Social media for journalists who don’t want to do social media

It’s 2020 and social media is all round us – on our phones, on our computers, the subject of countless news stories.

Young journalists effortlessly navigate this landscape, as people born to it should.

Older journalists are probably using some platforms, some of the the time, with irritation or resignation or resentment. Because social media took our lunch, right? Google and Facebook and Twitter took the advertising and now our business model is stuffed.

You can look at it that way, and be miserable. Or you can set about learning a new way to do things. Here’s a guideline to how to start (with some background, and extra facts, and things that are generally interesting or useful):

Why is social media important?

Because that’s where people are. A recent (July 2020) summary of data about Internet and social media trends says more than half of the world now uses social media, and that 4.57 billion people around the world now use the internet. Carving out your own small corner out of that giant pool of people means that you are increasing your reach and your audience, in the places where they are actually found. It also means you are presenting yourself as someone who is in touch with current trends.
(See the study here:

The rules of engagement

If you are a journalist who works for an established news brand, you will always be doing three things:
• Representing yourself, building your own profile
• Representing your publication, building its profile.
• Trying to drive traffic to your publication’s website or other online platforms.

If you are a freelancer, you are doing all of those things – for yourself.

On all those fronts, it pays to make this your mantra: #Don’tBeHelen. Some thoughts:

1. Online postings can come across as curt so use the same rules you’d apply if you were talking to someone face-to-face. Be friendly and polite.
2. “Arguing online is like shouting at your neighbour standing in the middle of the cul-de-sac. Everyone can hear you and you look like an idiot.” (Ty Kiisel, 2012).
3. Work with the tension between representing your brand and representing yourself (and that applies even if you are a freelancer. If you brand is to be, say, someone who offers balanced commentary on cricket, no good can some of personally attacking a particularly irritating administrator). Understand your company’s social media policy, and work within those boundaries.
4. What goes online stays online. Google forgets nothing.
5. It’s about sharing. Consider the 80/20 rule: “8 retweets or shares of other people’s content to 2 promoting your own words or interests”. If you bear that rule in mind, you’ll be seen as a contributor instead of a free-rider. (Liz Broomfield/Dexter)
6. Hook in with other networks – Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags.
(Source for some of these ideas: Editorial Business Planning and Marketing Omnibus by Louise Harnby)

What are the secrets of journalists/publications who have “cracked” social media?

(This list was generated out of discussion in a series of workshops I conducted several years ago)

Note: the word post is used in a generic sense to cover all forms of social media posting.

1. They are human – they behave like real people.
2. They are connected, they share.
3. They are responsive – they answer queries, they try to help.
4. They are transparent and honest.
5. They share videos, from places where they have access that other people don’t.
6. They often post a mix of personal and professional observations. If they are sharing news or issues, they try to find the human element.
7. If they are sharing their own stories/videos, they give some information but not all of it – they understand the art of the teaser.
8. They are engaging – they take part in conversations.
9. They can be direct and controversial.
10. They think before they post.
11. They have something to say (and they look out for opportunities to post).
12. Their posts are appropriate to the platform they are on.
13. They work at making quality posts.
14. They share pictures and videos and gifs and memes.
15. They often use hashtags (Twitter, Instagram) to “hook” their posts into wider trends. But they don’t pepper their posts with hashtags to the extent that the post becomes unreadable.
(Here’s a good basic guide to hashtags:

Which social media platform is right for me?

In order by number of users of their share of the market worldwide, and looking at platforms widely available in South Africa, here is a rundown of the potential audience (my own mental map) you could reach, with some of the considerations you need to take into account:

Facebook – the broad mass of the adult market (if you are going to use Facebook, make a page rather than use your personal account)
YouTube – big worldwide but an under-performing platform in South Africa, probably due to the high cost of data here. From a personal branding point of view, the barrier to entry is the necessity to be able to make videos
WhatsApp – hard to crack as a public sharing platform, but important as a sharing platform
Instagram – teens, picture heavy (barrier to entry – access to pictures)
Pinterest – home, lifestyle, travel, garden, food, crafts, picture heavy (barrier to entry – access to pictures)
Twitter – politicians, journalists, policy wonks, social justice warriors, marketers (it is important for journalists to remember that Twitter has a really small market share locally and worldwide = see below. You just aren’t reaching or seeing the views of the majority of people on this platform.
LinkedIn – business and professional people – so potentially the audience is someone who may hire you in the future

Simply put, it’s best to just pick one and start working on it! Facebook and/or LinkedIn are good places to start.

Which platforms do South Africans use?

SA social media graph

To break that graphic down, social media market share in South Africa, August 2020 is:
Facebook 47.26%
Pinterest 36.48%
Twitter 10.08%
YouTube 2.97%
Instagram 1.81%
Tumblr 0.66%
LinkedIn 0.29%

The surprise in this list of social media platforms in the high number of Pinterest users. I am using the last quarter of 2020 to explore Pinterest – I’ll share what I have learned in due course.

Some definitions

It helps to understand the various ways in which a reader might find your story online. Here’s a breakdown of what are loosely called “traffic sources”:
Referral: Traffic that occurs when a user finds you through a site other than a major search engine (for example some links to your story from their blog).
Social: Traffic from a social network, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.
Organic: Traffic from search engine results that is earned, not paid (they search in Google on “state capture inquiry” and they find your article).
Paid search: Traffic from search engine results that is the result of paid advertising via Google AdWords or another paid search platform (your publication pays Google to boost its website)
Email: Traffic from email marketing (for example a newsletter)
Direct: Any traffic where the referrer or source is unknown.

Tools that may help you manage your social media postings

Hootsuite – you can link to three of your social media accounts in one place, and schedule posts into the future (available on web and as a phone app)
Tweetdeck – – you can link to multiple Twitter accounts in one place, and schedule posts into the future. You can also set up panels to follow hashtags which makes it useful for live tweeting (available on web but not as a phone app)
Twitter lists – a way to collect Twitter accounts in groups to that you can follow events and trends, without having to follow everyone in that field.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media).

Main picture: Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

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