What’s it like to cover the world’s news through news feed, timeline and Snapchat?
As one of the world’s best-known news brands, BBC News have long been figuring out the best way to reach their global audience on social media.
We talked to Social Media Editor Mark Frankel about how they’re reaching millions of readers by bringing the news directly to their phones and news feeds.
His team have been to the fore of experimenting with new platforms for distribution. On its flagship Facebook page, BBC News now reach over 27.3 million fans. We put them at the eighth most shared site on Facebook in December. According to NewsWhip data, they’re consistently one of the most popular breaking news publishers on Facebook and Twitter, where their global coverage reaches a wide audience.
But they’ve long made use of less obvious platforms. They were an early adopter of using Instagram to tell news stories, and offered SMS breaking news updates long before the advent of mobile push notifications.
Now the BBC News social media team are turning their attention to new platforms and formats. In particular, messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, Snapchat stories, and vertical and live video are proving fruitful.
The two-fold lure of messaging apps
“We’ve seen a big growth in chat apps in the last year, and I think that’s an opportunity for us to explore how we can reach audiences using platforms that have previously been used as messaging services,” says Mark.
But new distribution channels aren’t the apps’ only appeal. Increasingly, they’re acting as crucial information gatherers for the BBC News team.
“On WhatsApp, we see that consistently, a large volume of stories that we get alerts to in the first instance and contributions like eye-witness reports, pictures and comments, will come from there, rather than Twitter or email,” explains Mark.
As these apps mature and develop in terms of their own CMS and potentially APIs, that will present news organisations with further opportunities as well.”
And it isn’t just globally adopted apps like WhatsApp that are showing strong engagement for the BBC. During Canada’s recent elections, BBC News launched an experiment to reach young voters on Yik Yak, the location-based messaging app that claims a 98% millennial user base.
“We’ve been able to do some quite interesting outreach work to first-time voters. It was aimed at people who would have been a little less conscious of the output that we have, but had very interesting things to say and share about the election,” explains Mark.
Meanwhile, their Persian language Telegram channel for Iranian readers had around 200,000 subscribers within a month of being launched.
Live-streaming offers a great opportunity
As a giant name in broadcasting, BBC News also sees clear synergies between the boom in social video and their TV staff’s expertise behind, and in front of, the camera.
For broadcast specialists, 2015’s launch of Mentions, Facebook’s in feed live-streaming feature, was good news. BBC News have been active in experimenting with the feature, posting clips of reporters commenting on topical stories, and answering viewers’ questions live.
“We’ve innovated quite a lot around live-streaming, and I think that’s also been a big growth area (in 2015)”, says Mark.
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“I think there’s an expectation that people can deliver news quickly, that anyone can do it, and that you can be closer to the story and get involved in the story. One of the learnings that we’ve had through testing live-streaming on Facebook has been just how high the quality of the comments have been. We’ve already determined that we will get a very engaged audience, from right across the world, and many of them are asking questions and raising comments that we can use directly in our news output. So we can be answering them directly on the stream itself, but we can also surface the best of those contributions for later programmes. They give us a really good indication of what a social media audience is most interested in.”
As an example, Mark points to the team at the well-known BBC investigative journalism show Panorama using social media to explore the effect of a steel plant closure in the north of England.
“They posted on their Facebook page and via a continuously updated liveblog on our website, nuggets with pictures and text of people who were affected by the steel closure. They did that as a rolling news story, to try to reach underserved audiences and communities in a digital sphere. These are things we can do in different way”
There are other risks associated with journalists live-streaming on social – during a recent sortie to cover the US’s East Coast blizzard, one stream came undone in the conditions.
Mark expects to see the growth of video, and the competition between host platforms, to ‘sharpen’ this year.
“Different immersive video experiences – such as 360 video, animation, VR – will evolve, and I think that’s something that platforms want to invest in. We’ll need to play our part in thinking about how we make the most of the that.”
“Be alert to the possibility, but realistic about the dangers”
Dealing with so many established and emerging distribution points, is it too much to ask that there are some best practice takeaways when dealing with communities across platforms?
“It’s really hard to come up with a set of rules, but when you’re dealing with that kind of interactivity on social media and with live-streams, my sense is that you need to be alert to the possibility, but realistic about the dangers and issues that arise from jumping into it too quickly. That could be around permissions, copyright, usage, that whole arena.
Clearly, there are things that we need to be conscious of, but there are opportunities as well. Crucially, it allows us to be relevant and contemporary, and to talk with a tone and voice that chimes with peoples’ experience of breaking news. It’s really important that we’re alert and alive to all that.”
But although the BBC News team are fully aware of the benefits of engaging with platforms, Mark is aware of how the distribution debate is playing out for publishers.
“The various platforms are determined to become essentially a homepage, a destination site for users. Previously, they were aware that people could share and engage in comments, without being interested in delivering the news in the first place. I think that line is becoming increasingly blurred, and it raises questions in terms of how much content we should be delivering and how much we should be encouraging people to come back to us.”
But for now, the potential audience reach that platforms offer is unavoidable.
In August 2014, the social media team celebrated the 10 million like milestone on its Facebook page. Eighteen months later, that’s been far surpassed, and new platforms are on the horizon.