In late September, the team at Vox.com was faced with an interesting challenge: How to make simple facts about Ebola spread faster than alarmist misinformation?
They had an article explaining how the virus spread but weren’t sure of the best way to promote it on social media. So they mulled the problem over in one of the startup’s kitchens over some string cheese.
Finally, they settled on a simple flowchart with one question and one answer. “Have you touched the vomit, blood, sweat, saliva, urine, or feces of someone who might have Ebola? No. You do not have Ebola.”
The graphic was concise, punchy and answered an urgent question about a major news event. It was shared more than 58,000 times and racked up nearly 9,000 likes.
“What really worked about this graphic was it took all of the reporting that we had done and simplified it,” said Allison Rockey, the engagement editor at Vox.com.
Like Rockey, every engagement editor at each of Vox Media’s brands has developed a slightly different approach to publishing still images and video on social media. Poynter caught up with them to report back on the strategies that drive engagement on various platforms.
1. Follow the 3-second rule
The Ebola image also passes one of the basic litmus tests for visuals at Vox.com: Can the graphic be understood in less than three seconds? If it can, staffers have an inkling that they’re onto something. But if the image takes too long to parse, that might be an indicator that it needs more work.
2. Don’t be a tease
This emphasis on comprehension fits within Vox.com’s overall strategy when creating images for social media, too. Instead of plastering Twitter, Facebook and other platforms with images that tease readers, staffers try to provide the audience with everything they need to know in one post, Rockey said. Vox readers are more likely to share these comprehensive posts with their friends because they generally want to be seen as savvy, informed news consumers.
“That’s something that kind of breaks the general convention that shorter is always better on social,” Rockey said. “We find giving people a complete experience on the platform tends to be what’s most successful for us.”
3. Hone your voice
If there’s an total opposite to Vox.com’s straightforward voice on Twitter, it might be the site’s sister sports brand, SB Nation. Some sample tweets:
— SB Nation (@SBNation) May 5, 2015
— SB Nation (@SBNation) May 5, 2015
— SB Nation (@SBNation) May 5, 2015
This insouciant tone isn’t an accident, said Michael Katz, the engagement editor of SB Nation. The publication has crafted an enthusiastic voice emphasizing the celebration of sports, a message evinced by the content it shares.
A typical SB Nation post is informal, fun and raw. Often times, the publication will share screen shots and Vines taken directly from the highlight reel or slow-motion replay because that unvarnished content is exactly what fans want to see while they’re watching a game. SB Nation audience members have precious moments during commercial breaks or between huddles, so they want to know exactly what they’re getting into before they tap a link.
“Because a lot of times, we’re just talking to them during a live sporting event,” Katz said. “And we’re just asking for a minute of their time. We’re kind of tapping you on the shoulder and saying ‘Hey, we’re your friend that has their phone pointed at the TV and caught that great thing you just saw.'”
4. Plan social images in advance
SB Nation saw a lot of success on social media during the Olympics when it tweeted “crazy, over-the-top” images of America anytime the U.S. celebrated an achievement, Katz said. Because readers responded well, the brand decided to repeat the experiment with photoshopped images crafted ahead of time for this summer’s World Cup. A tweet mockingly branded as an “exclusive” showed the heads of U.S. players photoshopped onto the torsos of George Washington’s retinue crossing the Delaware River.
— SB Nation (@SBNation) June 26, 2014
The tweet quickly racked up more than 1,000 retweets and was favorited more than 500 times.
“And it was because we thought about it, and we planned it, and we had folks with more design skills than us who were all about doing that, too,” Katz said.
5. Make your own images
The Verge, which covers the intersection of technology and culture, writes a lot about brands and objects — two subjects that don’t lend themselves to easy illustration.
Often, news about Amazon, Netflix and other companies is illustrated by boring static images of corporate headquarter buildings or blasé packaging, said Helen Havlak, the engagement editor at The Verge. To avoid that, Verge staffers have begun holding their own photoshoots so they have a cache of interesting original images to accompany the news they’re writing about. To figure out which kinds of images to shoot, they examine which shots were popular with readers within the preceding month.
If they can’t effectively express a subject with a custom photograph, Verge staffers might instead work with an illustrator to get the message across. That was the tack the publication took with a recent story about Rube Goldberg machines. Each letter of the headline for the article was an illustration of an elaborate contraption that became an animated GIF nestled next to the body copy of the story.
Havlak says the original images have worked. Facebook referrals are up by 53 percent compared to this time last year, a stat she attributes partially to the photography strategy.
6. Make different visuals for different platforms
When conceptualizing the social strategy for any given story, it’s important to think about how different images will play on different platforms. The Verge’s recent Apple Watch review, an elaborate article that included text, video and interactivity elements, was shared several ways with separate social channels. The social plan encompassed three videos (for YouTube, Facebook and Instagram), GIFs, (for Twitter and Tumblr) and live coverage on Periscope and Snapchat. Taken together, the watch review was one of The Verge’s most-shared stories this year, with visitors to the page sharing the story at a rate more than six times higher than the average article.
“So for Instagram, you have to make a 15-second video,” Havlak said. “For Facebook, you have to make a video that has text integrations so it plays silently. For Tumblr, you have to make a series of GIFs out of your videos, so people can see it instantly and see how beautiful it is. It’s just so different by platform.”
7. Meet your readers on their own terms
Eater, Vox Media’s food-focused brand, had a strict policy against gratuitous food pictures for several years, said Greg Morabito, the engagement editor at Eater. Dubbed “food porn,” these glamor shots of delicious food were cropping up everywhere on the “food Internet,” the loosely associated blogs and websites created by and dedicated to gourmands. Eater wanted to be different, and it didn’t have much formal training available for editors who wanted to take great food photos.
But within the last year and a half or so, Eater has relaxed the stricture against food porn and now has dedicated photographers and trained editors who shoot food in its network of 24 cities.
By giving up its rule and posting the food images on social channels like Instagram and Pinterest, Eater has managed to cultivate a new audience of people who otherwise may have never visited one of its websites.
“To take a great food photo and put it on Instagram — it appeals to somebody that might not necessarily be reading Eater to find out what the hot restaurant is,” Morabito said. “But it might appeal to somebody who just likes food photography, or somebody that’s a home cook. And the same thing with Pinterest.”
Morabito also pays close attention to the elements of food photography that are consistently shared. Some favorites include pizza, food images with circles or straight lines, photos of runny egg yolk and pictures containing a hand reaching toward food.
8. Don’t exhaust your audience
Vox Media fashion brand Racked recently found some success by scaling back its social media presence, said Kenzie Bryant, engagement editor for the publication. Amid a flurry of Instagram posts from other news organizations at Fashion Week, Bryant decided to withhold sharing too many photos on the service to avoid having its images buried in the clutter.
Instead, Bryant waited until later and uploaded the images in bulk to Pinterest after the event. This enabled them to be circulated for a longer period of time, with the added bonus of allowing readers to access the photos at their leisure rather than dumping them in their social feeds all at once.
“We don’t want anybody to unfollow because it’s the same image they’ve seen three other different places within the hour,” Bryant said. “We want to continue to stay unique and offer a really great experience on those platforms.”