Putting social media to use in and after a crisis

The analysis reports are starting to come in on the Pacific Northwest’s media coverage of the Lakewood police executions and, from what I’ve read and from what I experienced, my fellow journalists set the bar high. What I found interesting is that this tragedy caused many of the Puget Sound’s more traditional news organizations to wade deeper – much deeper in some cases – into social media.

Many of the area’s news orgs have been using the ‘core’ social media tools (Facebook, Twitter) for a year or more. Some have even won awards for their early adoption of the tools. Some local media seems to have been born with iPhones in their hands and Twitter accounts. For them, this is old hat – Twitter’s real-time updates are part of their regular routine. But this was not so at the staid Seattle Times.

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Twitter is not just for headlines

You have a lot of valuable content to offer and not all of it is editorial.

Newspaper reader studies have shown that people read newspapers and subscribe to home delivery for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the bundling of various bits of information (editorial and sales) into a single package. On our web sites, we make sure to give readers not only our editorial content, but also display ads, classified ads and deal information for cars, homes, jobs, etc.

Why don’t we do this on Twitter? Like the desktop web and on mobile, I believe that news organizations should approach Twitter as a distribution tool but should not ignore Twitter’s unique characteristics and culture. A good newspaper Twitter feed should, I believe, incorporate all aspects of the total package. The “Twitter Edition” should include breaking news, non-breaking headlines of note, calendar items, classified listings, promotions, and sponsorship messages.

What sort of sponsorship messages? I’d start with deals or coupons from local restaurants timed to mealtimes. At 11am each workday, send out a note about an advertiser’s lunch special. Help your advertisers promote overstock sales. Tweet a few garage sales or open houses. Think about the different parts of your print or online products and try to represent them on Twitter.

Of course, before you include paid commercial messages, you’ll need enough followers to be valuable to your clients. My estimate is that you’d need a few hundred local followers before you could find interested advertisers. Keep the rates affordable and base them on how many local followers you have.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Set followers’ expectations early – make sure they know the feed will include commercial messages
  • Keep the editorial:advertising ratio balanced. Too many ads will likely cause you to shed followers.
  • Watch the tone. Twitter is a much more conversational medium than newspapers. Give your Twitter feed(s) a voice and some character – but don’t stray into caricatures. The traditional newspaper “voice of God” style just doesn’t work here.
  • Offer more specific – and commercial-free – Twitter feeds for breaking news feed, sports, courts, etc.

    Because you’re going to share the responsibility for Tweeting between editorial and sales, you’ll probably want a tool that supports multiple users with unique logins so you can protect the master password to your Twitter account. The two big ones right now are CoTweet and HootSuite. HootSuite has one standout feature that I like: the ability to auto-Tweet from an RSS feed, which you can achieve with twitterfeed.com. Of course, putting Tweets on autopilot is not preferred but it will keep your breaking news updates flowing when nobody is available to Tweet them manually.

    Is there already a conventional wisdom about sponsor tweets in a news stream? What do you think about this?

    Oh yeah, don’t forget to use your own short URL service!