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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How social audio supports The Washington Post’s “adoption, addiction, and affection” strategy

May 19, 2022 | By Jessica Patterson – Independent Media Reporter

In the 18 months since social audio spaces were introduced the media landscape, digital content companies have experimented to uncover their purpose and how they can best serve audiences. For The Washington Post, the answer was revealed amid the discussion of a massive leak of offshore data, which exposed the secrets, deals, and assets of the world’s rich and powerful.

The Pandora Papers investigation was not The Post’s first use of social audio. They’d experimented with Clubhouse in mid-May 2021 and held their first Twitter Spaces event June 10, 2021.

It was, however, one of their most ambitious experiments as it involved other global news organizations simultaneously joining the Twitter Spaces event. The Pandora Papers investigation spanned five continents and involved 600 journalists in 117 countries.

“The Pandora Papers was the largest reporting consortium in journalism history. We’re talking about [journalists examining] 11.9 million documents and financial records,” said Michelle Jaconi, head of news talent strategy and development at The Washington Post.

That’s a wealth of information – but a challenge to present given its scope and depth. “The amount of nuance that you can go into in a platform in audio where you don’t have the set limitations of an article is wonderful.”

“Twitter Spaces has been an incredible playground for creativity and exploring ways where we could stretch that platform,” Jaconi said. “That one was one of the biggest and most ambitious spaces we’ve done, because we did it across different newsrooms. It was an incredibly fascinating test and stretch, and incredibly well received.”

Space(s) for transparency and engagement

Social audio allows The Post to share the teamwork and collaboration that takes place in their newsroom, Jaconi explained. The work that goes into a large scale, investigative report is largely invisible to readers. However, the audio format allows the journalists to communicate the process and passion that goes into a project like this one. As Jaconi points out, “The voices humanize the work, effort, the passion and the care that goes into every piece of journalism at The Post.”

One thing the team at The Post has learned through its use of social audio is that the audience is incredibly curious and wants to learn more about the journalistic process.

“We learned, wow, there is an audience for this, and [social audio] is incredibly good for things that are so complex that you need extra time and nuance and care to explain,” Jaconi said. “And, especially with Pandora Papers, we were testing the platform and how much we could stretch the production capabilities of an audio event that was truly global. We had some issues. But I think Twitter’s even gotten better since then at the product and the production aspect of doing massive events.”

Attracting and engaging audiences

Like all publications, Jaconi says The Washington Post not only wants to increase the size of its audience, but also engage younger, next generation, diverse and global audiences. For the use of Twitter Spaces grew the following of @washingtonpost on Twitter, as well as the following of their reporters.

“I think one of the things that social audio is incredible for is that social platforms convene audiences of curious people – or sometimes just bored people who become curious when they see a trending hashtag,” Jaconi said. “Every time we do one of these spaces, our reporters get new followers. That shows that we’re building audience.”

Social audio spaces create an intimate connection between The Post and their audience, on a device that many use to interact with their family and friends. “That is a wonderful way for us to not tell our expertise, but instead to show it. We do it in a way that provides intimate connection between our reporters and their audience,” Jaconi said.

For reporters who often work in text-based mediums, one of the things that makes social audio fun is that they get to know their audiences more personally and engage directly. 

“While you’re talking, you can actually see avatars and photos of people joining in that conversation right there with you. And that is something that I love for reporters to know,” Jaconi said. “Who doesn’t like telling a story and looking at the avatar of someone and saying, ‘oh, thank you for listening. That’s so interesting that you’re popping into this conversation and listening to me.’ That has been really rewarding for everyone who’s participating.”

And, as it continues to improve the functionality of Spaces, Twitter is now surfacing live audio to users when they first log in and providing beacons to audiences indiscriminately. This adds value for digital content companies because previously, Twitter had only surfaced Spaces to an organization’s existing audience.

“Social audio is one of the most exciting playgrounds right now to gather new audiences because the product keeps getting better,” Jaconi said.

Adoption, addiction, affection

In helping Post reporters reach new audiences, Jaconi looks for a funnel of adoption, addiction, and affection. With The Post’s recent reporting on the war in Ukraine, Jaconi said they are seeing an uptick in followers, but also affection. Social audio plays into this by increasing the personal engagement between audience and reporters.

In particular, The Post has sees a trend of audience members sending deeply moving messages. “People have been following reporters for the first time and posting comments like: ‘I am praying for your safety. I hope you’re okay. Please be all right.’ That is affection and concern for our journalists,” Jaconi said, noting that she’s never seen this kind of thing take place at this scale before.

“To have that be the overwhelming chat response to an audio space from our reporters covering the war, boy, is that a different experience for our journalists and reporters,” Jaconi said. “It means that we we’ve done a really good job and reaching people who are interested in information and are interested in building that relationship with us and our reporters.”

Lessons learned

Jaconi explained that there are a few best practices in the social audio space that digital content companies ought to think about.

First, update your Twitter app. Jaconi explained that Twitter often updates Twitter Spaces and improves and fine tunes its functionality. (We covered some of those in our last social audio piece.)

Second, remember that audience members can join Twitter Spaces mid-stream. It’s possible those audience members have never met you before. Hosts should make a habit of re-introducing themselves during the course of an event. This should include addressing new people joining the Space and telling them what they’re speaking about, their name, background, expertise, and the topic of discussion.

“It doesn’t have to be boiler plate. It can be done in a casual way. But also, because there’s audiences that are listening while they’re multitasking, I really urge people to introduce themselves again,” Jaconi said.

Thirdly, Jaconi suggested that digital content companies who engage in social audio spaces ought to “feed their audience.” This means give your social audio space a thread of everything you covered in that space. If you’re using social audio to discuss investigations, mention the methodology of your investigation, the complexity of doing the investigation, biographies of speakers or guests and the like, in a thread. This assures that the listening experience isn’t just a one-off that happened in the Twitterverse, and instead is and can be connected to other content, events, or used in the future.

“It is so rare, and so exceptionally powerful, to be in the same place as your audience at the same time, with everybody convened,” Jaconi said. “You’re convening the curious at something that you’re an expert in. So feed them when they’re there, because it might be a while before you convene them again.”

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