Harnessing the whales of social media
“I’m a smartphone and social media junkie,” she admits. Even as she was moderating the session, she was busy retweeting other snippets from #Bxb2010 participants. Mernit has 4,192 Twitter followers, 3,570 Facebook friends and another 4,183 people who “like” the fan page of her community non-profit. (And she’ll probably have more by the time you read this.)
When she was launching the site in 2009, she had only a cheque for $8,000 and little in the way of resources to get the word out about it. However, she and the social media “whales” on her team — co-founders Amy Gahran and Kwan Booth — had thousands of people in their networks.
She enlisted them to ask a favour of people they knew and those they didn’t know but admired, both in the Bay area and around the country. The result? Some 800 of their closest friends received a 3 a.m. email urging them to mention Oakland Local in a tweet between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., noting its launch that day.
“Traffic on day one was 1,800 people,” Mernit says. “The next day it was 1,200 people.”
It was a blunt-force illustration of the power of social media.
“It wasn’t any one network that got us the traffic, it was the network of people we were connected to and the media that they each used. This stuff is incredibly effective. This is huge.”
Huge, yes, and still a bit scary. Participants Friday were keen to discuss the real and imagined perils of social media, whether in the ubiquitous form of Facebook or Twitter, or on other platforms such as Flickr, Scribd, SlideShare, LinkedIn, CoveritLive, Tumblr, Vimeo — or even the good old comments field.
Andrew Whitacre of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media encouraged the room to be prepared for an unexpected deluge. “Always have a call to action ready in your back pocket, because you never know when someone is going to submit a link to your site to Boing Boing or Slashdot. You have to be ready to accept that wave of people and convert them into whatever you need them to be.”
Whitacre manages his Twitter accounts strategically, repeating bits of information or freshening them for different audiences and time periods. He uses CoTweet to schedule and manage his messages.
Having “unfollowed” correspondents such as The New York Times and the Boston Globe, which swamped her feed with headline after headline, Tammy Daniels of iberkshires.com worries about overwhelming subscribers with a flood of tweets or updates. How do we keep users informed without overdoing it?
One way, Mernit says, is by trying to establish a conversation on social media, instead of just pushing out headlines. “You don’t want to use it as a sort of RSS feed.” She prefers to use Facebook for community-building and Twitter for outreach.
Some other tips and best practices to make your message stand out from the babble in the stream:
Claim a phrase: Jay Rosen suggests coining a distinctive hashtag to help people find your content in Twitter searches. (#Bxb2010, anyone?)
I can vouch for this strategy. Earlier this year, I inadvertently set #bustyhookers loose in the wild after the unfortunate phrase appeared in a Toronto Star exposé about a federal cabinet minister’s husband. Bored and tweeting on the streetcar ride to work, I wondered how long it would take for such a hashtag to catch on. By afternoon, it was the top trending topic in Canada.
Certain phrases catch on immediately, but you might need to launch a campaign to get them established, Rosen says.
“Over long periods, sometimes years, I’ll use the same term or concept again and again in my tweets, because I’m trying to get people to use my language. I’ve been tweeting about the View from Nowhere for three years. Over time my goal is to smuggle this term into wider distribution.”
Mernit talked about crafting tweets in advance as a ready-to-use package by friends and others in your organization, particularly when you’re bridging a newsroom culture that’s not comfortable with spontaneity or when journalists are strapped for time.
Privacy vs. transparency: What’s an acceptable level of personal opinion and information to share in social media? Too much personality and chit-chat can be damaging and unprofessional, Tammy Daniels argues.
Jay Rosen draws a hard line. His Twitter feed is “100 per cent personal, zero per cent private. It’s Jay’s world, but nothing about his family, his health or his lunch.
Then there’s total transparency. Mernit calls her Oakland Local co-founder Amy Gahran a master of social media “who carries around an iPhone that’s basically her brain. This is somebody who doesn’t have privacy issues, who’ll Twitpic everything. She’s always getting into great conversations with people.”
And that’s exciting, even if she’s not talking directly to you, Mernit says. It’s interactivity in action.
What happens when you make a mistake in social media? How do we figure out the appropriate journalistic stance while social network standards are still evolving? It’s easy to stumble into ethical quicksand, or a personal “fail whale” moment without realizing it. These are constant challenges.
For video, distribution networks such as blip.tv and TubeMogul allow you to cross-post content. You can feature original material or simply curate a find that you’d like to spread around. Sharing things of value will help get the word out about your own site.
Kathy Vey is editor in chief of OpenFile, a collaborative local news site in Toronto (and launching soon in Vancouver and Ottawa). She can’t remember all the passwords to her social media accounts and wishes she had a customized URL shortener.