Charles Duhigg and David Barboza’s chat about poor working conditions at high-tech device manufacturers was the latest instance of the Times extending Facebook users direct access to its journalists.
Social Media Editor Liz Heron told me she considers Facebook live chats a successful experiment that helps the Times serve its nearly 2 million fans. I’d also add that this has other strategic benefits. Facebook’s news feed is more likely to highlight posts from people or pages a user has engaged with in the past. So getting people to post hundreds of comments on a live chat today makes them more likely to see your breaking news links tomorrow.
Heron cautioned, however, that Facebook chats are not the best format for every scenario.
The Times still uses a traditional website-based Q&A for some more complicated topics, like the launch of digital subscriptions last year. That format allows longer questions and answers, Heron said, with more time for the journalist to deliberate and write a nuanced answer. Those forums often develop over multiple days.
The Facebook chats, by contrast, are designed to be short but highly engaging. One surprising lesson the Times learned is that these chats sometimes can be too engaging, Heron said. In May, politics writer Michael Shear did a chat about the political implications of Osama bin Laden’s killing. The topic drew an almost overwhelming number of comments, more than 500, compared to about 150 during a typical Facebook chat.
But the process went smoothly on all other occasions, she said. I talked more with Heron about what she and the Times have learned about conducting a successful live chat through Facebook. Here are the important steps.
1. Publicize in advance. Publish a blog post the day before letting readers know about the chat, and share that on Facebook and Twitter.
2. Give readers a head start. Create the Facebook post for the chat about 10 minutes in advance, to let people know it’s beginning and start collecting questions.
3. Say hello. As the host, join in with a comment introducing yourself and letting readers know you’re about to begin responding.
4. Answer questions. Select the best questions to answer one at a time, addressing the questioner by name in the response. There may be many comments, and you often won’t be answering each right away, so try to be clear which one you are addressing.
5. Build ongoing relationships. If you allow public subscribers to your own Facebook posts, take the opportunity during the chat to encourage chat participants to subscribe.
6. Moderate the thread. Have a moderator police the comments to delete objectionable or off-topic ones. It may help to declare your moderation policy early in the chat.
7. Wrap it up cleanly. Let readers know when the chat concludes, or when you are taking the final question. The Times limits Facebook chats to one hour.
8. Summarize and share. After the chat, capture the questions-and-answer exchanges in a Storify and embed it back on the website so other readers and non-Facebook users can catch up.
Related: The Huffington Post’s extreme Facebook engagement from live quotes on the State of the Union speech (Zombie Journalism) || Earlier: NYT journalists held Q&A “office hours” on Quora last year (Poynter)