Why The New York Times replaced its Twitter ‘cyborg’ with people this week

The New York Times is turning off the automatic feed for its main Twitter account this week in an experiment to determine if a human-run, interactive approach will be more effective.

Social media editors Liz Heron and Lexi Mainland are taking turns running the @nytimes account during weekday business hours, hand-picking and writing the tweets and engaging with readers.

What you’ll see: “@” replies conversing with users, retweets of non-Times accounts and more engagement opportunities for followers. (My Storify below has examples.)

The Times introduces human-powered tweeting on Monday morning.

It’s a departure from the normal “cyborg” approach, Heron told me, which combines an automated headline-and-a-link feed of homepage stories with occasional contributions from the social media editors. That combination has created a bad perception: “that it’s mostly an RSS feed of auto headlines,” Heron said.

This week’s experiment “is about changing the perception, and it’s about being a little more strategic about what we put out there — finding the most engaging content.”

By calling this an “experiment,” the Times is implying that the outcome is yet unknown. I’d say it’s really more of a demonstration: an effort by the social media staff to prove to the rest of the newsroom that the paper’s main Twitter feed deserves additional resources to maintain this human-driven, personal approach.

Full-time, human hosting of a brand’s main Twitter account is unquestionably a better approach, said Zach Seward, the main voice behind The Wall Street Journal’s @WSJ account.

The @WSJ account has been run by people since January 2010, Seward said. “The metrics went up considerably and almost immediately after switching from automated to personal. We’ve seen the same effect with several other accounts.”

“What we’ve seen by measuring it closely,” he said, “is that human-powered feeds do much, much better than automated ones, by any relevant metric.”

I think the real challenge for Heron and her colleagues is not determining whether the human approach is better (it is), but convincing management that it is substantially better and important enough to convert another staff position to the social media team.

Liz Heron is a social media editor at The New York Times.

“There was nothing stopping us from doing this before, but it wasn’t a huge part of our strategy,” Heron said. “We don’t have a staff in place to have someone on the main Twitter account full-time.”

The New York Times social media team consists of social media editors Heron and Mainland, and Sasha Koren, the deputy editor of interactive news for social media and community. It’s a busy group.

Koren’s job also includes comments and other online community building and interactive projects, while Heron and Mainland also follow the news of the day on social media platforms, do a lot of training, and work to integrate social media with the newsroom’s big projects. Full-time human management of @nytimes would likely take another body.

“We have a lot on our plate,” Heron said.

News organizations need to invest

Social networking is now so fundamental to online news that news organizations can’t afford to be shorthanded in their efforts. The Times, for example, not only has 3.2 million Twitter followers to convert into site visitors, but it also has a world of sources to curate, content contributors to mobilize, and subscribers to respond to.

And that’s before they even get to Facebook and other networks that deserve attention.

“I think media companies, including ours, have struggled with that part,” said Martin Beck, reader engagement editor at the Los Angeles Times. “We’re bombarded with input and feedback, and you need someone on it full-time to manage it.”

Beck has one assistant to help him monitor social media, as well as an ombudsman and a customer service staffer who pitch in. But he also has a team of 20 to 25 copy editors who take care of posting news to Twitter throughout the day and evening.

These “Twitter eds,” as they’re called, are a “self-selected volunteer group,” Beck said. It works out to at least one or two people on duty to tweet at any given time.

The Wall Street Journal will invest more in its social media team in the new fiscal year starting in July, Seward said.

Adequate social media staffing is important because it means the difference between an automated feed of headlines that users don’t respond to, or a customized approach that encourages an engaged, online community.

@WSJ responds to a question on Twitter about the number of people injured in a factory explosion in China.

The payoff in goodwill can be impressive, Seward told me. He or other staff almost constantly monitor mentions of @WSJ and reply to factual questions that they can answer — such as what an IPO is or why a particular stock is down.

It tends to be “extremely well received,” he said, because people aren’t expecting a reply from a large, faceless institution. Some readers respond that they are going to renew their Journal subscriptions because of such attentiveness, Seward said.

The future for @nytimes

The New York Times will keep up its human-driven approach through Friday. Heron said she doubts they will decide anything at the end of the week. It’s going to take some more discussion and poring over the numbers of replies, retweets, link clickthroughs and general feedback, she said.

In the meantime, the half-automated “cyborg” approach is still “completely valid” if they need to go back to it for a while, Heron said. (Times developer Jacob Harris still has a soft spot for it.)

But I hope after the Times and its readers see this week’s improvement, it will be hard to go back to the cyborg.

Here is what Heron told me we’ll see from @nytimes this week, and some examples I picked from Monday.

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    Ok, I’m a little ‘bit late, but I must say that this is a tremendous insight into how the field of communications is evolving and a good example of what a great org. can do to change how you compare with other people. IMHO very interesting and important.
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  • http://twitter.com/Franklin_Erder Franklin Erder

    Ok, I’m a tad bit late but nevertheless, I have to say this is a great insight on how the communication field is evolving and a good example of how a big org. can change the way it meets with people. Very interesting IMHO.

  • http://twitter.com/Franklin_Erder Franklin Erder

    Ok, I’m a tad bit late but nevertheless, I have to say this is a great insight on how the communication field is evolving and a good example of what a big orgs. can do to change the way it meets with people. Very interesting and remarkable IMHO.

  • Anonymous

    If you are looking for a place to make sure you are on top of the latest buzz around social media and mobile technology social media news can helps you in your success

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.kemble Gary Kemble

    At the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) we moved our Twitter account (http://twitter.com/abcnews) off the feed about 18 months ago and it has been hugely popular. It’s now Australia’s leading news Twitter account.

    We’ve integrated our tweets so that the senior producers who are in charge of the ABC News website are also the ones deciding which stories to tweet.

    Our morning producer starts the day with a ‘good morning’, which has proved really popular and shows that you can give a human touch to ‘brand’ accounts.

  • http://twitter.com/jepotts Jonathan Potts

    The difference is that Google, Netflix and Amazon use algorhythms that take into account your previous purchases, searches, etc. An automatic Twitter feed just blasts links to followers regardless of their interests. It’s neither interactive nor individualized, and eventually people realize it has little value.

  • http://borasky-research.net/2011/01/13/project-kipling-alpha-test-is-now-in-suse-studio-ddj-datajourno/ znmeb

    I think the Huffington Post’s automated technology for blog post comment moderation / analysis is way ahead of two humans using Twitter at the scale where a publication like the NY Times or Wall Street Journal operates. People may say they prefer humans to robots, but they make purchasing decisions using Google, watch movies from Netflix and buy books and music from Amazon that robots recommend.

    Yes, having human conversations on Twitter is better than simply spewing out headline-plus-link tweets. But they’ll get lost in the noise.

  • http://buysteroidsuk.blog.co.uk/ buy steroids uk

    odd that twitter is creating jobs for real people.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing that, Violet. Very useful information.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2544092 Violet Mae Lim

    It’s great to see news orgs experimenting with a human touch.

    As encouragement to the news orgs who are testing and experimenting, I can attest that the human touch really works and is well worth the effort. I used to run the Twitter account for Yahoo! News; prior, it ran off a feed for 2 years. As soon as we took the feed off (March 2010), labeled our account “100% RSS feed free” and our followers shot up and they are continuing to grow. The account organically grew from 4k followers to nearly 90k in a year. People began replying to us and RT’ing our tweets and our analytics show that clicks back to the site grew exponentially compared to when it was running off a feed.

    It’s the combination of real-time breaking news and the touch of
    curation that really hits the sweet spot.

  • http://interimtom.blogspot.com crowdedfalafel

    That the Times is not sure humans will yield meaningfully different outcomes from cyborgs pretty much tells us everything we already knew about The New York Times.

  • Anonymous

    That’s a fair point. In this case I’d say the social media editors are pretty good at using their 140 characters.

  • Anonymous

    Whether or not this improves things will depend on how personally engaging those writers are. Are they the best at charming people in 140 characters? Papers too often give these gigs to people with tech cred, when you only need the technical ability to type instead. 

    As well, may I just say how much I loathe “What do you want to see?” It screams “we have no basic strategy here and require your a priori engagement in order to craft one before we begin to offer you anything of interest.”

  • Anonymous

    Whether or not this improves things will depend on how personally engaging those writers are. Are they the best at charming people in 140 characters? Papers too often give these gigs to people with tech cred, when you only need the technical ability to type instead. 

    As well, may I just say how much I loathe “What do you want to see?” It screams “we have no basic strategy here and require your a priori engagement in order to craft one before we begin to offer you anything of interest.”

  • Anonymous

    Whether or not this improves things will depend on how personally engaging those writers are. Are they the best at charming people in 140 characters? Papers too often give these gigs to people with tech cred, when you only need the technical ability to type instead. 

    As well, may I just say how much I loathe “What do you want to see?” It screams “we have no basic strategy here and require your a priori engagement in order to craft one before we begin to offer you anything of interest.”

  • http://clark.cx Pete Clark

    I can understand smaller organisations using a tweeting autobot, but surely the NYTimes has the resources to use full-time humans? If it’s a case of not wanting to pay someone to sit there tweeting all day why not just use a tweet scheduler like @bufferapp?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1671505155 March Dartnail

    Clearly, which is the first indication as to why the Times wouldn’t have started with this tactic, humans are masters of “matching” what some call, relevance, sure cyborgs can spot keywords, even mild sentence context, however for power of ten “arc” relevance, humans, especially if you pay them, will create the engagement necessary to exploit the vertical archive to enable post relevant connections between what’s considered the contemporary present and it’s complimentary, the contemporary past, linked through access.