Shane Snow

Shane Snow is the cofounder of Contently, an agile publishing platform for brands and marketplace for professional freelance journalists.


As brands start building digital newsrooms, what do they need to succeed?

Thanks to social media, we’re getting used to big companies talking directly to us instead of just advertising next to what we’re reading.

When you’re consuming content in a stream — as we do when using Twitter, Facebook or one of the many other social networks — a story from The New York Times, an update from your crazy uncle, and a link to a cleverly captioned photo from Oreo all flow in the same river, and get equal weight.

Today, tools such as Twitter and WordPress have led to an explosion of brands producing and spreading content, competing with traditional media for audience attention and employing journalists as creative storytellers.

If all the content marketing statistics floating around the Web are to be trusted, brand publishing is now a staple of the modern marketing diet. This is why the term “brand newsroom” has been floating around advertising circles in 2013 — brands have recognized that in a social-media world, telling true stories is a better way to win hearts and minds than interrupting people with ads.

Traditional media have known for a long time that good publishing requires not just talent but also smart organization. But the new wave of brand publishers are starting at zero. A company whose business is helping people file taxes or making the world’s most-dunkable cookie rarely knows how to create a publishing organization within itself. Moreover, for many of these companies, the word “newsroom” conjures up images of a TV studio with out-of-focus people behind a pontificating anchor, or a cigar-smoking J. Jonah Jameson yelling at frantic print reporters.

The fastest-growing newsrooms of the 21st century couldn’t be more different than such cliches. I wanted to know how brands that have built successful newsrooms have learned, and so I decided to ask some of today’s hottest brand publishers questions about how they’ve organized themselves for the digital age.

Here are some of the answers:

How should a brand newsroom be structured?

The Verge, one of the fastest-growing media properties of the last two years, breaks its newsroom into a three-pronged battalion: a real-time newswire team, a reports team and a magazine-style features team. Each team has reporters, writers, a designer, and editors.

“We model each team after a real-world analogy,” Nilay Patel, The Verge’s managing editor, said in a phone interview. “We need to do the news in real time; that’s why people come back to us. They also want really in-depth news and analysis and reporting, and they love our big features.”

The Verge’s newswire team constantly monitors and reacts to industry news as it happens, while the reports team chases stories, conducts interviews, and goes to events, producing stories with a one- or two-day lead time. Meanwhile, the features team spends months producing big, beautiful long-form stories and videos, which go through multiple design and edit passes.

“As we got larger, we started to hire more specialized talent,” said Adam Ostrow, chief strategy officer and former editor-in-chief of Mashable, which shot from obscurity to become one of the top-trafficked news destinations on the Web in a few short years.

As Mashable’s audience grew, its need for focused reporting and storytelling expertise increased. “We now have senior editors running our Tech, Business, and Watercooler channels and managing small teams of writers that own a respective area of our coverage,” Ostrow said via email.

Despite fears that we live in a “post first, correct later” world, the leaders of these new digital newsrooms repeatedly emphasized the importance of editorial layering — having multiple people review every piece of content. For them, that usually means staffing up with editors who can review stories for style and fit, then having a separate set of eyeballs look at grammar and presentation.

“The staffing will vary depending on the kind of company, but one key role is essential: someone in charge,” said Neil Chase, former New York Times editor and senior vice-president of content for Federated Media. (Disclosure: He also works with me at Contently as a consultant).

That person must be the defender of the publication’s message and voice, the arbiter of quality, and a decision-maker with the power to choose and optimize “the technology, tools and partners needed to produce and distribute content effectively,” Chase said via email.

In a traditional newsroom that would go without saying, but it might be the most-neglected thing I’ve seen among brand publishers that say they want to run a newsroom.

What sets great digital newsrooms apart?

1. Great talent, and a strong, unified voice

There’s no getting around it: great stories are told by talented people, and even the most-talented people tell better stories when they work together. That’s why the best newsrooms invest in talent.

“The most important thing that we’ve found is you have to hire people that have really strong voices,” Patel said. “It’s really about filling in that structure with talent that is native to the platform, native to the audience, and ready to be passionate. They understand that there is right and wrong and the big narrative of news all adds up to something that means something important.”

2. Technology

Look at the fastest-growing media properties of the blogging era and you’ll notice most of them made heavy investments in technology. Huffington Post, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Bleacher Report, The Verge and others built their own powerful content management systems, while sites such as Mashable scaled up using highly customized versions of WordPress and strong social-media platform integrations. And each has dedicated tech and design resources for maintaining its system.

The main benefit of strong technology is the ability to eliminate repetitive tasks inherent to publishing, such as scheduling, reporting, revising, tracking, composing and post-production. Additionally, companies such as Huffington Post and Upworthy have boosted traffic strongly by split-testing headlines, a process that’s arduous by hand but can be automated with technology.

“One of our advantages has always been that we’re all power users of the tools we write about on the site,” Ostrow said. “Everyone on the team understands how to craft stories that readers will want to share, and how to use social media for newsgathering, collaboration and content distribution.”

3. Data

Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff said in a phone interview that the best way to operate a newsroom is to be “data informed.” That means striking a balance between monitoring results and chasing the kinds of stories that have done well historically, and trusting years of publishing experience to predict what things people should be interested in.

While the last few years have seen an obsession with real-time data about page views, both publishers and advertisers are increasingly focusing on metrics such as engagement and sharing as measures of success, and leading indicators of audience loyalty and future traffic.

4. The myth of centralization

One myth about the success of great newsrooms persists because of the word itself: that a newsroom has to be a physical room. That isn’t true: a newsroom is an organization, not a place. Some of the most effective newsrooms today are virtual, and almost every successful publisher — from GQ to CNN — employs remote staff and freelancers for reporting, shooting, writing, and editing.

“A lot of people don’t realize we were a completely virtual company for the first four or five years,” Mashable’s Ostrow said. That virtual newsroom grew to about 15 people before the company got its first office, but Mashable still has remote employees and freelancers.

Truth is, publishing is one of the easiest industries in which work can be done remotely. If magazines and blogs can do it, so can brands.

But that doesn’t mean building a newsroom is easy. Fortunately, modern technology has allowed the cookie makers to tell their own stories without buying printing presses and trucks. And if they start thinking about how the best new-media companies would tell that cookie story, they might never have to design another “takeover” ad.

What do brand newsrooms need to succeed?

1. Put quality first.

In brand newsrooms, “speed is often stressed over quality,” Steve Rubel, chief content strategist for Edelman, said via email. “The latter is far more important. Everyone is competing for the same attention bandwidth and that means brands are going up against media pros with decades of experience.”

Digital publishing today is an arms race, with more and more people getting into the game. With content increasingly spreading — or not spreading — because of what people do on social media, the quality of storytelling has to improve. A story must inform, surprise, inspire and delight the reader — and make him or her look good to friends.

2. Have a strong relationship with the business side of the house.

“I share a lot of people with marketing,” said Mollie Chen, editorial director at Birchbox, which produces a monthly magazine and dozens of blog posts every week to grow its beauty-supply subscription brand. “Everyone is by design expected to understand every layer of the business.”

Birchbox’s newsroom success stems in large part from its integration with the core business; in fact, Chen was the company’s first hire. “It’s important to hire people who know how to tell stories,” she said in a phone interview, but added that “nothing gets created in a vacuum. There’s always a consideration of all three of our stakeholders: the customer, Birchbox, and our brand partners.”

3. Iterate.

Ostrow said survival as a digital publisher — whether or not you’re a brand publisher — requires “doubling down on what’s working and moving away quickly from what’s not.”

“One of the things brands forget is iteration,” said Michael Hess of Weber Shandwick, who helped design Verizon Wireless’s news center. “Regular publishers are constantly adapting.”

In a large organization where change is takes even more time, the best way to past this hurdle is to empower the publishing team to make some decisions on its own, he added.

4. Make sure you have things you can talk about without involving the lawyers.

A typical brand’s legal department is more hands-on than a traditional publisher’s. This can cause bottlenecks in the publishing schedule and hamper a brand’s ability to capitalize on time-sensitive events.

“In traditional publishing, you have legal supporting on the back end,” Hess said in a phone interview. “In brand publishing, you have legal approving on the front end.”

To minimize the disruptions that arrangement causes, he said, “you have to have a road map already” that lets you talk about some things without legal approval, letting you keep a consistent stream of stories flowing to readers. For content that still needs sign-off, Hess added, there has to be a clear approval process.

5. Get out of your own head.

“The vast majority of brands today are still leveraging social media as an extension of corporate communications,” said Ostrow. But, he pointed out, most brands’ efforts to “be the next Oreo” have felt contrived.

“I think the biggest things that brands need to think about are the topics and themes that matter to their customers and how can they be a valuable member of that conversation – not just the conversation that is trending at any given moment in time on social media,” he said.

Birchbox’s Chen said brand publishers must have a “willingness to ignore traditional marketing” in favor of great stories the audience actually wants: “Customers are smart. They don’t want to be talked at. They want to be talked to.”

6. Create original material.

Edelman’s Rubel said his top concern for brand newsrooms is that a lack of originality will dilute their efforts.

“There’s too much emphasis on ‘news jacking’ instead of creating content that fills a true void and enriches people’s lives,” he said. “I am concerned we could be seen as ambulance chasers.”

If the goal of a brand newsroom is to gain the audience’s attention, trust, and engagement with that brand, recycling pieces of other brands’ content or inanely riffing off obvious news isn’t going to work. As I’ve written before, in the world of branded content, original always wins.

7. Be patient.

Newsrooms are marathons, not sprints. Even new-media publications that consistently see their material go viral — such as Upworthy, BuzzFeed, and The Onion — needed months to get noticed and years to build trust.

“We worked our way up,” Weber Shandwick’s Hess said. “And we’re getting to a point where the audience is getting much bigger. It’s allowing us to experiment with the kinds of content.”

Becoming a publisher isn’t like an ad campaign or some other short-term initiative — it’s a cultural change within an organization.

“The key question brands must ask here is this: ‘Are we committed to using this investment to the fullest and for the long haul?’ ” Rubel said. “This means all of it – the technology, the people and the processes. If they are committed and patient, then a newsroom is a worthwhile investment.”

Shane Snow is a technology journalist and co-founder of Contently, a New York City-based technology company that empowers brands and journalists to connect and tell stories. He writes regularly for Wired, Fast Company, Advertising Age, and more. Read more


What journalists need to know about ‘content marketing’

When a major newspaper suspends a vendor for faking bylines and a bestselling author/journalist goes down in flames over fabricated quotes in the same month, the magnifying glass suddenly focuses inward on an industry meant to expose truth.

Add the misreporting of a monumental Supreme Court decision and an HBO show not-so-subtly skewering cable news, and we’ve had a summer full of ethical discussion.

Today’s journalist faces an abundance of ethical challenges, some due to fast-paced publishing pressure, others to new, growing opportunities for work.

In particular, the swelling ranks practicing “content marketing” are giving rise to a new class of ethical dilemma.

Content marketing, aka editorial content published by advertisers in lieu of banner ads, (think BuzzFeed’s sponsored stories or Red Bull’s Media House), is the business buzzphrase of 2012. When brands skip the middleman and publish their own media, it’s called content marketing. It’s also sometimes referred to as brand journalism or custom content.

In a typical issue of Vogue, editorial content is essentially funded by a barrage of glossy advertisements between the pages. That’s how “traditional publishing” works. But now more than ever, brands that once advertised in Vogue are creating their own fashion magazines, writing the stories themselves and owning all the ads. The lack of product placement in stories sets content marketing apart from “advertorial,” or ads disguised as content. This is what makes people actually want to consume a brand’s content; it looks like something they’d read anyway.

The advent of custom content

The digital revolution has spurred an increasing number of these less experienced, less traditional publishers to foray into the media industry. Some 75 percent of corporations surveyed by the Custom Content Council are shifting spending from ads to content, according to a 2011 study. Many of these corporations are unaware of the ethical guidelines that are widely accepted by traditional publications.

This is the trend I stumbled upon at my startup company, Contently, as we’ve built a marketplace and tools for freelance reporters. Brands are spending millions of dollars to hire journalists to produce content like that on GE’s and Gilt Groupe’s Park & Bond. Sponsored content is how Mashable and monetize their websites and how corporations like Proctor and Gamble are beating banner blindness. It’s feeding displaced journalists and fueling a revolution away from content farms and toward high fidelity information on the Web.

As BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg puts it, “A few years ago there was a question of whether or not brands could be content creators.” Today, BuzzFeed’s business model is entirely fueled by branded content. Steinberg says in an email interview, “In social, only content works. Banner ads don’t flow.”

The good news is this surge in well-compensated writing opportunities is helping beleaguered journalists pay bills and fund passion projects.

The bad news is the brand publishing world has no universal set of ethical standards. There’s no Society of Professional Journalists for content marketing. Brands have motivations that sometimes conflict with the values of traditional journalism, putting reporters who work for them in a pickle.

Ask yourself: What would you do if a client asked you to scrub mentions of a competitor from a story? Or what if a brand wanted to hide the fact that it’s behind a piece of content it hired you to produce? Could your answer to either of these change if you worked on behalf of a corporation rather than a “neutral” news organization?

Fortunately, social media seems to ferret out and publicize the sketchiest publishing behavior, which encourages content purveyors to act with integrity. But best practices are not the same thing as ethics, and often the gray line is blurry.

Tips for handling brand content

So how should journalists evaluate “editorial” gigs coming their way from brands? Here are four ways.

Understand the differences between objective journalism and “brand content”

In a recent phone interview about the broader topics of journalism ethics, Bob Steele, Phyllis W. Nicholas Director of The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, said: “In many ways I think there is an inherent incompatibility between the principles that guide journalists and principles that guide information providers. I think that is what we have in this era, is a lot of information providers.”

As more journalists engage in producing content for brands, more are asking what to do when a client asks for something that makes a journalist uncomfortable.

The foundation of ethical publishing is honesty. “But accept the fact that [branded content]’s not journalism. It’s a very different animal,” said Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values.

At a traditional publication, a reporter essentially works for an index of advertisers and is unable to choose what sponsor’s message pays for her column. In content marketing, reporters often work on behalf of a single sponsor, which offers a degree of choice that can be refreshing. But because brand communications invite scrutiny, sponsored reporters ought to choose gigs from companies whose goals and values they feel comfortable with.

Make honesty the highest priority

SPJ defines journalism’s core ethical values as the following:

To seek the truth as fully as possible
To act independently
To seek to minimize harm
To be accountable

The American Society of News Editors ratifies similar principles: responsibility, vigilance, independence and truth. But it adds another: clearly identifying opinion from news. Every major publication or journalism organization seems to have some variation on these themes. Poynter’s include transparency, helpfulness, and interdependence. The New York Times Ethical Journalism Handbook urges transparency when a reporter’s background or relationships may pose a conflict of interest.

In a few cases, brand publishers have developed guidelines or are helmed by journalists. Scott Roen, vice president of digital at American Express (a Contently customer), says in an interview, “To be an effective journalist you must hold yourself to extremely high ethical guidelines. I don’t think there’s a difference in ethics as a brand journalist versus any other kind of journalist.”

At Contently, we’ve assembled our own Content Marketing Code of Ethics to answer some of these questions. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a starting point.

Never allow readers to be deceived

With the exception, perhaps, of independence, branded content ought to abide by the same principles as journalism: honesty and fairness, accountability and transparency. And because the goal of brand journalism is to create a favorable impression of a brand in order to further various business goals, disclosure must be added to its list of ethics principles.

Brands, and those commissioned by them, ought to hold themselves to higher standards of disclosure than their cousins in traditional media, where legal protections for communications are stronger.

It’s all about not deceiving readers. Brand publishers should make clear who is behind a piece of content and why. Journalists who write for brands need to ensure their clients understand the ethical reasons for such disclosure.

Disclose anything that resembles a conflict

The Internet and social media universe of content is replete with examples of journalists managing potential conflicts (Kara Swisher, for example). Without exception, those who manage to remain respected in their careers fully disclose their work history, relationships, and biases. It’s my opinion that this ought to be standard practice for all journalists, regardless of whether their personal lives include marriages to Google execs or side gigs shooting photos for American Airlines.

What about the careers of journalists who write for brands? Can a reporter do work on behalf of a brand on Monday, and file a story for The New York Times on Tuesday?

“Certainly in many cases past connections or jobs would not pose an insurmountable conflict for someone otherwise qualified,” says Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at The New York Times. “We can’t expect that someone would have adhered to all our rules when they weren’t working for us.”

On the other hand, he says, certain types of past experience — such as being an official corporate spokesperson — might pose too big a hurdle for certain jobs. “But I don’t think doing a corporate stint would preclude someone from a Times job in an unrelated area,” Corbett said.

Dialogue is necessary

This is just the start of a larger discussion that we need to have about ethics and the future of journalism.

As Lehrer scrambles to salvage his career and news organizations evaluate their relationship with Journatic, journalism itself must figure out its next move. New players and new forms are coming to the content industry. As journalists, we need to promote a framework for ethics in these new industries if we want to maintain the integrity of our craft. Read more

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How to use Urtak, a collaborative polling tool, to increase reader engagement

A week before Thanksgiving, conservative news site posted a story about whether retail stores should be open on the holiday. The post received more than 120,000 responses in less than two days, reaching 140,000 by the end of the month. This spike in reactions was 500 times the site’s norm, but it’s not the first time it’s happened.

A popular story on The Blaze will typically get anywhere between 200 to 800 comments, but the site’s editors have discovered a way to increase user engagement on some stories by orders of magnitude. The Blaze’s 140,000 Thanksgiving story responses weren’t comments; they were reader interactions sparked by an interactive polling tool called an Urtak. (The same story received 264 comments at last count.)

Urtak is not like other Q&A tools; it’s a social poll that grows as a community engages with it. The hook – and what makes Urtak different – is it lets readers ask each other questions.

“Significant audience engagement can be generated by empowering the reader and allowing them to do more than just take a poll,” said Mike Opelka, newsletter editor at TheBlaze, which has seen several stories crack 200,000 Urtak responses, with as many as 300 user-generated questions on one story. “They can shape the poll as well.”

Newsweek’s The Daily Beast and Colombia’s El Tiempo are among the other news sites that have also used Urtak to increase reader engagement. I talked with editors at these news sites about how to use Urtak’s free tool.

Creating and integrating an Urtak account

Creating a poll is easy. You choose a title and add one or more preliminary questions, and then the site generates a YouTube-style embed code that you can paste into your stories. There’s also a WordPress plugin, which allows users to automatically embed an Urtak after every post — or after posts of their choosing.

The tool works like a game of “20 Questions,” with a scrolling interface that shows users the community’s answers after each response. It allows only three types of answers to any question: “Yes,” “No” and “Don’t Care.”

The simple options may be convenient for people on a mobile device who don’t have time to comment, but this limitation prevents user-to-user interactions like you see in the comments sections of news stories. For that reason, many publishers opt to keep traditional commenting open below their stories’ Urtaks.

Choosing stories to Urtak

As with other Internet brand names-turned verbs, like “Facebook” and “Google,” “Urtak” is the name of the tool and the action. In Opelka’s newsroom, it has also become an adjective to describe a topic’s ability to inspire passionate responses: “Urtak-able.”

But, as Opelka pointed out via email, “Not every story [or] topic is right for polling of this kind.”

Brian Ries, social media editor of The Daily Beast, has found that small stories are likely to receive less Urtak participation than larger events or debates. Typically, he said, the types of stories that are less likely to receive comments are also less likely to receive high Urtak numbers. “We try [to] use Urtak around big events that can be assessed and debated from a variety of angles and policy points,” Ries said via email.

This is true at The Blaze, too. “We measure each opportunity for increasing engagement and try to fit the right tool to each situation,” Opelka said. “We look to Urtak for added engagement of our audience –beyond simple commenting — on issues they typically follow [like] religion, small government, government intervention/regulation, Second Amendment right, etc.”

News sites typically seed Urtaks with several questions to get the Q&A conversation rolling. The Daily Beast’s Urtak for its State Of The Union 2011 coverage, for example, resulted in 26,460 responses to about 36 questions.

Placing for impact

Online readers’ attention is often split many ways, between multi-tasking and viewing pages with content and ads fighting each other for space. As with any form of content, the more prominently an Urtak is placed, the more likely it is to receive responses.

Many news sites place Urtak polls at the bottom of posts, above the comments section (or in some cases, in place of comments) and use it to gauge user reactions. Others make the Urtak poll the focus of the story itself. Still others place Urtak off to the side as a widget in another column.

One key difference between Urtak and traditional forms of user commenting and engagement is the same Urtak can be placed across multiple stories or media.

For its State of the Union 2011 Urtak, The Daily Beast embedded the same poll across “all relevant content on the site,” Ries said. “This included our wrap page, which featured all our stories & videos related to the Address, as well as on individual stories, often embedded within the articles themselves or at the end. Additionally, we had it on both Newsweek & The Daily Beast’s Facebook pages, set as the landing tab by default, so anyone visiting, for instance, would see the poll first thing upon arriving at the Facebook page.”

Gleaning user insight

Urtak owners can choose to moderate questions before users can see them; however, they may opt to let “the community” decide if a question stays.

As polls start to take shape, and user questions and responses come in, owners can explore results, which are displayed graphically and numerically. The “Yes/No” nature of the polls make Urtak results easily quantifiable.

One of The Daily Beast’s Urtaks on the U.S. national debt revealed “an early indicator of the Occupy sentiment,” Ries said. “99 percent of respondents said they agreed more people who committed financial scams should be held accountable.”

Urtak owners can cross-tabulate responses, revealing insights about the makeup of their readership. Drilling down, one can see how many responders who chose one specific answer were likely to respond one way or another to other questions.

Reader engagement is the lifeblood of an online news site. While social polling tools like Urtak may not help news organizations grow audiences in the same way distribution tools like Twitter and Facebook do, Urtak can help keep readers stay on stories longer and in a more focused way. That kind of engagement can spur a virtuous cycle of retention.

“The average person just wants to be heard – that’s why so many people like to post comments online,” Opelka said. “Urtak takes this a step further and allows our audience to also write a question and poll the audience as well. That is empowering.” Read more


7 steps for building an effective community management plan

The growth of social media in newsrooms has sparked the need for community managers — people who are responsible for regularly interacting with a site’s audience and executing a community growth strategy.

The challenge with a new profession like community management is the lack of a template to follow when getting started. Every community is different, but the following seven steps will help you kickstart a community management plan:

Define community goals

Community management starts with goal-setting. What do you want to accomplish? Are you doing this just because everyone else is? Or do you have a vision of what success looks like?

“Goals vary from brand to brand, but I always keep a few things in mind,” said Emily Miethner, community manager for and co-founder of NY Creative Interns. “Connect[ing] members of the community to each other to ‘magnify the mania’; spotlighting folks who are your biggest brand advocates and giving them the tools to get involved and feel like a bigger part of the community; and usually the overall goal is to drive traffic to a website.”

Begin with the end in mind before brainstorming tactics. As you measure and monitor the success of your approach, you will likely end up changing methods. Clearly defined goals will aid in this optimization process. Your goals might include the following:

  • Generating buzz around your name; getting people talking about the brand
  • Building up followers on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or your blog
  • Building up an email subscriber list
  • Building a more loyal audience
  • Increasing the reach of your content
  • Increasing the amount of time spent on your site

Profile your target community

Knowing your audience is essential; it’s Marketing 101. You can’t build a community if you don’t know who you want in it.

Brainstorm all of the different types of people who may be a part of your audience, then explore what makes them tick. What are their problems, passions, motivations and desires? What are their work habits? Their Web browsing habits? What’s on their reading list, and where will you fit in?

Write these user profiles down, updating them often as you prove or disprove your assumptions about your audience.

Identify influencers

What’s easier: getting 500 people to pay attention to you, or attracting one person with 500 friends who listen to that person’s every word? This is the idea behind influencer identification: find the people with loyal followers, and get their attention.

Take a deep dive into your target community and identify who it listens to, who holds sway, and who has the most followers.

Two useful tools for identifying social media-ites with large followings in your industry are and Social leaderboards such as and are also good resources for finding influencers.

Next, you’ve got to create content that these influencers will be likely to share.

Create social media-friendly content

Content is the backbone of community management. Communities rally around content, whether it’s short- or long-form.

“Without content, social media is a sports car with an empty gas tank: All show, no go,” writes Joe Chernov of the Content Marketing Institute.

Rather than simply promote your content via social media, help readers see how they can relate to, or learn from, the content you’re sharing. In the following tweet, Facebook’s Vadim Lavrusik links to a useful article on a publication that is not his own (The New York Times), and then adds a comment linking to a relevant example, a Facebook Group he participates in.

Nielsen research shows that consumers trust content more than advertisements; however, when your content starts looking like ads, communities flee.

A community management plan should include strategies for sharing content on multiple platforms. This doesn’t necessarily mean creating more content. Tumblr and Twitter are great for regurgitating useful content, such as reposting excerpts from your blog or linking to content on other industry sites that your readers will find useful.

The idea is to create resources that will cause readers to trust you and think of your brand the next time they think about your industry.

Optimize content for sharing

Part of a community manager’s job should be to ensure that content is optimized for social media. Consider these questions:

  • Are sharing buttons placed on every post or article?
  • Are tweets short enough that followers can retweet them with your name?
  • Do pages include strong calls to action for sharing content?
  • Are headlines powerful and shareable on their own?
  • Is content interesting enough to share?

Many of these initiatives fall upon other departments — developer and writers, for example — to execute. But the community manager should audit and oversee the process.

Put a plan into place that will help you and other staffers continuously improve the shareability of your site’s content. Remove any barriers to sharing, so your community can spread your content as easily as possible.

Create interaction guidelines

What happens when someone posts an inflammatory comment on your site? How should you resolve user complaints blasted out on Twitter? Will you use only formal language when communicating with your Facebook audience? Are emoticons, Web slang and un-capitalization OK?

Every community management plan should include a guide for interacting with readers and users. The details of this plan should align with your news site’s overall community goals and style guide. The plan may be driven by your news site’s social media guidelines, but community managers ought to standardize their own practices, for consistency and future reference. Guidelines might include how to respond to complaints, how to respond to @replies, and what kinds of things you will retweet.

Planning for every scenario is time-consuming, but necessary. Community managers should keep an ongoing list of policies on interaction as new scenarios arise. That way you can maintain consistency that users can expect and trust.

“So much of community management is just being a good person and liking to be open and liking people and connecting with them,” Meghan Peters, community manager for Mashable, said in a phone interview. “Having that mentality and making sure everyone in your organization is open to that is really key.”

Monitor the community, then improve

“For me a big part of being a community manager is being Mashable’s number one fan and helping other people understand why they should also be a Mashable fan,” Peters said. “That should be paired with being an advocate for readers as well. I’m always listening to readers and trying to improve.”

Listening may be the most important part of community management. Plan to keep a finger on the pulse, using Google Alerts or Twitter monitoring tools such as HootSuite, TweetDeck, and Postling. Gathering community input for future product development is one of Jeremiah Owyang’s “Four Tenets of the Community Manager.” Whether the product is content or a good or service, social media is a great place to get insight into how a company is doing.

“The opportunity to build better products and services through this real-time live focus group are ripe,” Owyang writes. “In many cases, customer communities have been waiting for a chance to give feedback.”

Measurement is essential to any community management plan. Track which tactics work best, then pour more energy into them. Without monitoring analytics and social mentions, optimization is guesswork at most.

As the cliche goes, failure to plan leads to failure itself. This is true in community management as well as any other aspect of publishing. Start with your overall objectives, create content for your audience and listen as your community grows. Read more