Since 2018, the Meta Journalism Project has funded the Local News Resource Center at LMA, which was built to support local newsrooms in the U.S. and Canada in their efforts to effectively and efficiently use social media to reach their vast audiences.

Emilie Lutostanski

In the last several years, I’ve learned a lot about the challenges and opportunities local media face when it comes to social platforms — from keeping readers engaged, to heightening value for their organizations, to ways to do more with less.

One trend I’ve noticed is a decreased emphasis and reliance on social media as a method of communication with readers and viewers. Diversification is healthy, and so is experimentation to grow audiences where it is assumed no further growth remains. While many news outlets have experienced an increasingly segmented and often distracted — or even news-fatigued — audience across all distribution channels, the Local News Resource Center has helped hundreds of local news organizations realize the importance of steadfast efforts to build trust and habit through predictable content and meaningful engagement on social media.

Through coaching calls with engagement managers, social media editors and people in similar roles, I’ve compiled a few overarching tips and trends that have evolved into staples of strategy for local news publishers.

Know the goal

When using any platform, it’s important to answer the question, “What are we trying to do here?” Stakeholders often do not have a clear expectation for the desired outcomes with social strategy — in part because the landscape and sheer number of platforms have shifted and grown in recent years, and it can be difficult to benchmark a moving target.

For many publishers I work with, there are three main reasons for publishing on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and other interactive platforms:

  • Traffic referrals back to owned-and-operated website(s)
  • Audience extension, growth, and brand awareness
  • Engagement through building trust, affinity and loyal habits with news consumers

There is always a place for experimentation into new formats and platforms, and I advise most publishers to hold that to about 10% of all time and resources spent on social media, keeping in mind alignment with the company’s overall goals.

Data drives decisions

Some publishers I have worked with over the years have difficulty not only gathering the data they need to make decisions, but deciphering which specific metrics are most valuable. This value will vary based on the company’s goals but generally, we look back to our three typical objectives outlined above: traffic, audience, and engagement.

To understand what social platforms, content and posts are driving traffic, look to tools like Google Analytics, and Chartbeat. For understanding audience, platforms natively provide numbers such as reach and demographics; Crowdtangle and some third-party tools can help decipher sentiment on particular posts. Engagement can be measured on-platform as well through shares — the gold standard for engagement across posts — comments, and total minutes viewed, for videos.

Optimizing for the platform

With this in mind — let’s look at some data from CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Meta. A sample of 6,111 U.S. local news Facebook Pages in 2021 posted links 83% of the time, with an average interaction rate of 0.22%. However, the average interaction rate for Facebook videos, which made up just 4.2% of all posts, was more than 3.5x higher, at 0.79%. Interaction rate for lists is calculated starting with every post from every account in the list, divided by number of posts, and then divided by the average size of the accounts in the list, then multiplied by 100.

We know that Facebook videos outperformed links overall last year in interaction rate, but that doesn’t match posting habits. I advise local news publishers to continue to find ways to use Facebook video in their overall strategy.

On Instagram, a sample of 651 U.S. local news accounts used single photo posts 72% of the time. However, the interaction rate for albums was 3.84% — which is logical since users are encouraged to scroll between images — followed by videos at 2.74% and standalone photo posts garnering the lowest interaction rate at 2.55%.

Here again we see the inverse relationship of what gets the highest interaction rate with what’s actually being posted by news pages — and there’s room for adjustments to optimize for engagement on the platforms.

Quality over quantity

We know that local news performs well on social for local news pages. Unique, inspiring, motivating and interactive content topped the leaderboard on Facebook and Instagram — from honoring military veterans, to animal stories, to highlights of paralympic athletes. The idea of quality over quantity centers around knowing your audience by examining what performs and when — measuring referrals, audience and engagement — and working to cut out unoriginal commodity content or posts that consistently underperform.

Growth is still happening

Local media Facebook Page followers grew 5.63% in 2021, and local news Instagram accounts grew 8.7% — for a grand total across these two platforms of more than 26 million new followers of local news. There are still audiences out there to engage on these social platforms, and local news can get in front of them with creative, audience-focused and engaging content.

The news industry has come a long way in managing expectations for social media while constantly perfecting posts and determining what’s of value to our audiences. Through the Local News Resource Center, we have aided hundreds of local media organizations on their quests to get the most out of social media. We want to continue this mission with an invitation to reach out to me, Director Emilie Lutostanski, to share your own challenges and wins, or to set up a meeting to discuss strategy and training opportunities for your newsroom. Social media is not a final answer, but just one part of how local news organizations can engage and grow audiences through their own content distribution.