Zach Seward joined The Wall Street Journal Online in December as its first Outreach Editor, where he works on social media, partnerships, and development.
PRNewser caught up with Seward this week to get his take on number of issues, and of course to ask him what exactly he does at WSJ.com.
You joined the Journal in December 2009, in the new position of “outreach editor.” Tell us a little bit about how you got the gig?
My previous job was covering media for the blog Nieman Journalism Lab, so part of that certainly involved talking to news organizations about what they were up to in the online space. So, I had talked to Alan Murray, the executive editor of WSJ.com for a while, and things sort of came together over time. The Journal at a certain point was deciding whether they wanted such a position and what it might be like, and it seemed interesting and I was looking to get to New York
What are your primary responsibilities?
A large portion of my time so far has been taken up with social media: What should The Wall Street Journal‘s strategy be, day to day implementation of some of that, tweeting from some of our accounts, posting to accounts on Facebook or other sites.
Another major element of the job is being a liaison to outside partners. Our business side deals with striking partnerships with outside companies, and I get involved in the day to day of helping that run smoothly, whether it’s a syndication partner or a social media company that we’re doing work with. I’m a liaison from the newsroom to them.
Do you think the Journal is behind or ahead of its competitors when it comes to social media strategy?
I have to say I think we’re ahead. I also might reject the premise of the question only in so much as, one, I don’t know that social media is one singular concept. There are things that the Journal or other news sites can do on our own site to make content as shareable as possible.
Two, there are ways we can use social media to tell our stories, and then three, there is the sort of the how are users choose to interact with us in the context of social media. Those are three specific things and I would evaluate us on all three separately. There some areas where I think we’re ahead of our competition, but it also opens up the question of who exactly are our competitors.
Do reporters ever “pitch” you to get their story on the @WSJ Twitter feed?
Sure. Certainly when I first came though, people didn’t know who I was. I was getting acquainted with the newsroom. Over time that’s happened more. More aggressive reporters certainly reach out.
A more common question is about what can they be doing to bring a bigger audience to the content their producing. Even more common than, “Can you post this specific article I wrote on Twitter?” is, “What should my strategy be moving forward?” Traffic to one piece is less important than people being interested in what they’re doing on an ongoing basis.
So you work with specific reporters on developing their audience or community?
Yes. Certainly one of the first steps we take together is trying to identify what the potential community or audience is. Usually that is as simple as me asking a reporter about groups and existing communities around his or her subject area. Whether that is small business reporter or a reporter covering hedge funds, it’s not going to be necessarily clear to me who the community is, but usually the reporter knows very well.
Then it’s figuring out how to get in front of and be a part of that community. That is a much more difficult question.
The things we look at are where is traffic coming from to your story already? I worked with a columnist who was getting particularly strong traffic on Facebook already, so it seemed like if we were going to develop a strategy for reaching more people, it would make total sense to do it on Facebook.
We try to avoid social media sprawl, or the idea that you have to have Facebook, Twitter or a Digg account for every project or reporter. It’s never going to be as effective as, “This is the specific audience we’re trying to reach and how.”
You created a Facebook page which documented, as it happened, a Haitian-American’s mission to rescue his family in Port-au-Prince. Do you anticipate doing this for other WSJ stories?
That’s definitely the best example, and yes we do hope to do it for other stories. It was sort of the perfect story for that. I guess we sort of are always evaluating in general the best way to tell a story and sometimes that means an emphasis on video or interactive graphics. In this case, it seemed social media was a good vehicle for telling the story.
Here’s how it happened. Our page one editors turned up a human interest angle to a Haiti earthquake story, and said, lets try to capture this one family’s story. One reporter went down to Miami and talked to a man who’s wife and daughter were in Port-au-Prince, and he was going to go save them. The initial thought was a 2,000 word narrative piece on the front page, and that’s what happened.
But our foreign editor had an idea to tell the story as it’s happening. This is an ongoing narrative and we could keep giving readers updates on how his journey is going in real time. From there, we thought of the best way to make that happen, and a Facebook page seemed to be particularly useful. For one, you had elements like status updates that we could use to our advantage. A typical status update could be, “Mark just crossed the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti.
So, we could truly give people who are following it a real time experience, and make it compelling in that way. The other important element of why we chose to do it through Facebook is the concept of looking at a page, you’re reading your update now and you want to make sure you’re getting the rest of the updates. Here, if you became a fan of the page, you would receive updates on your Facebook page.
What are some specific things the WSJ considers when looking to potentially partner with a company?
In part I’d leave it to our business development group to discuss what they look for in partners that fall under their area. We have plenty of syndication partners who are licensing our content. But the calculus for when that happens and why is something.. it’s business development’s area.
We have plenty of informal partnerships, and it’s not necessarily considering revenue, but instead, “What does this platform potentially mean for us and more importantly, for our users?”
Tell us about the partnership with Foursquare and specifically how that works?
We saw in Foursquare a really interesting platform for distributing our content that was really interesting for a number of reasons. It’s an opportunity to try and play around with a platform that wasn’t built for news and see if it works well for now. The answer could very well be no and that would be fine, but we certainly wanted to try. Foursquare has a really interesting, dedicated and fast growing user base and it’s a new platform to experiment with location based news.
We’re doing a number of things with Foursquare. One is leaving tips around New York based on content that runs on our “Greater New York” section. For example, every day we run a restaurant review and that makes for a perfect tip, or on the day the New York section launched, we had an exclusive on the terrorist who got over the George Washington Bridge with explosives in his truck. We left a tip at the George Washington Bridge with a link to our article on it. Or, we write about the keys to Gramercy Park. The idea is if you check in at Gramercy Park you may be interesting in an article about the park.
We’re also experimenting with check-ins. It’s very clear when a user of Foursquare checks in to a location, it means he or she is there. What it means for news organizations, is by no means clear. The first time we tried it was after the Times Square car bomb attempt, there was a further scare, and so we checked in to Times Square and said as much, and people found that really valuable.
How are you measuring all of this, and also, which metrics matter?
I’ve yet to see anyone come up with a calculator for social media return on investment (ROI) that I buy into. However, I buy into the idea of course, that we should maximize our return here. I have a little bit of leeway. Some of our efforts can be justified as great journalism and if they bring in page views and revenue along with them, that’s fantastic. I have the luxury of considering it secondary.
We’re looking at the same metrics anyone else is, starting with page-views. Another interesting metric is time on site. It’s a critical metric and one that really ought to go hand and hand when you’re talking about engagement. However, I also don’t know if we’re really trying to get you to stay on a page for the longest period of time, but it’s an important metric to us. It’s a mix.
I keep an eye for instance on anyone using our Twitter handle. If people are interesting, and if people are re-tweeting. People reply to us and point out errors sometimes or they ask questions about something we’ve written. We reply back, and we do that because it’s good journalism. I would hate to have to…I can’t even imagine to try and put together an ROI calculation on something like that.
How does WSJ.com’s pay wall affect what you can and can’t do when it comes to your position as outreach editor?
It’s a somewhat unique challenge for us. We certainly see more of our social media traffic go to non-subscription content, but in the end WSJ.com is a hybrid model and we are both trying to reach as many people are possible and convert as many of them to subscribers. How exactly do you go about doing that? Any follower of @WSJ on Twitter finds the majority of those links are to free content. We want that to be accessible to as many people as possible.
However, we want to reach people who are non-subscribers too. And we certainly look at, if you’re talking about metrics, we look at conversion rates from people who come from Twitter or Facebook versus other sources. It’s something because of the hybrid site, we look at it all the time. It appears that a lot of competitors who are moving to pay models have to confront this as well.