Social Media for Hyperlocals: How to Turbo-Charge Engagement

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Hyperlocals everywhere have added Facebook and Twitter presences to their promotional quiver. But are they hitting bull’s-eyes in engaging their users?

It’s not enough for hyperlocals to simply post articles to their Facebook page or just tweet them out, say a number of engagement-conscious publishers and editors (below). They connect the dots between engagement and sustainability, and in fact there’s a steady flow of reports — like this one from Forrester — that say engagement produces multiple business benefits, building value that can attract advertisers or – for nonprofits – funding.

Showing just how seriously it takes its business potential, nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow in Virginia recently hired a community engagement coordinator, Jennifer Marley, who brings solid social media experience to the site and its community (home to Thomas Jefferson and UVA). What she has to say about Facebook and Twitter amounts to a mini-handbook of hyperlocal best practices:

Social media tools are just that. They have specific purposes. You wouldn’t use a wrench to bang a nail into a board (unless you were in a very tight spot). The first thing we did was define what we were using each tool for. While we do use Hootsuite to schedule posts across multiple platforms, we very rarely post the same content in the same way to multiple platforms – because that wouldn’t be an effective use of the tool. We’ve found that commenters who are active on our site are not usually active on Twitter or Facebook – they seem to be different communities. Therefore, we’re working at curating our content in ways that are specific to each audience on each platform.

For us, Twitter is about conversation. Because we are a news source, we definitely tweet our stories. But we don’t simply copy and paste our headlines into a tweet; we spend time finding what we think will be the most compelling bit of content, or – even better! – finding a way to ask a question, and then tweet that with a link to the story. But our content is a small portion of what we tweet. We average 10-20 tweets/day, and of those, probably only 25-40% are our own content. The rest of the time, we are retweeting, engaging in conversation, or tweeting stories/pictures/videos that have to do with our community. Rhythm is important to us – there is nothing more annoying than that one Twitter user who clogs up your feed because they’re posting every 5 seconds. Therefore, we try to tweet once or twice per hour, max. We also try to respond to every mention, retweet, and direct question/comment we receive. In addition, we showcase our personality a bit, by using the carrot sign (^) to add a “signature” to tweets. For example, if Sean Tubbs, our senior reporter, is seeking a source on a story, he could sign his tweet “^ST”. All of this is about allowing our organization to function as a person in an ongoing community conversation. Since starting to work in this way, we’ve found our Twitter following grows every day.

For us, Facebook is about brand personality. One of the things about Facebook that made us nervous was the concept of Liking someone. Could our readers assume a bias if we Liked one organization and not another? To solve this, we launched a reader survey and asked questions about the people/places/things in the area our readers loved. Then, armed with that list, we strategically Liked local entities to allow us access to the content our readers already specified they like. This directly informs the content we’re sharing on our page.

As with Twitter, very little content we’re sharing on Facebook is about us – even less so than Twitter, as we try to post no more than 4 times/day (there’s lots of information out there on optimum posting frequency, and we’re experimenting). Because of Facebook’s format, we’ve had tremendous success in terms of attention with sharing photos and videos. We feature local photographers once a week. We ask a question of our readers once a week via a poll. We curate our own news content for this audience as well, by posting only the stories that people seem to be the most interested in (Google Analytics knows all!), or our stories that have a lot of visuals. Just in the past 2 weeks, we began “Like-gating” our content – now, Facebook users have to Like our page in order to access our Wall. We’ve seen a significant jump in new Likes since doing this.

The Fallout: In both Twitter and Facebook we found that once we started deploying the strategies described above, there was noticeable dropoff in our followers. After tearing our hair out, we realized this was normal – after being a pretty quiet presence, we were all-of-a-sudden creating content; and followers that had added us and forgot about us had to deal with whether or not they wanted to hear what we had to say! Some of them didn’t. But we’ve found that many, many new people do – and the numbers have been climbing ever since.

 Voice: An important component in all this has been our voice. How do we talk about what we’re talking about? To solve that, as a staff we came up with some “characters” we could be – and for us, our “news voice” is distinctly separate from our “social media” voice. This keeps us consistent across all mediums which, ideally, earns us the trust of our readers.

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Tracy Record, editor of the West Seattle Blog, has been using social media to strengthen her site’s user engagement for several years.  The results are impressive.  Some of her best practices:

“We might live-tweet an event, we might send a photo of a pretty sunset. We’ll send a few links a day to hot or particularly interesting stories we’ve covered. We’ll retweet relevant news or maybe even a restaurant announcement. Our Twitter and Facebook are NOT linked because they are such different creatures.”

Record uses Twitter and Facebook to alert WSB’s users to the site’s frequently updated articles, as well as invite the community to make further updates: “I may say on Facebook, “Suzie told us …” or “Jon tweeted this photo” … I may tweet or FB a reference to “a WSB commenter said …”

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DailyBlogTip’s Daniel Scocco points out that a recently introduced Facebook plugin highlights the “highest quality comments” and helps radiate them to the friends of the commenters.

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Howard Owens, founder and editor of The Batavian in upstate New York, stresses the double value of comments in promoting engagement:

“One of the consistent bits of feedback I get when I’m out at community events is how much people love the comments — and this is always from people who never comment themselves.  They just like reading what other people have to say.”

That kind of clicking is called engagement.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.