The impressive growth of political site the Hill across social media has been obvious in recent months. What’s behind its success?
In late September, a story about tax policy went viral on Facebook news feeds, racking up around 170,000 total engagements on the platform.
While it’s not generally the type of subject matter most social media editors associate with significant engagement, for political site The Hill it was just another example of the detailed political reporting that sees huge reaction from its growing Facebook fan base daily.
Last month, we recorded the Hill as one of the most engaged sites on Facebook, relative to its fanbase, and also put it at 19th overall in terms of total Facebook engagements in September. It’s clear that the once niche insider politics site is quickly gaining readers and subscribers across platforms.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg, the site’s head of digital strategy and audience development, Neetzan Zimmerman, explained that the premise that political stories can’t go viral is untrue. “Can you take something like a hard policy story that is wonky and make it go viral without dumbing it down or reaching for the lowest common denominator?”
So far, the answer seems to be yes.
In 2017, the Hill is a consistent presence in the top Facebook publisher rankings, only one of a handful of solely political publishers that manage to attract enough social interactions to challenge mainstream media brands, as well as publishers focussing on more social media friendly content.
We decided to take a closer look at the stories from the Hill that achieved in recent months. The site went from 7.4 million monthly engagements in September 2016 (just two months before the presidential election) to over 17 million monthly engagements in September 2017, indicating that they’re doing something right. Here are three reasons that the site is making such an impact on social media.
Content: Timely, and to the point
The Hill’s strength lies in fast and comprehensive insight into the hot political stories of the day. They’re topical, timely, and largely easily understood. Take a look at the headlines of their most shared stories in the past two months (via Spike):
Each story is based around a news event (the Puerto Rico hurricane) taking precedence in the media at the time. While headlines on Facebook are kept fairly short, the Hill’s social media team also makes a point of elaborating on each story in the post description on Facebook.
We’ve seen this case with other publishers, such as the Independent and BBC News, in the past. Once an audience starts to engage with and read content regularly from a breaking news source, it’s likely that the algorithm will favour multiple showings of posts from that source.
By staying timely and focussed on their beat, the Hill can challenge bigger, more established media brands in the news feed. Of course, the Hill has been helped significantly by the current political climate, as well as a string of active story themes from the White House administration, which has kept it supplied with plenty of lucrative headlines.
By making it their mission to be the place for their audience to turn for breaking political news, the Hill has carved out a valuable position in social publishing.
A wide range of supporting pages, across the political spectrum
The trend amongst political pages on social media in the last few years has been to skew hard to the left or right. And many of these more partisan publishers have seen significant success in growing their readership and social engagement. But in doing so, they’ve essentially acknowledged that their audience is limited to adherents of whatever viewpoint they advocate.
Meanwhile, the Hill’s current iteration has emerged from a long history as an insider political news site, with less of a focus on appealing to mass audiences than informing a smaller base readership. The site has largely retained this approach as it has grown, with a resolve to upholding a nonpartisan approach in the social and mobile era. This means that the site has a larger potential audience pool, as their stories have more chance of breaking into the feeds of readers who may otherwise see stories solely from one partisan extreme.
This also doesn’t mean that the site shies away from coverage and analysis that could potentially alienate different camps. Many of the Hill’s biggest stories are reshared by political pages of all strands. For example, a heavily shared story about Hillary Clinton in September ended up being shared by pages as diverse as ‘Texans for Trump’, and ‘The Democratic Coalition Against Trump’.
Focussing on what works
It’s also interesting to note the value that the Hill places on link content on their Facebook pages. The Hill’s Facebook video strategy seems to be to go less regular, and only when there’s something that a video can add to the story without seeming superfluous. Looking at NewsWhip Analytics, we can see how the Hill’s Facebook video count has decreased since the start of 2017.
Meanwhile, we can see that average engagements on links posted to the page has largely stayed at around the 5,000 mark throughout the year. Doubling down on what’s working seems to be paying dividends.
Social video can take a lot of resources to do well, and isn’t suited to every type of story. It takes some publishers longer than others to realise this fully. When the Hill does go into video, it opts for a scenario where it’s the best format, such as the live video of a President Trump speech in September, which ended up being its most commented on post of the month.
As we’ve noted on the blog in the past, focussing on the content formats and types that resonate with your audience is crucial, and can be informed through measured analysis of your social analytics.
For a look into the most engaged audiences on social media across any vertical, take a trial of NewsWhip Analytics.