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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

In my previous post I explained how easy it is these days to integrate social streams into articles by using services such as Storify. Since that article appeared, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Xavier Damman, the co-founder of Storify.

Echoing what is an increasingly common refrain, Damman told me that everybody is a reporter now. Which means it’s the responsibility of journalists to find the best content and turn it into a story, adding context and making sense of it all. You can watch our discussion in the below video:

Damman has a strong focus on “social media optimization” (SMO). I must admit that the acronym SMO sends shivers down my spine. It reminds me of search engine optimization (SEO), which in itself is a good and logical thing. Unfortunately, it has led to countless “SEO experts” who have infested Twitter.

As author Bruce Sterling said recently in an interview at The WELL:

There was a halcyon period there where people seemed lost in the info overload and the search machines were full of limpid lucidity. But we may be approaching a period where the machines will feed you an infinite amount of cunningly engineered gibberish and you have to climb to the mountaintop and talk to some human greybeard in order to have any idea what’s going on.

There are those who say that the perfection of SEO leads to the increasing uselessness of Google. That’s true, but then I found myself sitting with Damman as he advocated social media optimization. He said that social media, rather than Google, are increasingly responsible for the traffic referrals to blogs and other websites. SMO is all about facilitating the sharing of content. In Storify, when you use a tweet, you’re prompted to inform the sender of that tweet that you used her content. The idea is maybe that person will retweet that notice so her followers will get the news your story is out there.

I can live with that, because it just seems a straightforward way to say thank you and maybe to start a conversation.

In Search of SMO

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In an effort to gather more about this new discipline, I looked up “social media optimization” on the young but increasingly popular Q&A site Quora. I stumbled upon this question: “What is social media optimization and how do you leverage it?” Benjamin Gauthey, who works in digital marketing at Microsoft, replied and said he published a how-to article about the topic. I must admit his reply made me hesitate because it was phrased in evil SEO language: “This post will focus on learning Social Media Optimization, to acquire eyeballs to your websites and increase conversations about your brand.”

In fact, his post is pretty good. Gauthey starts with a very sound principle: “Forget about money for now and focus on common interests.”

He recommends: Releasing information, producing charticles and infographics, using social media bookmarking, offering widgets, providing sharing options, immersing yourself in social networks and discussions, and not forgetting about RSS feeds and badges and reward systems. I recommend reading his post, as he offers plenty of advice.

All of this sounds very sensible; and yet, I sympathize with what Sterling said in the above quote. It’s so easy to get this stuff very wrong. I don’t believe in “increasing conversations about brands.” I hardly see any such conversations on social media, except between SEO and marketing people who end up talking in social media echo chambers.

Forget About Brands

I don’t really think people want to discuss the brand of my newspaper. They want to discuss the news, and eventually they want to discuss how we cover the news. They also want to discuss things with other readers and citizens, and eventually the regular participants also want to talk about ways to improve the site’s moderation and/or discussion features and practices.

I also don’t believe brands create communities. The communities are already there, and we, the media, have to find ways to serve them by covering news, curating reports and facilitating conversations.

So what does this mean for SMO and the tools Gauthey recommends?

Before using those tools, engage in lots of conversation with community members. Have a good look at what they do and don’t do.

This may make some social media aficionados cringe, but many online communities are filled with people who are not on Twitter. They may be on Facebook, but perhaps they only use it for their friends and family, and not for brands or news reading. RSS feeds are another tool whose use varied widely.

Does this mean we should forget about these tools? No — but use them wisely. In the community my newspaper is involved with, Twitter is not a very popular network. But using Storify to curate and embed tweets seems to be highly appreciated.

Curating and Connecting

I’m convinced curating and connecting are of paramount importance for today’s media.

Curating means eliminating noise, checking facts and enhancing the quality of information, and providing context so that news stories take on meaning for your community.

Connecting means facilitating conversations. For some communities, it will be enough to launch a hashtag on Twitter and organize discussions there. For others, it means embedding social streams and discussions in a more familiar context. Storify is one way to do this. For example, StockTwits does this for its community of investors by integrating Twitter on its site and providing categories and contextual information.

In order to be successful with this, you must make sure you become a true member of the community you work for. I do realize there is this journalist ethos of being separate and detached, but what we actually want are journalists doing their jobs in a fair and balanced way. If we expect them to contextualize news that matters, they need to be intimately aware of what drives their community.

For each and every tool or strategy, ask yourself how it will serve the community and how you could adapt it in such a way that it becomes meaningful to the community.

In fact, this is part of what I learned from Rohit Bhargava, who launched the SMO concept with his August 2006 blog post suggesting 5 Rules of SMO. As is explained in Wikipedia, his thinking evolved and in August 2010 he suggested 5 New Rules of SMO. Bhargava wrote:

The core change I would make is to add and focus on a word that I think truly describes the social web today in a way that few people really grasped four years ago: sharing.

Instead of saying “reward inbound links” he now focuses on rewarding engagement:

Today the real currency is around conversation or engagement. While there are a million definitions for “engagement” ranging from comments and discussion to posting or sharing content — this is the behavior that matters most in the social web and the one that we should all focus on rewarding when it happens.

There’s a crucial point to take into account when we talk about communities and communicative action, something which the German sociologist and philosopher J├╝rgen Habermas discussed at length: the importance of the claims to moral rightness, ethical goodness or authenticity, personal sincerity, and aesthetic value (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

In other and considerably less philosophical words: don’t play games when you try to incite community engagement. There are no tricks for optimizing social media. In our case it boils down to being the best journalists we can be. In these times, that means connecting, curating, and providing great tools to facilitate conversations.

Roland Legrand is in charge of new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife, Elisabeth.


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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.