SPJVPA16: How to engage your community online

By Margaret Carmel

Before the internet, readers and viewers had no way to interact with the journalists who brought them the news. But today, social media enables journalists to connect with their audiences for a variety of purposes. From gathering sources and building a personal brand to communicating with consumers, it has become an essential skill in the modern journalist’s toolbox.

At the VPA/SPJ Region 2 Conference, three experts shared their wisdom on how to more effectively utilize social media. The panelists were Bob Bennett, senior producer for WAVY-TV/WVBT-TV in Norfolk; Roben Farzad, host of the show “Full Disclosure” on NPR One; and Bryan Devasher, breaking news reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“I always wonder what my morning of 9/11 would have been like in the era of the smartphone,” Farzad said. “Anybody can be recording anything. Anyone is suddenly this sentinel of information.”

Twitter and Facebook are great for promoting your content, but they also are useful for finding people and connecting with potential sources.

Bennett said Facebook is an effective tool to track down anyone and everything you might need for a story.  While you are building your network, it is also important to build your personal brand. By having followers know what to expect from your content, they are more likely to follow you.

Bob Bennett, senior producer and social media expert at WAVY-TV in Norfolk

Bennett suggests that you use social media to keep viewers connected with you throughout your day and build interest in your final story.

“Make sure you don’t give away your whole story, but entice them to watch or read the final product,” Bennett said. “Make sure you go full circle and link back to the completed product so people online can find it later.”

Another essential part of using social media is effectively targeting your audience. Devasher says it’s essential to know when your audience is paying attention.

“See when your fans are online and what their makeup is,” he said. “We will save some of our best stuff for prime time, which is 9 o’clock at night.”

The best way to track such data is to use tools like Facebook Analytics built into brand pages, or the more comprehensive Google Analytics. They help you measure not just when your followers are online, but what kinds of stories they are interested in.

By measuring both the reach of posts and link clicks, you can effectively target your content to increase engagement.

“We worry more about clicks than reach,” said Devasher, who is also an adjunct journalism instructor at VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. “We want to entice them to click on it, but our revenue depends on how many clicks our website gets. If we’re not getting clicks on a story, then we try to do something different.”

Social media engagement can have downsides, too. When you post content online, you often draw negative attention from trolls. Farzad’s advice is to ignore them as much as possible.

“You always want to discuss ideas civilly over Twitter with your followers, but as soon as it turns to personal insults, walk away,” he said.

Nastiness online might not always be directed at you either. Comment sections are a breeding ground for personal insults, racist language and other hateful words. According to Devasher, you should not respond. Instead let the readers fight it out for themselves.

“We’re kind of like a schoolyard monitor in that way,” he said. “Often the community hashes out conflicts on their own.”

Follow the speakers on Twitter:

Robert Bennett: @WAVY10Bob

Bryan Devasher: @bryandevasher

Roben Farzad: @robenfarzad

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