In August 2013, I took on the role of live tweeting BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. This involves posting content online which complements the stories we’re covering on air – a mixture of audio clips, pictures, news lines and quotes from our interviews.
At time of writing (March 2014), Today has 296,000 Twitter followers and 60,000 Facebook fans – not enough, but more on that later. To go with a presentation I gave this week, I’ve written a bit about what tends to work and not work for our social media audience. I’m not an expert or anything, this is just based on my own experience overseeing the programme’s social media over the last six months:
Images play a crucial role in driving our social media content, as they’re eye-catching and make a tweet far more likely to be retweeted or shared. When Twitter changed its layout in October so that pictures began showing up under text automatically instead of having to be individually clicked, we saw a considerable increase in the level of engagement and number of retweets our stories received.
Twitter has proved vital in visualising radio in general, but we’ve found it particularly useful on Today as so many of the stories we cover are driven by images. Perhaps the most obvious example of a recent picture-led news story was the Somerset floods. This superb ‘mammoth wave’ picture in particular struck a chord with the audience:
(Throughout this blog you can see the exact number of retweets and favourites a post received immediately below the picture, although the actual figure is usually higher as these stats don’t take into account people who manually retweet by copying and pasting.)
Our presenters used to direct listeners to “the website” whenever we had online content to promote, but we always felt that sounded somewhat vague (did they mean the Today website? The Radio 4 website? The BBC News website?) and they’d rarely give out a specific URL. Recently, however, whenever we’ve covered a news story that demands the listeners are able to see a certain picture quickly (eg. recent stories about London’s new proposed drinking fountain designs or the National Gallery’s purchase of their first major American painting), they’ve found it more useful and immediate to be able to direct listeners to Twitter.
But it’s not just picture-led stories that benefit from having accompanying images. Even stories where a photo isn’t necessary can be massively boosted by attaching one anyway. The recent death of the oldest Holocaust survivor is a good example of this:
I doubt this story would have had that many retweets and favourites had the tweet consisted of text alone. But the rather sweet picture of Alice Herz-Sommer attached to the story clearly encouraged people to spread the story to their own followers.
The Today programme does also have an Instagram account, but we’ve never promoted it anywhere. I like Instagram, in fact it’s probably my favourite social network, but the bulk of our audience haven’t heard of it, so our general policy is that it’s there if we need it, but we don’t put as much time into it as we do Facebook and Twitter – mainly because it’s a difficult platform for sharing and building up a large follower base.
Instagram users can’t easily re-post a picture they like within the app’s ecosystem the way they can on Facebook (via their share button) or Twitter (via retweeting). Sharing instagrams you’ve uploaded on multiple platforms is particularly ineffective – it still baffles me whenever I see people posting Instagram links on Twitter. Because of the extra effort required to view instagrams (they aren’t viewable within Twitter’s timeline), hardly anybody sees them, as most users can’t be bothered with extra clicks and new windows. Furthermore, tweets featuring Instagram links practically never go viral. Having said that, we have found it useful occasionally, such as when we needed an outlet to upload content from presenters’ foreign sends:
Of course, a social media post doesn’t have to have a picture attached to it to become popular. A new top line or an interesting quote can be equally as powerful. Our most popular tweet so far in 2014 was a quote from the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center talking about the situation in Ukraine on a Saturday morning edition of programme – not exactly a set of circumstances which initially screams viral hit:
Certain topics are always likely to score highly with the Today audience. Weather is always popular, for example. Tomasz Schafernaker‘s recent prediction that a sunny weekend was on the way became our most popular tweet of that whole morning.
Education tweets usually perform well too, like Philip Pullman’s call for every school to have a properly-equipped and properly-staffed library, or Malala Yousafzai championing of the importance of studying:
Reaching a large audience is made much easier when you’re retweeted by a huge account like BBC World (5.7m followers) or BBC News UK (2.5m). However, many of our followers already follow these accounts independently anyway. What can be much more valuable is a retweet from a person whose fans don’t usually come into contact with the Today programme. Like this recent retweet from Katy B:
Now, Katy B may not have as many followers (258,000) as some of the big BBC News accounts, but her retweeting this pulls Today into the timelines of her fans – young Radio 1-listener types who probably don’t follow current affairs and may not even have heard of the show. Raising awareness among this demographic is, in my opinion, extremely important as they’re our future audience, and if we can convince even just a few of them to tune in or follow our Twitter feed then it’s massively worth doing.
The audience tend to like when we do something slightly out of character. One of the most memorable examples of this for me was John Humphrys’s round up of the 2013 Mercury Music Prize nominees in October:
I try to make the most of the ‘fun’ stories that the programme does on Twitter because the social media audience generally reacts well to them. The Radio 4 audience overall has a reputation of being resistant to change – we received a lot of complaints, for example, when the racing tips were temporarily dropped from the sport bulletins last year – but the Twitter audience, perhaps because they’re (forgive me) generally younger, are more open to it. When we had a new presenter – Mishal Husain – join the programme last year, instead of complaints about there being a new voice to get used to, her first presenting shift was widely praised online.
Reporters and correspondents
The sheer number of tweets I’m sending out while the programme is being broadcast live means our feed can start to look a bit samey, and will in turn clog up our followers’ timelines. If tweets are being pushed out every couple of minutes (which they are on our account at peak times), a reader would start to see the same profile picture plastered all over their feed – which is annoying. It therefore makes my job considerably easier if reporters tweet their own pictures and stories. If I can retweet them, it breaks up the monotony of everything coming from a single account.
Some recent examples – Sima Kotecha and Tom Bateman always tweet their own stories, quotes and pictures. John Shields, who is often sent out as a producer on outside broadcasts, posts lots of photos of our presenters on location (eg. Justin Webb’s makeshift studio in Strasbourg or Mishal Husain’s recent co-pres from Porthleven).
Perhaps the main thing I’ve learned in my time looking after @bbcr4today is you have to be extremely thick-skinned in order to manage a high-profile Twitter account. I know celebrities moan about this all the time but seriously, you do have to put up with constant, relentless abuse and complaints. Fortunately we get a quite a few appreciative tweets too – but nearly every single item the programme does will be criticised on Twitter by listeners claiming that it was too left-wing, too right-wing, too short, too long, didn’t have enough news value, was biased, a waste of licence fee money, and so on. I do pass social media reaction on to the editors, but I think it would be virtually impossible to put a programme that satisfied every single listener.
Some other facts you may be interested in:
– The Today Twitter audience is 66% male, 34% female
– 42% of our followers also follow Stephen Fry
– Very roughly our follower count goes up by about 10,000 a month (the number of new followers is higher than that, but is offset by a smaller number of people unfollowing us.)
– It takes around 30,000 clicks for one of our clips to make it into the BBC News website’s Most Listened, and around 5,000 listens to become Audioboo’s most played.
– Of our presenters, Evan has the highest number of followers on his personal account (136,000), followed by Mishal (131,000), and Justin, Jim and Sarah (who have 10-25,000 each). John Humphrys is not on Twitter.
Going forward – it’d be good to see Today become as prominent on Twitter in the mornings as Question Time is on Thursday nights – dominating conversations and trending topics. This is probably an unrealistic ambition though because unlike Question Time we face a lot of competition from other news shows being broadcast at the same time and users are less engaged at that time of day. Having said that, the #r4today hashtag currently trends roughly two or three mornings a week, which isn’t too bad.
As time goes on and more people join social media platforms (many of our listeners are only now getting their heads around Twitter), the more we’ll be able to utilise the huge potential of social media for things like finding guests, sharing pictures and videos, and interacting with and building our audience.
There are going to be some potentially quite drastic changes to the programme’s social media strategy over the coming months, the details of which I won’t bore you with here, but basically the programme team is keen for us to evolve because currently our online presence doesn’t reflect how influential and important the on-air programme is. I’ll update this blog in a few months’ time to outline the changes we’ve made and how effective they have or haven’t been.