5 reasons why CNN is a champion at social distribution

November 28, 2018

Written by NewsWhip

This year, CNN has seen remarkable Facebook engagement growth. So what are the keys to the publisher’s success? We look at the data.

With rampant misinformation, fragmented audiences, and shifting algorithms, 2018 has been a rollercoaster for publishers and their audiences.

Despite this, some publishers have grown their footprint on social media as users have shared and engaged with their content.

CNN 2018 Facebook Engagements
CNN is one such publisher. Despite a tumultuous climate and wavering trust in the media, CNN has performed well this year.

The publisher rose from #4 in September to #1 in October, with a gain of 1.5x engagements from the previous month. In raw numbers, this was an additional 11 million engagements.

So why is that? Using our NewsWhip database, we explored CNN’s success through its social media metrics.

1. A focus on facts

These are CNN’s top stories of the past three months, according to their Facebook engagements:

CNN 2018 Facebook Engagements Articles
The top headlines are straightforward, giving audiences exactly what they need to know without any commentary or partisanship.

As Pew Research has recently found, misinformation is undetectable to most Americans. Perhaps in this landscape, traditional outlets are more and more relied on for finding the facts. Our October rankings reflected that, with only well-known outlets making the top 25.

At our 2017 WhipSmart event, just months after the 2016 election, Ashley Codianni, CNN’s executive producer for social and emerging media, spoke about the publisher’s initiative to report to both sides.
“You’re telling so many different stories and you can’t do that if everyone thinks the same,” said Codianni.

“At the end of the day, we’re not an organization that relies on content aggregation and we’re not a social team that relies on clickbait-y low hanging fruit,” said Codianni, “We’re journalism with a capital ‘J’, and we’ve seen our audiences, across social, react positively by delivering substantial news, day in day out, to a global audience.”

2. A source for many topics

Beyond politics and breaking news, other topics peppered the most engaging stories of the past three months.

The repeating themes were science and particularly climate change, education initiatives, crime, international affairs, and gender & LGBT rights.

Below are the top stories, by each category:
CNN 2018 Facebook Engagements Articles Topics
After politics, the most common theme in the top 100 stories was inclusivity, whether it was race, gender, or sexuality. This was often tied to the results of the U.S. midterm elections.

Digging deeper into CNN’s metrics reveals just how much the publisher is a source of timely and relevant information. Looking at its most shared articles reveals a prominent theme.
Shares percentage
The articles with the highest percentage of shares were primarily about issues directly relatable to readers: food recalls, what to do about technology hacks, and issues voting. These articles are immediately relevant and actionable.

3. Highly shareable 

CNN’s average shares per article made for another interesting data point this past month. Looking at October’s data, CNN had the highest average shares per article of any breaking news outlet.
average shares CNN Facebook
Again, this could come down to CNN presenting a story matter-of-factly, and coming across in this way as a credible source.

According to Renan Borelli, the senior editor of digital storytelling at the New York Times, when he was at MTV News, the publisher would receive criticism if they weighed in on a story with any sort of slant or tone.

“We found that people don’t want the snarkiness from us. They don’t want dramatic and bombastic headlines. They want us to just lay things out directly,” said Borelli, adding readers would rather react on the article themselves.

4. Humanized storytelling on native platforms

We’d be remiss if we didn’t look at the channels where CNN reaches its audiences. Given its success on Facebook, we took a look at the publisher’s Facebook Page.

Since September 1st, CNN’s main Facebook Page has seen an average daily increase of 3,200 new Page likes.

The Page’s top posts during this time have been different from what’s performed well on the web. The top four posts are framed with much more of a human interest narrative:
Facebook Posts CNN
Beyond this theme, informative posts about politics and international affairs feature heavily.
Current events like the California wildfires and Hurricane Florence also appear, though not as much as politically-linked content.

Notably, for CNN’s Page, videos and links are evenly proportioned between output and the number of engagements that they accrue.

This is a change from what we’ve seen for other publishers, where videos tend to drive a disproportionate, higher number of engagements when compared to other formats.
CNN Facebook Output
Looking at two of CNN’s other channels, Twitter and YouTube, there are again clear content themes.
The most retweeted and liked posts on Twitter again have strong threads of emotional storytelling, or show users something they wouldn’t see every day. Breaking news also performs well.

YouTube differed from Facebook and Twitter, in that the top viewed videos tended to be explainers, specifically around politics.  

5. No need to keep it short

Looking again at the top ten articles, we were curious to see whether there was a ‘sweet spot’ for the word count of the top articles.
word count CNN
The top articles varied from as little as 240 words long, to 3,715 words long. The longest piece was a live updated article covering the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.  

To 2019 and beyond

As the year wraps up, publishers may be setting new strategies for 2019 and scrutinizing what will work in reaching tomorrow’s audiences. CNN has consistently stayed toward the top of our rankings, even as platforms and audiences have changed.

“The mission statement for social at CNN is creating a news habit for every generation on every platform,” said Samantha Barry, former head of social at CNN, in an interview on our blog. “Not only do platforms move really fast, audience behavior moves really fast.

“You always need to be willing to iterate and try new things on social. And some of them won’t work. In the social world more than anywhere else across legacy media organizations, it’s ok to fail, but fail fast.”

To stay up to date on the media trends for the next generation, check out our Gen Z guide here. 

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