Social Media Lessons From the Publishing Industry

  •    Freelance journalist covering women, business, policy and social good.

Some of the best social media tips come from the publications that share news and information with thousands of readers every day. After all, few things are more critical to the success of media companies with a long history of printing their stories on paper than the transition to digital storytelling.

That's why these publications constantly explore new ways to share information, and consistently measure what works. Small business owners and entrepreneurs can learn how to successfully share content on their own websites with these tips from the pros.

1. If a Tweet Worked Once, Send it Twice

More tweets generally create more traffic for your site. But when the New York Times began to consistently schedule multiple tweets highlighting their best content, they discovered that tweets posted over the weekend got the most clicks when viewers had more time to read.

The Times' Twitter accounts desk looked back at the most successful tweets of 2013, measured by clickthroughs and retweets, and offered readers a primer on what worked. Reader engagement was a priority for the team running @nytimes, which now boasts 18 million followers who discover the publication's content through its main handle on Twitter.

Like a lot of website content, they found that many New York Times articles, graphics and blog posts don't have to be read the minute they're published, making repeat tweets a successful way to increase reader engagement. Be careful not to overdo it when recycling content, however, and only retweet the most interesting news, the team advised.

Other tips from the Times that can help promote your website or business:

  • Clarity works better than being clever. Witty zingers and wisecracks are fun, but clearly stated tweets inspire more clicks and retweets from readers, the Times found. Be direct and straightforward about the content you're describing in your tweets.
  • Use Twitter to amplify discussions on timely topics by offering answers to frequently asked questions about issues in the news that are relevant to your site or business.

2. Use an Insider's Look to Drive Instagram Engagement

NatGeo Instagram Coverpage

National Geographic Magazine's NatGeo site on Instagram is a model for visual storytelling on any site. NatGeo increased its Instagram following by 180 percent in 2014, reports social media analytics company Socialbakers. Today, it's one of the largest and most-interacted profiles on Instagram with 15 million followers.

NatGeo's Instagram success is driven by content posted daily by the publication's photographers, which is cross-promoted with a separate Instagram account called The Photo Society. The insider's view provided by the photographers behind National Geographic's renowned images reinforces the brand's identity as a publisher of stunning visual content. Photos accounted for 96 percent of the 3,700 posts made by NatGeo between January 2014 and March 2015, according to Socialbakers.

NatGeo also leverages Instagram's description text to explain the story behind the content: Only 38 percent of NatGeo's posts have less than 300 characters, and almost a third of its posts had more than 500 characters – a rarity on Instagram that sets the publication apart.

Use NatGeo's storytelling strategies to promote your own site or business:

  • Don't be afraid to cross promote content with partner sites to increase your social media following, and offer a wider perspective on issues that matter most to your audience.
  • Use image descriptions to share more of your story, especially if your site is image-heavy. Your text can promote the values that are represented on your site, spark more conversations, create a call-to-action or all of the above.

3. Stick to Your Mission with a Branded Newsletter

The Economist kept a brand promise to its 1.5 million print and digital readers for over 170 years: Tell readers in any medium what's going on and why it matters, according to social relationship platform Hootsuite. Even as the Economist continues to explore new ways to communicate on digital platforms, it sticks to its mission of prioritizing news and information over clicks.

When the Economist launched its daily newsletter Espresso, for example, the company made sure that its digital-only publication demonstrated its core values. Although it means fewer clicks, Espresso doesn't contain any links to external content.

Readers should be able to read Espresso from beginning to end without worrying that they should have clicked on other links, Economist Deputy Editor Tom Standage explained to Nieman Lab. “We've clicked on the links already and we've decided what's interesting, and we've put it in Espresso," he said. In every format, The Economist stays true to its mission by providing reader with all the information they need toknow.

Apply the Economist's game plan to your own branded newsletter:

  • To protect your brand integrity, do what's best for your site or business, even if it's not what's popular on other sites. Espresso's lack of links to external content may seem counterintuitive to increasing digital engagement, but it's consistent with what readers expect from the publication.
  • Find a social media approach that makes the most sense for your audience. Consider both the frequency of your posts and your editorial policies, advises Hootsuite, and make sure your newsletter is consistent with the rest of your site's content.

Although the publishing industry excels at content creation, it faces the same challenges as many small businesses and site owners when it comes to deciding how to best distribute and share that content online. By using lessons learned along the way, the three examples above will give website publishers of any size a great place to start.