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.)

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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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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