning should be part of your news meetings. For big stories and projects that won’t be obvious home runs on social, reporters and editors should be thinking from the start about a social angle that can bring people to that larger piece. If you aren’t creating content that will connect with a social audience, your social strategy will never succeed.
  2. Communicate your social strategy not just to your core digital team but to the entire newsroom. Make sure everyone knows how this ties into your larger digital strategy. And let them know how they can contribute.
  3. Celebrate incremental wins. Like with any big initiative, changing your social strategy is going to be a long slog. It’s important to not only communicate progress, but explain why these small wins matter and how they contribute to the larger goals.
  4. Be ready to adapt. The social landscape is constantly changing, so that means your strategy is going to be constantly changing. Keep your focus on the goal, but be willing to adjust your methods as you go.