Social Spotlight: A lesson in social storytelling from The New York Times
Welcome to the Social Spotlight, where we dive deep into what we love about a brand’s approach to a specific social campaign. From strategy through execution and results, we’ll examine what makes the best brands on social tick — and leave you with some key takeaways to consider for your own brand’s social strategy.
The New York Times is considered by many to be the greatest general interest publication in the world, but until recently lagged behind its digital-first peers in terms of innovation and risk-taking in its storytelling. Not so today, as the Gray Lady has come into her own in part by redefining the role of social media in compelling and accessible journalism.
It’s no surprise that in the media world, good social content is dependent in large part on good journalism. While this has never been a problem for The New York Times, its methods of delivering that great journalism in the format and channel desired by its audience have struggled to evolve at the same rate as the rest of the market.
Flash back to 2014: The Times was struggling through another year of declining ad revenue and, surprisingly for one of the most venerated newspapers on the planet, declining readership. The Times’ digital readership specifically had been in decline for more than two years, with readers looking first to direct competitors like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, or to digital-first media startups like Vox and First Look Media, for their superior web, mobile and social media experiences.
So in May 2014, the paper commissioned a group of employees from “both sides of the wall” – newsroom and business – to study if and how the Times should make structural changes to address the viability of its current model in the digital news age. One huge advantage the report found for the “disrupters” was the use of social media to bring digital storytelling to the audience, rather than expecting them to come to it. It shares a great analogy: At the dawn of print distribution, the paper was printed in bulk, loaded on trucks, delivered to cities and towns across America and given to paper boys and delivery people to place on readers’ doorsteps. That mentality doesn’t exist for the digital products the NYT offers because they’ve operated under the assumption that the journalism is so good that digital readers will come to them. It’s the equivalent of abandoning that print distribution model, plopping a pile of papers in front of the NYT offices on 8th Avenue and saying, “If you want to read it, you have to come and get it.” Most people would take the local paper on their doorstep over the NYT they had to travel to get, despite the higher quality. And that created a big problem.
How to solve it? Enter: a new approach to storytelling, learned from social.
The interim years have seen a renewed focus on the foundational elements of good digital journalism at The New York Times, including improvements to its app, core site, auxiliary pages like nytimes.com/cooking and digital ad offerings. But while the core publication is still working to optimize for the way readers consumer content today, the success it sees in social through visual storytelling, engagement-driving content and digital-first experiences is second to none.
- Goals: As with most media social teams, there is a heavy focus on driving awareness of the content produced by the publication. But where the Times has evolved into a leader is in its ability to create deeply engaging social experiences that expand the impact of the published stories. A great example is the use of Instagram Stories and Highlights to surface the most impactful visual stories for that channel’s audience.
- Offline connection: Social is used to drive offline experiences in much the same way a B2C product would use it: to highlight what you can’t get on social. For the Times, this includes teasing print-only content and driving registrations for the numerous panel discussions, screenings and meet & greets with reporters (I especially love the “group calls,” which allow readers to dial in to what is essentially a conference call between Times staffers to discuss a timely news topic).
- Key channels: As a recent 2020 report indicates, visual storytelling is a huge area of growth for the publication itself. But it’s long been the cornerstone of the Times’ social strategy, with a resource- and frequency focus on Instagram. As that channel’s’ storytelling tools have evolved, so have the Times’ stories (and Stories), often turning dense and complicated subject matter into digestible, understandable, visual content. Another excellent focus for Instagram is bringing context and humanity to the world-class photography and illustration of the core publication.
I also love the Times’ use of Facebook Groups to encourage readers and reporters to engage in “civil discussions” on topics as broad as life in Australia and as niche as favorite podcasts. While one might follow the section pages to see content, the Groups enable organic, ongoing dialogue among people who feel emotionally or intellectually invested in a subject.
Much of The New York Times’ evolution of this decade has been driven by the focus on subscribers as the paper’s primary source of revenue. This shift away from ad-driven KPIs like page views has refocused the newsroom on delivering quality and driving retention. The role of social in this model has crystallized as 1) an awareness driver for the kind of unparalleled storytelling available to subscribers, and 2) an engagement platform for readers and others to deepen their understanding and interest in the world captured by the Times’ content.
- PAUSE. Invest the time, people power and resources in understanding what is working for your business and your customers and what isn’t. Even the best social content and strategy is lipstick on a pig if the brand it supports isn’t resonating.
- Identify your most enticing resources and make them as available as possible to your customers. The Times creates myriad opportunities for readers and reporters to meet, dialogue, exchange ideas and offer feedback. This keeps reporters honest to the audience’s needs and gives readers the opportunity to feel like part of the stories they consume.
- Bring your stories to your audience. They’re not going to come to you when they can get a passable equivalent without lifting a finger, so you have to give them the motivation to visit your site, store or experience. If social isn’t your primary storytelling channel, use it to tease the full story and draw your audience to the deeper experience you want them to have.
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