Why Stations Should Reimagine Their Digital Plans for the Social Era

Jun 7, 2012

Humans have always wanted to share certain types of information with other humans. The social delivery of news — whether it's through e-mail, online communities or in person — is not anything new. 

What is new is the continued explosion of Facebook (it's closing in on a billion active users). Facebook has provided us with the power to share like never before, which is why stations need to think about social like they never have before.

News organizations such as The Atlantic and BuzzFeed are doing this better than most. And BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti explains this better than anyone:

"When the world shifted from portals to search, Google was the big winner. Now the shift is from search to social, with Facebook as the big winner. The mega-trend is Portals → Search → Social. That's the big defining shift on the web and we are at the very beginning of the transition to social."

As Peretti says, this shift is just beginning to happen, which is why the time is now to consider social in your news gathering, content creation and digital strategies. To put it simply — you need to create content that people will share.

A social opportunity for stations

This is a huge opportunity for member stations for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that public media content by nature is shareable. It answers our questions, explains complex subject matter, surprises us, makes us laugh, makes us mad, makes us curious. It taps into our emotions. We just need to transfer these characteristics in a consistent and meaningful way to the digital audience. Just look at the NPR Facebook page. Most of the stories posted there echo everything I will talk about in this post.

The second reason is that member stations have a unique opportunity to capture this type of content in their local markets and produce it online in a way that no one is currently doing on a local level. There are a few organizations that are shaping their strategies around social, but those organizations are doing this from a national perch. There are millions of stories in station markets that are waiting to be shared, liked and commented on — and stations are in the best position to gather them and build them into shareable web pieces. Here at Digital Services, we're working with many stations just beginning to develop their digital strategies. This is actually an advantage. Stations starting new online can bake these values in early.  

These two factors point to something BIG — stations have an opportunity to own the local social space.

What should I do?

When I say "own the local social space," I don't just mean posting your stories to Facebook and Twitter (although that's important, too). This goes way beyond that and involves making social a part of your content creation and selection strategies. It involves seeking out stories that people will want to share with others.

There are many things you can do to take advantage of this moment. When you think about your station's content and audience, you should think about it in terms of how it will be shared. You should dedicate at least some time and resources to your station's Facebook page. You should pour creative energy into writing awesome headlines that connect with people emotionally. You should produce content that is new and original. And you should package your content for the web user — with photos, subheads, links and block quotes.

We'll get to all of this in a bit.

It doesn't mean you should forget about search. Search is still a huge opportunity for traffic, especially if you're a smaller station covering a story that gets national attention.

A tale of shareability awesomeness

When talking about shareable content I often reference an example from Forbes reporter Kashmir Hill

On February 16, 2012, The New York Times Magazine ran a 6,800-word book excerpt by Charles Duhigg about how retailers are tracking customers. The story, How Companies Learn Your Secrets, is a terrific read.

Sometime after the story went live, Hill, a privacy reporter for Forbes, pulled out the meatiest nuggets from the story and shared them on her blog in an 1,100-word piece titled, How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did. The story included several links back to the original Times piece. 

Hill's version of the story generated an incredible 1.5 million page views and more than 28,000 shares on Facebook.

We don't know the metrics behind the Times piece because they don't share their data like Forbes does. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that Hill's version of this story is a perfect example of shareable content.

And who better to explain this than Hill herself. Here's what she told Jim Romenesko

"My piece didn’t take off just because of its sexy, tweetable title — though that helped — but because I found what was most compelling in a nine-page piece and put it front and center (while including lots of links back to the original article). The New York Times article is a delicious nine-course dinner; mine is an equally tasty, bite-sized snack for readers on the go. Most readers online are looking for something quick and easy to digest, so my version worked better for them." 

(via JimRomenesko.com)

I should note that all lessons aside, there was some debate around Hill's piece, primarily in a blog post by Nick O'Neill titled, How Forbes Stole A New York Times Article And Got All The Traffic. Duhigg — the Times reporter — defended Hill's piece: "If Ms. Hill is kind enough to read my magazine article, and even kinder to spend time writing a post about it, than more power to her." 

For the sake of staying on track, let's focus on what's important from this whole thing — Hill's piece is an awesome example of content that is written, headlined, formatted and packaged in a way that is ideal for the web reader.

How to make your content more shareable

Now the fun part. What can you actually do to make your content more shareable? 

Good headlines:

If you want an in-depth lesson on headlines, I highly recommend you check out this presentation by my colleague Ki Sung. And read this Poynter piece by my colleague Matt Thompson: 10 questions to help you write better headlines. In the meantime, here's my 12-sentence speech on headlines: Pour all of your creative energy into writing a good headline. The headline can make or break a story's social potential. Pretend that you're the audience and ask yourself if you would click on and share the story. Don't settle for a headline that falls flat.  The headline should promise the readers what they will get from consuming your story, but in a unique way.

It should also be real. What I mean by that is it shouldn't appear to be computer-generated, it should appear to be human-generated. People act off of emotion and writing a headline that taps into how someone feels about something is more likely to compel them to share it. Here's an example of this from NPR's Two-Way blog: This Video May Creep You Out: Artist Turns Dearly Departed Cat Into Helicopter.  And from NPR's Shots blog: Two Questions For Your Doctor Before A Colonoscopy. After you have achieved headline greatness, then make sure you've included some key terms for Google. Important to note: Breaking news headlines should be straight-forward, informative and highlight the most important thing.

Newness and Originality:

There is a built-in excitement and pleasure people get from being first.  It makes sense. Why would I want to share something with you if you already knew about it? When people hear about something that's new and original, they want to tell their co-workers, family and friends about it right away. They want to scream it from Twitter and Facebook. So as a journalist, I suggest you spend a lot of time on original reporting. I return to BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti to drive this point home: "news scoops are inherently social content. Telling people something NEW is a great strategy if you want people to share your content."

So breaking exclusive stories is awesome, but you can also be new by being original. NPR member station KPLU does a good job of distinguishing its content from the rest of the Seattle media. The KPLU staff does this by asking the questions they suspect their audience is asking and that no one else is answering. After it was reported that debris from the Japan tsunami was floating toward the West Coast, the KPLU staff wondered: How will  it be cleaned up? Then they answered: By hand. When they noticed there was an "inordinate number of running shoes with feet in them" floating in the Northwest waters, they asked: Where are these feet coming from? Then they answered. KPLU doesn't spend a lot of time chasing every single story in Seattle. Instead it asks questions and delivers content no one else is producing. In fact, KPLU created a series out of this concept of asking pointed questions about the Northwest. It's appropriately titled, I Wonder Why...?


When people learn new things, they share their new knowledge with others. Think of the Slate Explainers or the way Ezra Klein makes sense of topics that wouldn't otherwise make sense. One way of explaining is through lists. You should always be asking yourself: Is there a list I can build to help better tell this story? A lot of times the answer will be no. And you certainly don't want to overdo it with the lists. But I think you'll surprise yourself in realizing how often a list will enhance the experience for your audience. Here's a nice example from Michigan Radio. For a more comprehensive look at the value of lists, I recommend you read and bookmark this piece by Poynter's Mallary Jean Tenore: The Top 10 reasons that Top 10 lists are so popular with journalists, readers.


Do whatever you humanly can do to include a photo. If you're reporting in the field, take a picture with your camera, iPhone or other smartphone. If you're working on a story and you don't have an original photo for it, search for one. And if a story has an especially amazing photo, play it up. The "awe" factor tends to lead to sharing.  Here's a good resource on Creative Commons. And check out this Poynter piece from my colleague Keith Jenkins: 5 types of photos that make for strong photo essays, audio slideshows


Presentation is everything. So, again, make sure you're including photos with your posts. Next, make sure your story is packaged for the web user. A deep sea of text will drown your audience. On the other hand, a one-sentence teaser with an audio clip will leave your audience thirsty. So keep your writing conversational and to the point. Use subheads to break up thoughts and points. Link out to add context whenever necessary. Use block quotes to highlight the most poignant nuggets from a story. Look again at Kashmir Hill's piece. She does all of this stuff well. After you have packaged your story neatly with subheads, links, a photo and block quotes, you should search around for YouTube and Vimeo videos that will add valuable dynamic information to your story. Then embed them. 

Want to hear more?

This blog post riffs off of a presentation I did as part of NPR Knight Foundation training. You can find the presentation deck here. Here's the presentation in video form:

Reading from around the web:

PDF: What Makes Online Content Viral? (Journal of Marketing Research)

Why ‘The Atlantic’ No Longer Cares About SEO (Mashable)

What Makes Content Go Viral? Awe, Angst, and A-Holes (PCMag)

YouTube's Kevin Allocca: Why videos go viral (TED)

Buzzfeed CEO: Social Marketers Need to Tap Emotional Intelligence (AdAge)

BuzzFeed, the Ad Model for the Facebook Era? (BloombergBusinessweek)