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Joshua Benton: Putting the social in social media

Finding the right tool isn’t the answer to communicating online. Social media has to have the tenor of human conversation to be effective, says Joshua Benton.

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October 27, 2009

The start of a social media strategy should be the question, “What is it that our audience needs that we can provide?” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. To do that, organizations must find where their audience “hangs out” online and then offer content to delight or inform that audience.

Joshua BentonA former reporter with the Dallas Morning News, Benton is now the director of the Lab, a collaborative attempt to figure out how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the Internet age.  Benton worked in the newspaper industry for 10 years before joining the Lab. He also was a Pew Fellow in International Journalism and a Nieman Fellow.

Faith & Leadership spoke with Joshua Benton to discuss Twitter, blogs, Facebook and the new world of social media.

Q: How would you describe your lab?

The lab launched in October 2008, so we’re still pretty new, but the Nieman Foundation recently had its 71st anniversary. It was founded back in the 1930s, primarily as a fellowship program for journalists.

Over time we’ve also created a number of outreach programs. Journalism is undergoing a lot of changes, some of them hopeful, wonderful and amazing, some of them less so. There are many journalists and news organizations that feel disoriented, that feel there is a lot of change going on for which they may or may not be ready.

The mission of the lab is to try and figure out what the future of journalism is going to look like. That means looking at news organizations that are doing innovative things, looking at startups that are trying new business models, looking at tools that are available to journalists to do a better job in the Internet age. Basically, we’re looking for what works and what doesn’t, and trying to point journalism in a sustainable direction.

Q: There are interesting parallels between mainline Protestant denominations and the newspaper industry -- in both worlds, there’s a lot of concern that the old structures aren’t working well anymore.

Newspapers are designed primarily as print vehicles, and they still get on average 90 percent of their revenues from their print edition. As long as that is the case it's hard to change the news organization to be fundamentally web-focused. You're never going to be able to be as agile and as adaptive as a web-only organization that doesn’t have the benefits of a profitable old legacy. But [the web-only organization] doesn’t have the constraints of having to continue serving that old legacy.

The startups, the aggregators, the bloggers, the very small news organizations have been doing a lot of the innovation. You could look at it and say, “Well, that’s weird, because these news organizations have all this money, and all these resources to be able to do innovation,” but they're tied into that old model.

Clay Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, has written very wisely on these issues. He writes about disruptive innovations and shifts that fundamentally change the way organizations work.

What Christensen ends up saying is that [for organizations experiencing moments] of massive disruptive innovation, the key is to create an entirely separate organization to tackle it, one that isn’t bound by the rules of the old system.

You have to give that new organization permission to destroy the old organization. You can't have that new organization thinking, “Oh, this is what is smart, but we can't do it because it wouldn’t be good for the parent organization.” You have to give them permission to completely innovate and approach things in a new way.

Now that, I think, is a very smart bit of advice for companies. Whether it's a smart bit of advice for an organization that dates back to Martin Luther, I can't really say. That may require a different set of paradigms.

Q: People in church communications feel they should use social media such as Twitter, but they aren’t sure how it can work with their audience. Do you have any thoughts on that?

When you're thinking about your social media strategy, it is important to figure out where your target audience hangs out. If your target audience is on Twitter then it makes sense to invest a lot of time in Twitter. If they're on Facebook, it makes sense to invest there. These are the big ones, but there are so many other places that your people might be.

Let’s say everyone in your congregation is 85 and doesn’t have a computer. You're not going to reach them through social media. You have to think of a second audience, people you might want to reach who aren’t yet in your organization or congregation; figure out who those people are and where they spend their time online.

Q: How do you figure that out?

The first thing I would do is some pretty aggressive Googling. Chances are your church is already being talked about somewhere online; it's useful to figure out where that’s occurring. It may be on a message board that you don’t know anything about. Beyond that, I'd say informal conversation. Ask the web-savvy people in your congregation, “Where do you spend your time online?”

One of our target audiences is web-savvy journalists. Those people are all on Twitter, so we’re on Twitter. Almost all those people are also on Facebook, but they don’t live on Facebook the way they live on Twitter, so we have a much smaller following on Facebook. We figured out ways that we can try and serve both, but Twitter is definitely where our focus is, because that’s where our people are.

Q: Many of the people who do communications at the denominational level are communicating regionally or nationally. Are there differences in the strategies for a larger audience?

The issue is less geography and more how to get your name and your message in front of people. A lot of folks in social media default to a strategy that is very self-promotional. If you are self-promotional, the main thing you talk about is how great you are; you can achieve a certain degree of audience among the people who are already interested in knowing what your church is doing.

But the key to getting a broader audience is figuring out who are the people you want to reach and how you can best serve them. What can you put in front of them that will delight them or fill one of their needs?

When we started our Twitter feed, for example, we could have used it exclusively to promote what we’re writing. Instead, we thought, “Our readers are journalists who are interested in the same kinds of issues as we are. How can we best serve them?”

The answer was: There's interesting work going on in the future of journalism every day. We’re not writing about all of it on our site, so let’s use our Twitter feed as a place where we put out 10 to 15 links a day to sites that we’re looking at. We treated Twitter like a background news wire, which was constantly streaming information. The result is that people have come to trust us as a real source of information.

Now, if we do ever use it to promote our own stories, we have enormous power to do so because we’ve built up this audience by serving them. That is a big step; it begins with thinking, “What is it that our audience needs that we can provide?”

Q: Isn’t there a danger, though, in sending people away from your site?

Oh, no. I will completely argue against that. If you're a for-profit institution you have a slightly different set of metrics, but the key thing is that you gain value by being a trusted source of information. I think that the best way to build your brand online is to help your readers as best you can. That probably won’t mean being just a calendar of events for what you're doing.

Q: Do you have any best practices or recommendations for finding the most effective ways of using technology to build community?

The key word in social media is social. Social media has to have the tenor of the human conversation for it to be effective.

When people talk about where journalism is going, there is a gut reaction on the part of many that the answer is in tools and technology. In newsrooms this takes the form of, “We all have to buy a bunch of cameras and learn how to shoot video, then everything will be fine.”

Q: So it's not just a matter of finding that one right tool?

The Internet fundamentally changes the ways that people can gather together, get information and organize themselves, and that’s not something a tool will help you do.

Twitter and Facebook are very valuable tools, but they're valuable primarily because they're the place that people gather, they're the town square where it's a good place to put your flyer.

Q: How do you stand out in engaging people who have so much competing for their attention?

Seth Godin,  a marketing guru, says that the key is to produce things that are remarkable, because if something is remarkable then people will want to remark upon it to their friends and colleagues. Create content that begs to be spread around in a social media context, the kinds of things that people are going to say, “Wow, this is great,” and share it with their friends on Facebook or retweet on Twitter.

Q: Do you have examples of a national organization that’s had good luck with communicating using new media?

I can’t point to any churches because I don’t know that world well enough, but there are a number of companies that have used social media in interesting and innovative ways and gotten a lot of success. I’ll give you a few examples.

Dell Computer has a Twitter account where they just tweet coupons for goods that they're selling that are only available on Twitter. And because they're pretty good values, people subscribe to it even if they don’t want to buy a computer they see a coupon and they retweet it to all their friends. As a result Dell has been able to make quite a bit of money selling through their Twitter account.

On a different scale, there's a company like Zappos that sells shoes. They are constantly Twittering to try and put a human face on a shoe company. They’ve successfully adopted social media and as a result have created this wonderful reputation for customer service. They’re putting a human face on what could otherwise be a sort of dry, e-commerce transaction.

Companies on a very small scale, a one-person scale, have used Twitter to figure out how they can get to their audience. For example, there are a lot of street vendors in San Francisco and New York that roam around the city and tweet when they get to a certain corner, saying, “Hey, I'm here at the corner of 6th and Broadway.” Suddenly the vendors get swarmed by people descending from skyscrapers to come and buy their hotdogs or their pretzels. So there are a lot of different strategies.

In general, social media is good for putting a human face on your work, for finding small niches of customers that are better reached through social media than they are through things like advertising in the mass media. It's good for interaction, seeing exactly what your customers are saying, and listening to them.