January 24, 2012

Upon his return to “This Week” earlier this month, George Stephanopoulos introduced a new feature that’s expected to become a staple of the show. “Your Voice This Week” uses Twitter and search trends to tell the political story of the week, and it’s the latest example of how ABC News is using social media to both inform its reporting and build its audience.

“This segment will be a weekly look at how the online community is lending their voice to the political conversation and what that means for the candidates,” said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC News’ “This Week” and senior executive producer for ABC News. “Politics is inherently an area where people want to share their thoughts and opinions and Facebook and Twitter provide a unique layer to the larger conversation.”

All of the major networks are using social media in new and interesting ways. But social media data show that ABC News is doing a particularly good job building a following.

Experimenting is a ‘main focus of our strategy’

Joe Ruffolo, senior vice president of ABC News Digital, said Stephanopoulos and Terry Moran are two of the top five network/cable TV journalists on Twitter (based on number of followers), while “Good Morning America” and “Nightline” are in the top five TV show accounts on Twitter. “Good Morning America” has one of the top followings on Google+ and Facebook, and two of the top five local TV stations on Twitter are ABC affiliates — KGO-TV in San Francisco and KABC-TV in Los Angeles.

In the last six months, Facebook referrals to ABCNews.com were up 111 percent, while referrals from Twitter were up 163 percent.

ABC News’ partnership with Yahoo has helped the network expand its online reach, Ruffolo said. And so has an openness to launching new projects that rely on social media — such as “Your Voice This Week” and ABC’s new OTUS News site, which features a stock market-style ticker for evaluating candidates based on data that’s derived from pundits’ analysis and social sentiment that Bluefin Labs culls from search trends, Twitter and Facebook.

The main focus of ABC News’ social media strategy, Ruffolo said by phone, is to experiment “because that’s the only way we can learn.”

“The market is continuing to grow and shift — there are new entrants, new user expectations, new technologies — and we have to continue to try new things just to stay current, but also to learn how to optimize ABC News experiences going forward,” Ruffolo said. “We’ve tried a lot of things, from increased involvement from on-air correspondents, to sweepstakes, to breaking news information, to polls, and feedback.”

Approaching social media as a shared responsibility

Since last summer, ABC News’ social media team has held 12 two-hour training sessions. While the sessions aren’t mandatory, they’ve attracted hundreds of ABC News employees, including desk assistants, anchors and network executives.

During the training sessions, staffers learn how to use social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and have discussions about why these sites are important and how they can best use them. The training is reflective of ABC’s new slogan, “see the whole picture,’’ which is aimed at broadening the definition of what ABC News’ journalists do. Ruffolo said training has helped show that social media is a shared responsibility and that an entire network can’t thrive on a social media team alone.

“The most important thing it does is take a buzz word like ‘social’ and turn it into something actionable and definable, which in turn, gives us greater focus and helps ensure our social efforts are consistent with our brand and overall strategy,” Ruffolo said. “I also believe it empowers everyone to be part of the digital experience … which helps us deliver an even better ABC News product to our users ‘1440 minutes’ a day.”

ABC News’ centralized social media team, which consists of three people, is responsible for developing new strategies, general account maintenance and keeping track of new opportunities and platforms. They also help test the effectiveness of social media features on ABCNews.com, and have learned that breaking news stories tend to work best on Twitter, while evergreen stories work best on Facebook.

In addition to the network’s centralized team, each show has a social media producer who oversees their show’s account and implements new strategies. Having social media editors for each show, Ruffolo said, helps the network respond to the different needs of each show’s audience. The audience for “Nightline,” for instance, is especially active on Twitter, and the “Good Morning America” audience is active on both Facebook and Twitter.

Driving up numbers, creating more engagement

In April 2010, ABC News’ Facebook page had 32,000 fans. Now, it has about 383,000 fans. Similarly, the “Good Morning America” Facebook page has gone from 22,000 to 520,000 fans in the same time period.

“Good Morning America” Facebook fans has been largely aided by social media contests. Last year, for instance, the show launched sweepstakes for a trip to Disney’s new resort in Hawaii, an all-expense-paid trip to see “The Lion King” on Broadway, and a trip to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. The promos for the contests advise people to enter for a chance to win by “Liking” the “Good Morning America” Facebook page.

Other news organizations, including NBC and CBS affiliates, have also experimented with similar contests, which can come across as inauthentic ways of growing social media numbers. While there’s little doubt that contests attract likes, they don’t always lead to conversation or more traffic. The success of a site’s social media efforts should be based not just on numbers but on engagement.

This is partly why ABC News has made a greater push to get the network’s journalists on social networking sites. This gives people direct access to journalists, Ruffolo said, and it can also create a humanizing effect.

Last summer, Diane Sawyer made headlines when she started using Twitter. The timing coincided with her Jaycee Dugard interview, which she tweeted highlights from as it aired. The interview helped her gain about 10,000 followers. Her tweets typically have a conversational tone, and she sometimes responds to followers, as she did during the Dugard interview.

More and more, ABC News is seeing people reach out directly to reporters on social networks.

“When people have questions about articles, savvy Twitter users will directly address our reporters, many of whom have Twitter accounts posted right on their articles,” John Shehata, director of search and social media, said via email. “Our staff is very active on the network and will usually reply to clarify things. We also try our best to engage with users by thanking them for retweets, correcting misinformation, replying to questions and moderating comments.”

The key, he said, is not just pushing out content, but giving users a reason to care about it.

“When it comes to content, be selective and interesting. Don’t just promote your work, show your personal side as well. Let users be involved in your work, ask them questions, collect questions for guest interviews, etc.,” Shehata said. “Always try what’s new on social platforms. Get involved in up-and-coming social networks if your brand feels like it could work well there, even if the audience does not exist yet. If the new initiative does not take off, you tried. If it does, you were a groundbreaker.”

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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