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March 29 2011

20:30

Tweet late, email early, and don’t forget about Saturday: Using data to develop a social media strategy

Tweet more, and embrace the weekends.

That’s according to Dan Zarrella, a social media researcher (with 33,000 followers himself). Zarrella works for HubSpot, mining data on hundreds of millions of tweets, blog posts, and email newsletters to help marketers find trends. News organization should pay attention, too.

Zarrella says the right Twitter strategy depends in part on what your goals are. Want to accumulate as many followers as possible? Then tweet a lot: Twitter’s A-listers — those with the most followers — tweet an average of 22 times a day, and more tweets generally lead to more followers. But if your goal is to drive more traffic to your site, you should show a little more restraint; accounts that share two or more links an hour show a dramatically lower clickthrough rate than those who share no more than one.

It’s an inexact science, but at least it’s an attempt at science where so much social media strategy is driven by intuition. (Zarrella complains about the the “unicorns and rainbows” strategy: “Love your customers, hug your followers, engage in the conversations. It sounds like good advice, and it’s hard to disagree with,” he says. “But generally, it’s not based in anything substantial.”)

After collecting more than two years of data, Zarrella shared his findings Tuesday in a webinar called “The Science of Timing.” That science is less about when and more about when not — what he calls “contra-competitive timing.” The trick is to reach people when the noise of the crowd has died down.

It turns out that time is often the afternoons, when blogs and news sites are slower, and the weekend, when they’re all but asleep.

Retweet activity is highest late in the work day, between 2 and 5 p.m., and the sweet spot (tweet spot?) is 4 p.m., Zarrella’s analysis found. Late in the week is most retweetable, too. Zarella created TweetWhen to tell Twitter users what time days and times yield the most retweets. (Our @niemanlab tweets get the most retweets around 9 p.m. and on Saturdays. Go figure. That’s our hour-by-hour chart up top.)

On weekend mornings, when most news sites see substantial drops in pageviews, Twitter clickthroughs spike, he says. Comment activity also jumps dramatically: Users have more time and attention to devote to content on the weekend, even if the content isn’t fresh, and fewer distractions compete for attention. On Facebook, Zarrella says, the effect is even more pronounced: Facebook participation on weekdays is infinitesimal in comparison. (He thinks it might be because so many companies block Facebook at the workplace.) Facebook does not reward frequent posting in the same way Twitter does, however, and it’s much easier to flood (and annoy) Facebook fans than Twitter followers. Postings on Facebook also tend to “stick around” longer, re-emerging when people post a comment or like.

Not only does Zarrella recommend tweeting more — he recommends tweeting the same links two or three times a day. Don’t bother calling it a “rerun” or apologizing to people who might have it before. Simply wait a few hours and change up the language. Only a fraction of your followers will see it the first time. Even an organization with thousands of followers won’t reach most of its audience most of the time. (As an experiment, social media star Guy Kawasaki once repeated the same tweet every day for nine days, and found the clickthrough rate remained high each time.)

Zarrella recently performed a similar deep dive into data for email newsletters, working with MailChimp to analyze 9.5 billion e-mail newsletters. A lot of the same lessons in apply, he says: Email more, and embrace the weekends.

Most people who unsubscribe do so after receiving their first email. Send 30 emails a month or send five — it makes little difference, he found. (“Unsubscribers are doing you a favor,” he says — they don’t want to hear from you anyway.) The most important time to reach subscribers is right away, especially in the first couple of days after signup. The average click rate for the average user drops to almost nothing after four months. Like with blogs and social media, readers are more likely to open an email newsletter and click links on weekends. For all days of the week, early-morning hours (between 4 and 7 a.m.) are the best times to reach readers — before they get caught up in their to-do list for the day.

November 15 2010

18:30

Sign up for our daily Nieman Journalism Lab email

Since we launched the Lab in 2008, we’ve tried to make our content accessible in lots of different ways: via RSS, Twitter, Facebook, Kindle, iPhone app, and more.

But, for whatever reason, we’ve skipped out on the most basic of electronic delivery mechanisms: email.

We’ve finally remedied that. You can now sign up for our daily Lab email. Each afternoon, if we’ve published something new in the previous 24 hours, you’ll get one email with all our new posts. The emails look like this.

We may occasionally send out other important announcements about the Lab through the list, but that’ll be very occasionally — this is really just a more convenient way to get our content delivered to the inbox where you spend your waking hours. Here’s the signup form:

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And while you’re here, why not like us on Facebook? We’d appreciate it.

October 25 2010

15:30

National Journal relaunch tests free/pay content strategy

When your site goes hybrid, with a combination of paid and free content, the question becomes: What goes in front of the paywall?

That question will be front and center at National Journal, a Washington, D.C. publication until today published behind a paywall (over $1,000 per year) for political insiders, like Hill staffers, lobbyists, and so on. It relaunched today with a new, dual online strategy, aiming to attract a second, more general-interest audience. National Journal will still charge subscribers for the in-depth, nitty-gritty Washington coverage they’re known for, but will post their national and breaking news — about a quarter of its stories — for free. Until today, only a handful of National Journal stories were available without a subscription. With many Washington publications going niche, it’ll be interesting to watch whether the site can make a go of it in the opposite direction.

“If our goal is building subscriber base, we’ll have to measure that with the natural, ego-driven interest to put everything on a free site,” David Beard, National Journal Group’s online editor and deputy editor-in-chief told me.

Beard expects to post stories which appeal to a broad, national audience, particularly breaking news, on the free version of the site. The plan is very much in line with advice Alan Murray, executive editor of WSJ.com, gave Nieman Lab alum Zach Seward last year on monetizing content. “The key is not to take your most popular stuff and put it behind a pay wall,” Murray said. “The broad, popular stuff is the stuff you want out in the free world because that drives traffic, that builds up your traffic, and you can, of course, serve advertising to that audience.”

Beard gave me this hypothetical to describe his plan: “If Christine O’Donell won [the Senate race in Delware], or showed some increase in the polls, that would go [up for free]. If she become chair of an agriculture subcommittee, that would go to the subscribers. That would go to the people who really care about the nuts and bolts of government operations.”

Beard also said that National Journal has plans for about 40 email newsletter products. About ten of them will be free. The morning newsletter world is already crowded in Washington, particular by their chief competition, Politico, which puts out Mike Allen’s morning read, as well as a number of free policy-oriented daily emails, like Morning Money and Morning Tech. “The idea is that some of that might be cheeky aggregation,” Beard told me. “I think the goal is that people paying for this [newsletter], it’s x percent more important and better.”

October 18 2010

15:30

Launch! Five lessons from the first months of running a news startup

Six exhilarating, nerve-scraping months ago, I left my daily newspaper job to put my livelihood where my mouth is: to build a topical local news service serving riders of public transit in Portland, Oregon.

In print, Portland Afoot is an image-rich four-page monthly newsmagazine about “low-car life,” distributed by mail to homes and, starting in the next month or two, to workplaces. Online, it’s a heavily reported wiki, with evergreen pages on every bus route, bike law, and commute subsidy in town, among many other things.

Crazy? Obviously. But four months after launch, I’ll tell you this: I’ve never been learning more or learning faster. Now that I’ve become one of the entrepreneurs I’ve covered here at the Lab, Josh has generously invited me to spin out a few of the practical lessons I’ve been spooling up. Let’s start at the beginning.

Start scheduling meetings immediately, at least one each week, and do not stop.

Michael AndersenYou know how one hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight? One coffee date before your launch is worth two coffee dates after your launch.

Maybe it’s because people like to be in the know. Maybe it’s because they’re proud to see their advice shaping your product. Maybe it’s because they have a reflex to root for risk-takers. I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, the earlier people hear about your plan, the more they’ll want to help you. And “people who want to help you” happen to be the things you’re about to need more than anything else in the world.

Loop in local institutions that share your interests.

I thought I was picking a topical niche for the sake of our audience (harried readers without time for irrelevant news) and our sponsors (retailers wanting to target green consumers at the neighborhood level). What I didn’t realize was that I was also opening my arms to a whole universe of private local organizations predisposed to help me succeed.

Portland Afoot needed early subscribers and legitimacy; celebrated local-news blog BikePortland.org ran a positive preview. We’re planning a neighborhood-specific product; the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, a regional advocacy group, helped me brainstorm the contents. We needed a pilot location for my workplace-distribution scheme; the Swan Island Transportation Management Association, a federally funded traffic-reduction nonprofit, agreed to host it in the industrial area they oversee.

Spare me the warnings about lost independence. Yep, that’s a major risk, and I’m doing my best to deal with it through full disclosure. But it’s a jungle out there and you’re not going to survive without friends. In our case, the whole revenue model depends on print distribution partnerships; entanglements are a fact of life. If your news startup is ever going to get important enough to make enemies, it’ll need to make a few friends first.

If you’re going to sell ads, sell two cheap ones before you launch.

Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social NetworkMy gut says Justin Timberlake is right: a website with ads is like a great party that has to be over at 11. I’m sure Portland Afoot would have a few more print subscribers, a bit more web traffic, and most importantly a few more superfans if it had launched with zero ads.

But this nonprofit business, unlike Facebook, is not headed for an IPO. It’s got about a year to succeed or fail to pay my rent. And though I haven’t yet started selling ads in earnest, I’ve done enough to guarantee that you second ad is easier than your first, and your third ad is easier than your second. Prove to advertisers that your audience has worth by getting some ads on the page.

You are not too cool for e-mail.

I hate spam. I hate it so much that when we launched, I promised to ping our mailing list no more than once every three months. It’s a promise I’ve kept — and it was a big mistake.

For people who care about you, regular emails aren’t spam. They are reminders that you exist and are doing wonderful things of which they approve. How do I know? Because nothing — not direct mail, not inbound links, not tables at neighborhood events — drives traffic or action like a mass email to people who’ve opted to receive it. One of my lucky breaks before we launched was that I popped a single box on the site to start building a list of the emails of early visitors. Here’s the PHP script. Steal it.

The weirder your product is — and ours, a heavily reported wiki and four-page monthly magazine, is almost as weird as they come — the more important email, with its universal familiarity, becomes. Email is the U2 of Internet communication — all these years later, it’s the one thing we all still share. Embrace it.

Launch as close as possible to the summer solstice.

Trust me — you’re going to need the energy.

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