5 small steps journalists can take to build a bigger, more engaged audience

Traffic on news sites isn’t just about page views and unique visits; it’s about people. To build an audience, you have to engage with your site’s users and develop strategies to help you maintain your current audience and attract new audiences, by giving them reasons to keep coming back.

Over the past year, I’ve taken small steps to drive traffic to Poynter.org and have found that they’ve made a big difference. I’ve listed the steps below, with additional ones from NPR’s Matt Thompson, The Huffington Post’s Mandy Jenkins, Facebook’s Vadim Lavrusik and the Associated Press’ Oskar Garcia.

Let sources know about your story, ask them to share it

After you write a story, send it to the people you interviewed and ask them to post it on Twitter, Facebook and wherever else they’d like to share it.

If you’ve interviewed people with a meaningful Twitter presence who regularly engage with their followers, then the story’s much more likely to get in front of an audience who will care about it.

I was reminded of this a couple of months ago after I wrote a story about how news organizations are using maps as explainers. The story wasn’t getting much traction among our traditional audience of journalists, but that changed after I sent it to my source at Google Maps. He tweeted it from the Google and Google Maps accounts — which have about 3.3 million followers combined. With these two tweets, Google helped us get the story in front of people who may not have otherwise seen it.

Include names of sources in tweets and Facebook updates.

If your sources are on Twitter, include their Twitter handles in tweets about your story. This is another way of encouraging your sources to tweet a link to the story or retweet your tweet about it.

Similarly, when posting stories to Facebook, mention sources’ names in your update. The update will then appear on the person’s Facebook page, increasing the chance that your story will reach their audiences. (You have to be Facebook friends with sources, or “Like” their fan pages, for this to work.)

In addition to including sources in my tweets, I sometimes include people who I haven’t interviewed but who I think would be interested in a story. Recently, when tweeting a link to a Poynter.org chat about how journalists can use Tumblr to expand their brand, I cc’d Tumblr’s Mark Coatney on the tweet. He hadn’t been interviewed for the story, but I wanted him to be part of the discussion. He ended up retweeting my tweet and joining the chat.

If other news sites have reported on the topic you’ve covered, link to their work and let them know you’ve done so in a tweet.

Before writing a story, check and see who else has written about the topic. If you find related stories that were especially well-done, link to them in your story. You can then include those news sites in a tweet about your piece, letting them know that you’ve linked to their work.

When writing a recent story about the “Fracking Song,” I realized that several large news organizations had also written about it. Hoping to spread the word about it, I included The New York Times, Forbes, The Huffington Post and Boing Boing in a tweet with a link to my own story. (Another option would have been to include the names of the writers of the pieces.)

This doesn’t guarantee that the news sites or people you’re including in your tweet will retweet a link to your story, but it increases the likelihood that they will. And it helps get your story in front of people who are already interested in the topic.

Comment on stories that have been written about the topic, and include a link to your story.

If you’ve written a story about a topic that other news sites have already covered, find those stories and comment on them with a link to your piece. This works especially well if the stories you’re commenting on are generating a lot of traffic and discussion. To avoid self-promotion, be deliberate about your approach. Acknowledge the other site’s work and try to advance the discussion that’s already taking place there.

After New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane wrote about the Times’ coverage of a rape in Cleveland, Texas, my editor posted a link there to a related story we had just published. She was the ninth person out of hundreds to comment on the post.

“I’m glad to see you weigh in on this,” she wrote. “Poynter published a story about an hour ago that deconstructs the differences in how the New York Times story handled the young girl’s rape and how the Houston Chronicle handled it.”

Shortly after she posted the link, we saw a significant increase in traffic to the story — and hopefully gained some new readers in the process. We also realized that people who read ombud columns are an important new audience for Poynter.org’s media coverage. So we are now working on additional, systematic ways to stay in front of those readers.

Tweet follow-ups that help advance the discussion about your story.

Just because you’ve tweeted a story once doesn’t mean you can’t tweet it again later in the day, especially if the story has been updated. To avoid repetition, write the second tweet differently and think about how you can reflect the discussion about your story.

Pull an interesting quote from the story and ask people for their response. Or, if there’s a particularly thoughtful discussion taking place in the comments section, point readers to it and ask them to weigh in.

Sites such as WhenToTweet.com analyze the time of day your Twitter followers are most active. You can also check TweetReach.com and your URL shortening service to see how your tweets do at different times of the day and figure out when might be a good time to send that second tweet.

Thompson, Jenkins, Lavrusik and Garcia sent me some additional thoughts via email. Here are their tips, which have been edited for brevity.

Be precise, personal in identifying and contacting potential readers

For individual stories, ask yourself, “Who should know about this story?” Don’t incessantly email the same people all your stories; be thoughtful about who you think would genuinely find them interesting. —Matt Thompson

Find out where your topic’s audience is online — maybe it’s a blog, message board, niche site or Facebook Page — and share your story there. It really helps if you’ve been involved in the community before sending your links, as you don’t want to look like some spammer. —Mandy Jenkins

Don’t be spammy or automate. … If you are sending a story to people, only send it to the people that you know will be interested in the story and have some thoughts on it. But more importantly, if you are sharing to a specific platform, think about what kind of language works well on that platform. —Vadim Lavrusik

Personalize the message when sharing it with an individual. Sometimes sending an individual message to one person can be more effective than broadcasting it out to a lot of people into the noise because you’re sending it to a person who cares deeply about the subject and may have a network of people who do just as well. Vadim Lavrusik

Engage with others on your beat

Connect with bloggers and other reporters who cover your same beat. Establish a relationship where it works for you to cross-link sites on related stories. Mandy Jenkins

Build rapport with key tweeps in areas you tweet about, whether it’s sources or others who share a lot with their own sets of active followers. You can do this through mentions, direct messaging, or even offline conversations by phone or in person. That way, when you have something important to say, you can count on them to listen and pass your message and story along. —Oskar Garcia

Be engaged in the conversation around your beat. Is there a Twitter chat or a hashtag around your beat that’s well-used? Join in the fun. Are there other sites discussing related stories that have amassed a good crowd? Make sure they know your name. Matt Thompson

Don’t expect immediate payoff without putting in work up-front. Without solid credibility on social networks, you can tweet or post until your fingers hurt and still not get anyone to click your links or pass them along. Spend some time building your following and making it so that when you post something, someone somewhere will be watching. —Oskar Garcia

Use social media optimization to build an audience

Make sure your work is easily shared. Does your website have easily-found buttons for sharing your story via social media and email? If not, fix that first. —Mandy Jenkins

Target the distribution. … So, for example, if you’re promoting a story about a specific region and you want to share it with your Facebook community on your Page, you can customize the distribution so that the update only shows up to people in a specific region or who speak a specific language. —Vadim Lavrusik

Remember SEO tips on social media. Think about how readers might search Twitter for information on this topic and write your tweet accordingly. Use the keywords from your story in your tweets and be sure to include any hashtags already being used on other tweets on the topic. Don’t promote your story with a blind tweet like, “Just finished this story for @publicationame” or “Here’s today’s story.” Mandy Jenkins

If a topic related to your story is trending, be sure to include the proper, popular hashtag as part of your tweet. If you don’t like the tag that’s gained traction, don’t try to fight it. Go along with it, unless it’s wrong for some reason, to make sure folks will see your tweets as they follow along. This will get your story to people who aren’t following you, but are seeking information about that topic. Oskar Garcia

Make your headlines as compelling as you can. Why is your story worth reading? What does it reveal or illuminate? Does the headline successfully impart these promises? Even out of context? Yesterday, Nate Silver tweeted the headline, “The Simple Case for Taking Herman Cain Seriously.” That was an arresting hook, and sure enough, I clicked. —Matt Thompson

Measure what you value

Finally, to measure the success of all these steps, look at audience metrics through the services you use (we rely on Google Analytics and Chartbeat) for information about your traffic and how your audience finds you.

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  • Delphine Andrews

    Thanks for this post! I am part of a multimedia news team, poweringanation.org, that is staffed by UNC students. I am the marketing director for the site. Since we are rather small, it has been a challenge trying to expand our audience. We do have a twitter account, and are very active on that. Another way we have been trying to build an audience is through our blog. Most journalist keep the process of story development a secret and just show the final product. We are trying to take our audience through the process with us and blog as we go along. I think transparency can be a great way to build an audience. This is something we have never tried before and are sort of figuring it out along the way. But so far so good. Hopefully it will peak people’s interest and build excitement around our 2011 Special Report – Coal: A Love Story that is due to launch at the end of July. 

  • Anonymous

    How about when listing # steps to take for [goal], actually number said steps?

  • http://twitter.com/femisobowale Femi Sobowale

    Hi,
    Thanks a million for the hints.  Keep up the good job.  Cheers.

  • http://twitter.com/femisobowale Femi Sobowale

    Hi,
    Thanks a million for those tips. Keep up the good job.  Cheers.

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  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks for the feedback,@edwalker86:disqus. That’s a great tip. I try to do that, too, but sometimes find that I don’t have enough room to include both the reporter’s and sources’ Twitter handles. If that’s the case, I usually just include the sources’ handles and then make sure to ask the reporter to tweet a link to the story from his or her personal account.

    ~Mallary

  • Anonymous

    Good post and some excellent tips. I’d also include, if you’re the one responsible for maintaining a news organisations Twitter feed to include the Twitter name of the reporter who wrote the story. For example “New protests over fracking plans for South Wales, @peterjohnlaw reports: xxx”. This helps people to know he is the reporter on this story, and if they regularly see the reporter attached to specific stories e.g. crime, they get to know their area or beat and engage with them or offer them a tip-off.

  • http://vernacularninja.com Vernacular Ninja

    Excellent, excellent, excellent.

    Refreshing to see practical, tested advice on approaching real-time social conversation … especially from the non-marketing/social consultant sandbox.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    It’s a little confusing because of the subheads, but “5 steps” refers to the five steps I wrote about before listing the tips from others.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.facebook.com/myfbprofile Vaughn Hagerty

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but I sorta count nine steps …