The Philadelphia Inquirer’s audience team stopped putting all their time into Twitter (and referral traffic stayed the same)

May 22, 2019

Poynter and API teamed up this week to take a deeper look at what’s working in local news. Here, you can read how The Philadelphia Inquirer automated Twitter and grew audience on other platforms, and over at Better News, learn how the Philadelphia newsroom created its audience team using essential lessons from Table Stakes.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s audience team used to spend 80% of its time on Twitter for a 2-3% return in referral traffic.

“And I was like, well that’s ridiculous,” said Kim Fox, managing editor for audience and innovation.

Now, the Inquirer’s Twitter flagship accounts are automated, and the Inquirer gets … yes … about a 2-3% return in referral traffic. With the time they saved, the seven-person audience team that Fox leads has put their energy into:

  • Streamlining branded Facebook pages down from two to one, decreasing posting by 30% and increasing referral traffic by 30%
  • Growing the Inquirer’s Instagram account by 87%
  • Redeveloping newsletter strategy from automated to written by staff
  • Launching a smart speaker briefing, which led to Fox building out an innovation team
  • Adding SEO and analytics work into everything they do

Related: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stopped putting every single story on social media and tripled its following

This approach makes so much sense for so many reasons. Here are two of them: According to an April report from the Pew Research Center, in the United States, about 80% of all tweets come from 10% of tweeters. The report found — no surprise — that Twitter does not look like the real world local newsrooms are trying to reach.

Also, after switching to a subscription business model, a 2% return on 80% of effort just isn’t good enough.

“We need to find new audiences,” Fox said. “We need to engage with them. We need to drive them to subscribe, or we’re not going to survive.”

Screenshot, Twitter

Fox and Ross Maghielse, manager of audience development, are not anti-Twitter. Both made that point separately. It works really well for specific audiences, including politics and sports, for big events and for individual journalists.

“In a big way, Twitter is the reason I am where I am today,” Fox said.

When she was in her first audience development role at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “it was a new space, and we were seeing everywhere that it was the newswire.”

Fox used it to help cover the earthquakes in Haiti and the uprising in Egypt.

But since then, she said she thinks audience development has graduated into engagement. While there are still qualitative ways to measure that work, “I’m more interested in the quantitative part.”

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The Inquirer made its shift in the spring of 2017 as it started to build its audience team. One of the first things that team looked at was how people were spending their time.

The team needed to manage the Inquirer’s social media, SEO strategy, email newsletters, on-site commenting and data analytics, and share takeaways with the rest of the newsroom.

So the journalists started by asking what they got back from each of those elements. It was not hard to see that having someone manually send tweets for eight hours a day wasn’t worth it.

The Inquirer still sends staff-written tweets, particularly around breaking news, enterprise work and elections. Screenshot, Twitter

The Inquirer uses SocialFlow, an automation tool the newsroom’s product team helped set up, that works through an RSS feed. Social Flow scrapes headlines and metadata, including photos, and tweets them.

Poynter’s Ren LaForme said other tools that do this include Echobox and True Anthem, and Joseph Lichterman previously reported that the Detroit Free Press uses Social News Desk for automation.

Related: Cleveland.com wants to text readers (and to make money)

The Inquirer still sends manual tweets for breaking news, enterprise reporting and stories that include election coverage. It’s a strategy in Detroit, too. As Lichterman reported, only 20-30% of their tweets are hand-crafted.

The big lesson here is be skeptical, Maghielse said.

“A lot of this stuff is measurable. What are we getting out of this versus what we’re putting in?”

Growing audience is about so much more than hanging around Twitter, Fox said.

“The headline is ‘diversify.’”