8 Social Media Questions Publishers Should Be Asking Themselves

social media traffic trendsFor most publishers social media has earned itself a prominent seat at the audience development table. However many still face issues with strategy, execution and incorporating social into a cohesive program.

This week I took part in an OPA Social Media Day panel on social media for audience development with Lisa Brewer from Time Inc. and Sasha Koren from The New York Times.

To provide a strategic overview and set a framework for the discussion I came up with a list of questions that summarizes the types of issues we frequently encounter in helping publishers with social media.

I received some positive feedback on the approach so I thought I’d share the questions here along with a brief summary of what I touched on.

Here are eight social media questions that publishers should be asking themselves:

1. Have we got our buttons right?

This seems like a very basic thing but I audit websites for a living and I see publishers making mistakes with their social sharing buttons all the time.

It comes down to effective selection, placement and formatting of social buttons on all key templates, and customizing those elements for different types of content.

Tweet text formatting has improved since I wrote Make the Most of Your Retweet Buttons but I still regularly come across issues with:

  • Missing URLs
  • Not including @[brand] or listing a third party tool instead (e.g. @AddThis)
  • Using the full HTML title tag (with a bunch of extra information) instead of just an optimized headline
  • Exceeding 140 characters and forcing the user to rework the tweet text

2. How much Facebook integration is too much?

A high degree of Facebook integration can feel a bit like being assimilated into the Borg, but the reality is there is a lot of audience across all demographics there so experimentation is certainly worthwhile.

Like buttons, Open Graph tags (which much like Twitter formatting, need to be done right!) and reasonable use of Facebook Social Plugins have essentially become standard practice.

The big thing for publishers now is figuring out their level of comfort with frictionless sharing.

Vijay Ravindran, Chief Digital Officer for The Washington Post gave a presentation later that day in which he highlighted the success of their Social Reader to-date.

One interesting takeaway was the user base and types of content that do well in Social Reader can be quite different from the main site. But that is proving to be an effective way to reach new audiences as opposed to creating a mismatch.

3. Are we creating optimized experiences for social media visitors?

The key point here is that user intent and behavior varies by social site and as compared to search and direction navigation. By studying things like pageviews, time on site and click paths publishers can gain insights and attempt to create optimized experiences for social visitors.

This might relate to the packaging or even selection of content and it can tie into advertising sales and conversion rate optimization too.

Understanding intent can be tricky (see Can Publishers Harvest Social Media Intent in a Meaningful Way?) but monitoring behavior and activity often proves valuable.

4. How do we maintain active social outposts without sacrificing on-site community?

The fact that sharing links is a large part of social media activity is a tremendous advantage for publishers. The rise of content marketing is driven largely by the fact that non-content businesses know that they need content to succeed in search and social.

As a result social sites have become important referral sources for publishers as opposed to taking away traffic.

And while a lot of user discussion around content is now taking place off site, on the whole this results in an increase in the total number of conversations as opposed to a reduction in on-site activity.

Publishers can also use off-site activity to their advantage by monitoring it to better understand audiences and come to up with new content ideas. In addition they can pull in user-generated social content into some sort of value-added package on their own site.

The New York Times in particular is good at combining user content with original reporting or doing interesting things with it through data visualization.

This tactic applies not only to digital but also to print, as with the Real Simple example I highlighted in 5 Good Ideas for News Media Facebook Pages.

5. What is the right mix of diversification?

Effective and appropriate diversification applies to social media strategy as a whole and to the tactics applied to specific social sites.

For instance every media outlet has main profiles for the brand, but to what degree should they develop profiles for specific site sections, topics and writers?

What level of time and resources should be applied to various social sites? When is the right time to jump into new opportunities? (Yes, we touched on the “P” word, as in Pinterest: Great Opportunity for Lifestyle Publishers and Brands).

Diversification also applies to social activity and engagement itself, in the format of content, style, tone, frequency, timing, etc.

Every publisher (and title) needs to find the right mix for themselves.

6. How does social media impact SEO?

The goal here is to focus on simple, actionable ways that publishers can leverage social media to have a positive impact on SEO.

For example Google Search Plus Your World is a large push towards greater personalization through social connections and social activity. The key point being that Google+ pages allow brands to make those direct connections with users.

So being in a lot of users’ circles means more opportunities for high visibility within their personalized results as well as greater annotation of the results which leads to more clicks.

The same applies to individual writers through their social connections and the fact that Google is highlighting authors and looking at author authority in both Web search and news search.

And beyond personalized search results the engines look at social activity in aggregate to help evaluate the popularity or relative importance of content and the authority of sites and authors.

This is particularly helpful with breaking news and trending topics for which strong link signals are not yet present. So it is important to have well established brand and individual networks as well as a promotion plan for high-priority content.

7. How do we measure success? Are we tracking the right things?

There are a lot of different things that should be measured and evaluated, but for publishers traffic (in particular YoY traffic growth) is still the most important measuring stick.

Things like reach, activity, engagement and sentiment are all worth examining. And as covered in question #4 comparing user activity and behavior among social sites and versus search and direct navigation referrals can provide valuable insights.

In terms of measuring success, a good approach is to define specific goals both for ongoing social activity and for specific content and promotions, as well as individual social sites. This allows you evaluate success in a more meaningful way.

8. What can we do better? (AKA Are we collaborating effectively?)

The main theme here is the need for better collaboration between the marketing, editorial and technical teams. All three are needed on a regular basic to keep up momentum. Social media cannot be a separate initiative; it needs to be integrated into a cohesive audience development plan.

I also touched on that fact that there is still a lot of trial and error in social media marketing, and that’s a good thing.

For publishers the success of organized social activities tends to fall into three categories: some things go great, some do ok to fairly well and the last third do not get much traction.

That’s a reasonable ratio; the important thing is to keep at and continue to experiment and learn.


  1. says

    You stated that Google looks at social signals to evaluate popularity. I’m assuming this means a higher ranking in the SERPS. Do you have any hard evidence of this? If so how much of the social signals is calculated in the Google algorithm? Thanks.

  2. says

    Hi Jake – There’s been quite a bit written about this within the SEO community; I’ll send you a few articles articles to give you some background information (I have your email from the comment form).

    In terms of looking at social signals in aggregate it is still early days and the engines aren’t going to reveal exactly how they are utilizing them. Links are still much more important but social signals are growing in prominence and value.

    Specific to Google, they are making such a big push for Google+ in part to have their own social graph to work with. But they do also look at public data from sources like Facebook and Twitter.

    If they had better relationships with Facebook and Twitter and thus better access to all their data you’d already see more visible signs of those signals impacting search visibility and display. But even without that, it is in all of the engines’ best interests to gain what insights they can from social activity. Without it they are missing some key indicators within the current environment.

  3. says

    Hi Adam – I think that brands/companies/publishers need to be very, very careful about who they employ to deliver the right social media strategy and simply taking your point 1 alone, left me dumbfounded at how 1) a leading gaming site I had been keeping a close eye on for research in social signals, had no idea what they were doing when integrating the appropriate social signals on their site and 2) as I currently work alongside a large SEO agency for a mutual client, struggled to understand why they would recommend against a Facebook ‘Company Like’ only to (what I believe) incorrectly advise adding the ‘Google+1 Recommend button’ for Google Circles rather than than the brick-red ‘Google+ Circles’ icon. Obviously there are other choices now but this demonstrated perfectly or rather more shockingly how even big agencies don’t always get it right, or get the right communication/training down to the lower level administrators.

    In my 1st example above and on one page alone, they had:

    Company – Facebook Like, Twitter Follow, Google+1 , Google+Circles
    Console Brand – Like
    Developer/Publisher – Like
    Game Title – Like
    Review Post – Like, Tweet, +1, Share (Top and bottom of article)
    Contributor – Like, Follow on Twitter

    Needless to say the page loading time was shocking and the signals without alt tags (which were needed here to tell you what you might like) were far too confusing.

    In my second example the SEO agency actually changed their advice and recommended the latter.

    All-in-all this an essential post in reminding us that a considered approach is a must.

  4. says

    Jake – attempts to game social signals are just a prevalent as other forms of Web spam. That’s hopefully where trust and authority signals come into play to separate real users from low-value profiles used for other purposes.

    Brad – that’s a good point, thanks for sharing your examples. There’s a fine balance between good use of and over-use of social buttons. You need to foster social activity without negatively impacting the user experience or site performance.

  5. says

    Social sharing buttons are important, but some people think that they need to include them all. This results in a cluttered look. Choose the most important and relevant networks to your audience and stick with those.

  6. says

    Really helpful especially the part about “comparing user activity and behavior among social sites and versus search and direct navigation referrals can provide valuable insights.” As an SEO marketer I can stop wondering what the peak of social marketing is. Browsing through this article brings the realization that there is still more to experiment and realize.
    Good article

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