When the PBS NewsHour relaunched both on-air and
online in December, a new homepage was unveiled, a news blog was born and a new
correspondent joined the team. But another big change unfolded behind the
scenes as well: The addition of a social media desk assistant (myself) dedicated to
fostering an online community and better distributing PBS NewsHour content
digitally. In just a few months, the PBS NewsHour has pushed social media sites
into the top 10 referrers to our website, and they will eventually leave organic search results on Bing and Yahoo in the dust.

Beyond the numbers is a shift in newsroom attitudes toward social media. When I first arrived, Twitter was only tolerated as an online trend. It has since expanded into something that most of our on-air correspondents — Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, Margaret Warner, Hari Sreenivasan, David Chalian, among others — and many behind-the-scenes staff use on a regular basis. They gather information, track breaking news, crowdsource questions and share details that couldn’t quite make it into the broadcast’s in-depth analysis of the day’s happenings. 

   

Twitter

Breaking News

By focusing on breaking news that suits our audience, we’ve covered subjects that have become a “Trending Topics” on Twitter several times. While the short-term value is a spike in traffic for our content on the subject, the longer-term value is exposure to new audiences. We retain on
average 150-200 new followers during each event (in addition to our usual addition of about 250 to 300 followers on weekdays). While the return on investment remains lower than that of Facebook, the exposure — and the immediate clickthroughs — do bring in new unique visitors. We are working to determine precisely how many visitors we are retaining.

Last week, another oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Given that one of our major traffic drivers for the past four months has been BP’s Horizon oil
disaster
, we immediately tweeted the news, credited to @AP. That tweet was retweeted at least 155 times over the course of the day, including more than 100 within the first hour. The followup article, which was posted within 45 minutes of the news and updated throughout the day, received 541 clickthroughs on its aggregate bit.ly link and, per that site, was retweeted more than 100 times. It also generated at least 39 comments on Facebook. According to our Google Analytics, the page was viewed 1504 times with 233 referrals from Twitter compared to only seven hits from Google News. The
biggest referrer? Facebook, with 270 hits.

i-2eddaf6db0245f5ee75aaeed60327704-facebook_referrals_versus_yahoo!,_bing (2).png

 

Why it matters: In addition to exposure to new audiences, it gives us a demonstrable way of measuring the return on investment for our web content that, in turn can shape the way we structure our emerging, web-conscious newsroom, and the bridge between our traditional broadcast practices and the “early adopter” status online that some of our team members maintain. 

Features Designed for Social Media

By comparison, consider a piece that was designed for the web and meant to spread rapidly online. Our arts team, @NewsHourArtBeat, interviewed musician Andrew Bird, whose fan base is largely online-oriented. Bird himself retweeted the link, as did 97 other Twitter entities. The story (published Sept. 2) has seen more than 8,000 individual page views on an otherwise slow weekend
for web traffic. A throw from the broadcast on Monday night, plus a well-timed tweet during the show added another 55 clicks to the main bit.ly link. 

Why it matters: We’re pushing content before an audience that is aware of — but not involved with — our brand, while maintaining the editorial standards that have supported the show over the past 34 years. While web traffic is never the whole reason we do a
piece — we’ve come to recognize that content needs an impetus to spread, and to matter to our viewers, new and old.
 

Social Media Use for Reporting

In addition to the shift toward pushing content into the social media space, we’re also drawing on social media as a source by pulling content into our pieces and using Twitter especially to gain insight into events and places that we can’t physically cover. As Sreenivasan has said, Twitter has become an “immersive sonar” of sorts, enabling us to monitor multiple sources and streams of information simultaneously.

While it is more work to verify sources, it’s easier to see trends, directions and questions around a topic that readers and consumers are likely going to want answers to. This enables us to reach and expand our audience more effectively over the long-term. 

#Blagojevich

Across the newsroom, PBS NewsHour reporters and correspondents — including Sreenivasan — had Tweetdeck and HootSuite running in the background awaiting news of a verdict in the former Illinois governor’s corruption trial.

As news broke of Blagojevich’s conviction on one count, it was precariously near air time. Twitter beat out the AP for reporting facts from the scene, which we could then cross-check against primary sources. It also helped us uncover live-streams from Chicago media that the newsroom watched until our own broadcast went live.

#Prop8

As news of the Proposition 8 verdict broke in California, the newsroom turned to Twitter, sourcing a copy of the judge’s verdict before the court’s official document was posted on PACER. We supplied it to our on-air team before the broadcast, informing their discussion of the subject as much as possible, in addition to republishing it via DocumentCloud on our own website.

Engagement on Facebook

We’ve come to depend on — and ask questions of — our ever-faithful Facebook audience. When I started engaging the community on our page, we had about 5,000 fans and an RSS feed was used to add content to the page. Today, we have more than 15,000 fans and, according to Facebook’s Insights toolset, we have in excess of 5,000 active users on the page every day, and an average of about 50 new “likes” per day.

According to those same statistics, about 13,000 of our fans were active on our page in the past month. On Sept. 3, for example, 15 minutes before our regular political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks were due into the studio, I posted to our Facebook page a request for topics for the online-only segment they tape every week. Within 10 minutes, I had several substantive questions. The video of Brooks, Shields and Sreenivasan answering those questions (and two more from Twitter) was posted later that evening, and we have since thanked each of the contributors personally for sharing.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Now that social media has an established presence at the PBS NewsHour, we’re examining how we can further embrace it both as a way to push our content — via targeted advertising and search engine optimization, etc. — and to pull people in by encouraging correspondents and staff members to use social media as a resource for stories, ideas and audience development.

So far, we’ve started to run Facebook advertising campaigns with incredibly small budgets ($10 to 15 per day) and very high returns (between .05-.078 percent conversion). Combined with a recent PBS
Facebook push, we’ve seen a jump from 14,900 fans (on a Friday) to 15,448 (on the following Wednesday). We spent, on average, $.63 per new fan. This represents a turning point. We will continue our organic efforts — consistent posting, integrating other fan pages’ into our content shares, targeted distribution, etc. — in addition to our new paid endeavor.

Our ultimate goal is to maintain our incredibly high (87 percent) interaction rate as we grow our fan page to 30,000 fans and beyond. Ultimately, we expect Facebook’s utility to keep up with market trends — and rival the ROI of Google search in our quest for relevant, engaged users. 

Outside of the numbers that prove our success, our users’ appreciation of our efforts has become something that we look for and appreciate as a team.

Our brand, one of the oldest and most respected in television, has morphed from a group that had an erratic and undefined presence on the Internet to one that has become a place to test new ideas and reach into new parts of the media space, in addition to being a hub of the traditional in-depth reporting and analysis.

What do you think of our efforts at NewsHour? How do you think they could be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments.

@KateGardiner (kategardiner.com)
is the PBS NewsHour’s first-ever social media desk assistant and a
recent graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of
Journalism. She frequently consults on social media development for
media companies.

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