A while back, I wrote about seven reasonable things news organizations should be doing to manage their online presence. I think moves like hiring a web editor (or several web editors) and encouraging reporters to cultivate their online identities are perfectly reasonable, but they’re still big steps. Here are some even smaller steps newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations can take today to improve their online products. (As usual, screen shots are taken from my iPhone, where I view tweets in Echofon.)
1. Shorten links on Twitter. Simply pasting a link into a tweet takes up valuable characters and makes the whole thing look ugly. It’s easy to use free services like Bit.ly, Goo.gl, and TinyUrl.com to clean up your links. Twitter will automatically truncate long links to 20 characters, but that usually leaves you with a link like this: http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/06… Still ugly. Still taking up more characters than necessary.
See how much better that looks? And the link is only 11 characters.
2. Pick the appropriate image to accompany links on Facebook. If you post a link to a story with art, Facebook will usually give you some choices about which image you want to accompany the story. For some reason, Facebook’s first choice is usually some ad on the page that’s irrelevant to the story. Take the seven extra seconds to click through and pick the photo that goes with the story and you’ll catch readers’ eyes more easily. If Facebook can’t pick up any of the images that go with your stories, it’s time to have a chat with your web developers.
And while you’re at it, go ahead and delete the URL from the field once Facebook has done its thing. Again, it’s ugly.
3. Use an area code. In towns with only one area code (say, Bryan-College Station, Texas, or Lawrence, Kan.), you can tell who’s been living there a long time by how they give you a local phone number. The longtime residents will rattle off seven digits, completely oblivious to the fact that everyone who moved here after 2005 has a different area code. This is an annoying habit, which is why I always follow with an annoying question: “What’s the area code here again?”
When it comes to online news, leaving out the area code shows you’re not thinking about the medium. The online version of your story is accessible from all over the world, so your audience is bound to include people who live outside your market and wouldn’t know the area code off the top of their heads. Are you really going to make them look it up?
Now take it a step further and make those numbers clickable on smartphones. It’s an HTML fix that’s easy enough to teach your whole newsroom staff. Without the clickable link, readers have to copy it from the web browser into the uhhh… what’s the phone part of a smartphone called, exactly? And then once they’ve pasted it, they still probably have to add the area code you decided not to include. Next time you’re asking readers to report downed power lines, call in tips on an Amber Alert, or report problems with their paper delivery, add three digits (that’s four characters) and a link to the phone number and you’ll instantly add value to product.
4. Think like a copy editor. You wouldn’t publish unedited copy in the paper, right? Or air rambling, unedited interviews on the nightly news? Social media doesn’t allow for a formal editing process, but you can still use the basic editing tenets of accuracy, clarity and brevity to give tweets and other posts a once-over.
First, read your tweet to ensure it’s written in clear, plain English — this means editing out stuff like awkward cop speak (“persons in the vicinity”) and stilted PR language (“took advantage of an opportunity”). Next, check your spelling (you really should be using a browser or an app with a built-in spell check), including the spelling of any names, and watch out for autocorrect disasters. Third, go through your tweet to eliminate extra words (change “off of” to “off”) and turn wordy phrases (prior to) into more succinct ones (before). This is what copy editors do to everything that comes across their desks, and it’s what you should be doing to everything you post to social media.
Recently, Texas A&M issued a Code Maroon after someone reported an armed man on Texas A&M’s campus. Some news outlets simply retweeted Code Maroon’s message:
Other news folks composed their own tweets using Code Maroon’s tweets. That worked fine. I think we can all tell what the situation is from that wording, even with the law-enforcement jargon.
But I like what KBTX, the local CBS affiliate, did. They took the information from Code Maroon and put it in clear, plain English. It was the best formatting of this information I saw locally.
I’m still not wild about the use of “subject” over “person” or “man,” but this is breaking news. You do your best and then move on.
News orgs will make mistakes on social media, especially in a newsroom where many people have access to the same accounts, but training reporters to think like editors can clean up your feeds.
5. Watch your hashtags. In an effort to gain more followers and page views, many news organizations (and a whole lot of PR types) rely on hashtags to connect with relevant communities on Twitter. Hashtags can certainly be useful, but I suspect some “social media expert” has been exaggerating their usefulness to newsroom editors and j-school students across the country.
If your tweet would be interesting to people who follow an established hashtag — like #kubball or #ksstorms — it makes sense to include it. It also makes sense to create a hashtag and ask followers to use it to help you track an event, as The Dallas Morning News did with #dallasvotes.
Here’s what doesn’t make sense: Including every hashtag that could possibly be relevant to your tweet. It looks cluttered and desperate, and Google reads these tweets as spam.
Does this look like a credible news source to you? Of course not. It looks insane. So while it’s tempting to end a tweet about the latest Texas A&M football story with “#tamu #aggies #12thman #bcstx #texas #sec #ncaa #america #sports,” maybe just pick one or two instead.
6. Be careful about mixing platforms. A lot of newsrooms have automated their feeds to post identical messages on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. The problem with this — besides reducing the incentive to follow a news org on multiple platforms — is that these media don’t work the same way.
If you’re not careful, you end up with weird stuff like hashtags and @mentions pon Facebook. Or worse, you end up asking your Twitter followers to leave the site (or mobile app) they’re currently using to interact with you on another site.
Come on, man. Why not just ask users to DM you? This tweet was posted via web, so it’s probably not an automation problem, but it is a strategy problem. KAGS, the new NBC affiliate in Bryan-College Station, has 576 likes on Facebook and just 284 followers on Twitter. What’s the point of following an account that’s just going to ask me to go to its Facebook page all the time? This bad habit isn’t unique to KAGS. I’ve seen KBTX tweet questions and ask followers to post their answers on the station’s Facebook page. I’m sure there are newspapers, TV stations and radio stations doing the same thing in markets across America, and it drives me nuts.
These steps are easy enough, but you should still probably hire a web editor.