This post is part of the Social Media Editor Series, featuring interviews with social media editors from news organizations about what they do and where they see social media in journalism going.
The Huffington Post is a social media beast. The “internet newspaper” has 657,000 Facebook fans, nearly 2 million Twitter followers and a commentary rate that can rival total page views on other news sites.
Additionally with HuffPost Live 321 — a live streaming video network featuring community contributors that’s set to launch later this month — social media will become an editorial product itself.
Launched in 2005, Arianna Huffington’s namesake publication has lots of balls in the air and requires an entire social media team as well as open-minded strategy to keep them going.
“It’s a lot to deal with,” Dean Praetorius, HuffPo’s senior editor of trends and social media, said regarding the site’s more than 50 vertical accounts, covering subjects as oppositional as weddings and divorce and as far-reaching as politics and entertainment.
The editors for these sections create their own social media posts, which HuffPo’s social media team can then choose to use for the website’s main accounts, which have the capability of catapulting content to devices across the world.
“We are very well aware that our main feeds can be launching pads for viral content,” said Praetorius, 24, a Boston College graduate in communications.
Viral posts, in turn, drive more traffic to the website. Whether something will reach that level of popularity, however, largely depends on its content, Praetorius said.
“It can be everything from a great blog post people don’t expect to something that gets people having a conversation about the news,” he said. “Some of our most viral posts are the most commented as well.”
HuffPo employs 486 people, including a social team of seven, a community team of six plus 30 moderators and more than 300 in editorial, and manages 30,000 unpaid bloggers (10,000 of which have posted in the last 90 days).
HuffPo relies heavily on analytics to determine its social media strategy. Using Bit.ly data as well as its own, HuffPo determined that user interaction with its tweets plateaus around the five-minute mark, so that’s how frequently the main account posts on Twitter.
That’s a lot of tweets, but Praetorius, who oversees strategic projects in social media, said they’re not “stepping on our own toes.”
“We know we’re not losing followers as a result of how much we tweet,” he said. “We’re not tweeting so often that people aren’t engaging with our tweets.”
Indeed, retweets and Facebook shares of HuffPo content consistently number in the hundreds, which drives traffic but also creates a sense of community for readers.
“At the end of the day, traffic is a concern but it isn’t the only concern,” Praetorius said. HuffPo uses its comments to shape future social media strategy.
“We always do care about the commenters and what they care about,” Praetorius said. “So when suggestions come in through Facebook and Twitter, we look at what they are, not just for timeliness but what will engage our audience.”
Cultivating a strong comments community requires upkeep. HuffPo uses Julia, a word analysis program, to flag abusive comments and prevents trolls from creating an atmosphere that stifles discussion. According to Praetorius, HuffPo’s vibrant commentary community also polices itself. As proof, he said, HuffPo doesn’t frequently delete comments.
The web news giant has an equally hands-off approach to social media policy: It doesn’t really have one. Instead, Praetorius said HuffPo judges social media on a case-by-case basis and encourages “good judgement,” “creativity” and alternatives to straight news headlines to promote user engagement.
“We’re not keeping people from having opinions or a conversation,” he said. “We don’t want things to end with just putting out a link.”
This means HuffPo posts are provocative — usually an interesting quote, a perplexing query or a juicy bit of information — and are meant to drive page views and conversation.
And if you’ve ever seen a HuffPo comment thread, you’ll know reading the article is only the beginning of a discussion.