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Ishmael SistrunkWhen The St. Louis American went from only sharing its website links on Facebook to actively engaging with its Facebook audience, the weekly newspaper’s social platform and website audience numbers took off.

In May 2010, the newspaper had between 7,000 and 8,000 Facebook fans, according to Ishmael Sistrunk, The St. Louis American’s website, IT and promotions coordinator. That number has since grown to more than 44,000. Sistrunk spoke about the paper’s social media efforts during the 2016 Walter B. Potter Sr. Conference for community journalism.

When Sistrunk arrived in 2010, the newspaper’s social media posting strategy was an RSS feed. Story links were automatically generated and posted on Facebook and Twitter as soon as a new story was published to the website. Sometimes the paper would repost a story if there were typos or errors, resulting in multiple Facebook posts. The automation led to very little interaction with the news audience, says Sistrunk.

Under Sistrunk, The St. Louis American began posting manually but still only shared headlines and links back to stories. They saw growth but it was slow, says Sistrunk.

“We knew that Facebook was growing at this much bigger rate so we were trying to figure out what are we doing wrong,” he says. “How can we grow our audience? Just posting headlines really wasn’t doing it.”

A large part of their growth came from engaging with users, says Sistrunk. He also started attending editorial meetings so the newsroom could see who was sharing and commenting on stories on Facebook and the impact this activity was having on promoting the newspaper’s content.  

What we can learn from The St. Louis American’s strategy:

1. Preach to your news staff about the importance of becoming a daily news operation with a social media and website presence.

The St. Louis American is a weekly newspaper but it became a daily news producer via its website and social media channels. An online presence allows weeklies to share breaking news before the print newspaper comes out, says Sistrunk.

“News often goes viral because it's timely,” says Sistrunk. “Everything was available on Facebook and Twitter instantly. If you’re waiting on a big story for the paper to come out, it might be too late.”

2. Use Facebook’s free Insights feature.

Each business page includes analytics information that sheds light on audience demographics and engagement statistics. Click the Insights tab to learn when people are viewing your content and what content is performing well.

3. Share outside content.

The St. Louis American team regularly shares content and photos from other sources. These posts include viral videos, celebrity photos and articles that would resonate with the local audience. Sistrunk says this is an opportunity to just engage with folks on social media.

“That’s something that doesn’t drive people to our website directly but it keeps them engaged on our page,” he says.

For example, The St. Louis American shared a photo of Sasha Obama on her 13th birthday along with birthday wishes. The post went viral on Facebook with more than 1,000 shares, 2,300 comments and 44,000 likes.

The St. Louis American also shared well wishes to local business owners who were retiring after several decades. The post was popular and people posted their favorite memories in the comment section.

He suggested social media editors look at their own personal Facebook sharing habits for inspiration: Step into the shoes of an online consumer and consider what you share, click or comment on, and then adapt some of those behaviors to your strategy. Staff should have a clear understanding of what can and cannot be posted.

4. Just engage. Don’t worry about always sharing links.  

The St. Louis American also shares local photos and videos without linking back to the website. Sometimes news audiences see posts with links as advertisements and avoid them, says Sistrunk. “People are used to being sold to. They know how to ignore that.”

5. Find out what’s working for competitors.

Follow your competitors on Facebook by clicking the Insights tab in Facebook. You’ll find a feature called Pages to Watch, which will give you feedback on how your page compares to similar pages.

6. Realize not every post will go viral.

Some posts will do better than others, says Sistrunk. It’s a matter of experimenting and seeing what resonates.

7. Be social when promoting advertisements on Facebook.

The St. Louis American monetizes some of its social media efforts including posting ads on its timeline.

Recently they sold a Facebook post to a promoter for an upcoming music festival. The post included a St. Louis American photo from a previous festival and a question – What’s your favorite memory from this festival? – to encourage comments. Sistrunk says these types of paid posts resonate with their audience.

Digital analytics also demonstrate to advertisers how well the post performed, says Sistrunk.

Jennifer Nelson  
Senior Information Specialist


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