Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
7 mins read

How do major publishers like Economist, Vogue, and Washington Post use social media?

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When it comes to social media, publishers are conflicted. No surprise there.

It’s a relationship that’s a  complex one, but it’s getting more mature. At least that’s what the researchers at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism in partnership with API and NORC recently concluded, based on a survey of over 1100 working journalists. 

On one hand, publishers have adapted. They see social media platforms as a way of distributing their content, with the potential to attract new audiences and strengthen relationships with existing ones. On the other hand, there is an issue of mutual trust, and the lack of fairness and transparency in terms of revenue share; not to mention the poor control publishers have over the visibility of their content.

A total of 86% of the respondents participating in the above-mentioned survey said they feel social media has contributed to a decline in trust in journalism, but they participate in this ecosystem nevertheless.

When you think about it, social media has become such an integral part of our everyday lives. There’s no use in ignoring it. So, the situation publishers have found themselves in is a textbook example of a two-edged sword. 

However, where challenges occur, innovation comes to the spotlight.

Let’s see how different publishers use social media and what we can learn from their creative approach. For the sake of this analysis, we will skip Facebook (there’s plenty that’s been said about that one) and turn our attention to the less discussed social media platforms and their strategic value for publishers.

The Economist utilizes Snapchat to engage the “tap generation”

Your weekly helping of mind-stretching insight and analysis from the world’s most influential news publication. – this is a description in the Snapchat profile of The Economist.

It might seem unusual if you consider the usual demographics of Snapchat users, but The Economist has been successfully present on this platform for three years now with an average number of 1.7 million people visiting their profile. They even have a dedicated Snapchat editor, Lucy Rohr.

Here’s what the magazine’s editors have to say about their Snapchat strategy:

Snapchat gives The Economist something most publishers are hungry for in today’s media environment: an audience of young, mobile-first consumers of news and analysis.

In the same Medium post, Lucy Rohr makes an interesting point about the importance of not underestimating younger audiences. If publishers serve only content they think Gen Z will like, it is rather limiting and even damaging. The truth is, this demographic group wants to be informed, they are globally curious, but they need content to be wrapped up in a format that’s pleasing for them: 

The readers are smart, they are interested and they always want to know more, so it’s a really amazing opportunity as a producer and journalist to serve this group. 

When you look at the strategy The Economist uses, it’s quite straightforward. Let’s take a look at one example: the story of the tragic life of a New York prostitute. This is a story that deserves the attention of all readers, whatever their generation or reading platform preference. On Snapchat, the story is divided visually, into well-designed stories, and there’s little text over the image: readers predominately navigate visually.

Done this way, key information is highlighted, but it’s done so as a teaser, so users employ their natural curiosity to explore around the issue, find out more about the details and the context.

They can discover more by swiping up: this action redirects users to The Economist’s website where they can read an in-depth analysis, which in this case takes the reader to an article entitled “The cost of criminalization”. 

This magazine also grabs the attention of Snapchat users through its Fact or fiction? stories, a series which aims to separate the wheat from the chaff (or, in this case, the real stuff from the considerably less ‘truthy’ stories doing the rounds). It’s a unique contribution to the fight against fake news and the flow of misinformation.

So, as a way to discover both content and publisher, it’s been a win for The Economist. And, when Snapchat is used as a free content discovery platform the media itself owns, the control is far better and the amount of referral traffic rises.

Vogue uses Instagram stories to bring readers closer

The iconic fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue published by Condé Nast has really broadened its content production, both in terms of format and topic diversity.  Instagram is one of the things they are pretty brilliant at.

Vogue has a total of 11 Instagram accounts of different international editions and in 2018 these generated an average of 6.4 million likes and comments per month. The idea of introducing carefully thought out stories and experimenting with this format came from Hannah Ray, the Head of Social Strategy and Storytelling for Vogue International. Ray also explained how now Instagram represents a “family of Vogues and not competitors with each other”.

In addition, Ray explained how Vogue International enables the community to get involved by giving “young people a platform to speak”. In this case, editors are there to facilitate social media storytelling.

Instagram stories are fun and laid back – they have a certain spontaneity to them. All of this makes them a great platform for experimenting and engaging followers. In contrast to curated photos from professional photographers in their regular feed, Vogue’s stories are more fluid and this insider peek this allows the user to feel they’re getting truly behind the scenes access to a global fashion powerhouse.

The stories Vogue uses are very community-focused and they include series such as “Vogue Plus One,” “Vogue First Look”, and “Vogue Backstage.” Of course, depending on the country, there’s a lot of additional content that provides a unique signature of that specific account.

The results? Well, Vogue managed to triple its traffic thanks to the smart usage of stories as content distribution platforms and they also achieved a 40% higher conversion rate with ads on Instagram Stories versus campaign averages. In 2018, stories directly helped them to sell out the September issue of the magazine and bring 20% of new subscribers.

Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

The unexpected presence of The Washington Post on Reddit 

When someone mentions The Washington Post, the first things that probably pop to mind are connected to notions of legacy media, tradition, credibility, outstanding journalism that lead to busting the Watergate Scandal, and of course dozens of Pulitzer Prizes. 

In addition to all of this, The Washington Post has been recognized as one of the most innovative companies in the newspaper business. They show great flexibility and commit to going the extra mile in order to reach new audiences and strengthen their name online. Sometimes, this goal requires taking the road less traveled.

In 2017, shortly after Reddit began allowing public profiles, The Washington Post made its appearance there. Seems unexpected? Yet, it is a great strategic move.

For those of you who are not familiar with the fact, the Reddit community is a tough crowd. The self-proclaimed “front page of the Internet” does not tolerate self-promotion. It’s known for public scrutiny and has strict rules for members. Endless threads (a.k.a. subreddits) gather users who love to argue about anything and everything. 

The Reddit community has over 330 million active users per month and is the 4th most visited website in the world, which makes it one of the most interesting and most diverse places online. Journalists have been cleverly using Reddit for mapping out new stories to write about, identifying valuable sources, or investigating public opinion on subjects that matter.

So, what about The Washington Post and their Reddit profile?

Here’s how Gene Park,  a regular Reddit user and The Washington Post’s Social Media Editor explained this decision

Reddit profiles were started because they wanted to encourage the creative community. There was no real place for artists and creators to push stuff on their own, because of previous self-promotion rules. That connected with me – I thought, what if the Washington Post was just another creator? We’re just there to talk about our work.

Park also added how their presence on Reddit “isn’t a traffic play, it’s an engagement play”. The key to their success? Consistent transparency and willingness to honestly participate in ongoing conversations. There is no hidden agenda.

Uncompromising honesty, even when dealing with unpleasant questions, is what earned The Washington Post great respect among the Reddit users. Park pointed out that some of the users are vocal about becoming their readers due to this engagement.

Wrapping up

Publishers are wary of social media and we all know the reasons for that. Business-wise, having trust in social media networks and news distribution platforms is not easy, especially if we remind ourselves of the fable of the boy who cried wolf. 

To clarify: when the other party has a history of prioritizing profit and even conditioning publishers to deals that put them in an unenviable position, they end up being cautious and always pay special attention to the ‘fine print’, while raising the question – what’s in it for them? 

Just take a look at the latest announcement from Facebook about launching the news tab this fall. Publishers are understandably not particularly impressed, and if they didn’t suspect it before, they do now: what Facebook giveth they can also take away.

Despite all that, media organizations recognize the value and opportunities that social media affords. Many have become incredibly creative when it comes to adapting and making social media work for them. The EconomistVogue, and The Washington Post are just some of the most reputable names out there that are doing something different and really achieving great results.

by Mia Čomić

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.