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At The Texas Tribune, audiences expect service from social audio

July 21, 2022 | By Jessica Patterson – Independent Media Reporter @jesspatterson

Social audio creates opportunities to grow and engage with audiences. It also provides an ideal medium for tackling big issues. However, The Texas Tribune’s social audio experience reminds us about the importance of concentrating on key issues that affect the everyday lives of audiences.

Austin-based Texas Tribune keeps a tight focus on specific issues, events, and questions when using social audio. “Our approach to live social audio is to ensure that we’re talking about a topic or a storyline,” rather than a project or its journalistic process according to Bobby Blanchard, Director of Audience, who oversees Texas Tribune’s social channels.

Topical discussions

The Tribune has found that there are topics that resonate with their audiences and keep them more engaged over others, Blanchard says. “We generally lean towards service work — how to vote, to understand and follow elections, how to prepare for possible power grid problems. These conversations attract a wide variety of readers because they’re all impacted by what’s discussed,” he says.

For example, The Tribune held a Twitter Space on preparing for the winter in December 2021, which discussed how and why Texans should prepare for the winter ahead. The conversation centered around the power grid and safety, and it featured the president of the Austin EMS Association.

The following month, The Tribune held a Twitter Space on redistricting and voting coverage. The discussion focused on what citizens should know about voting in Texas in 2022, what redistricting is and how it affects the election, and what would be on the ballot. The event featured former Tribune executive editor Ross Ramsay and Alexa Ura, demographics and voting rights reporter of The Texas Tribune.

“The Texas Tribune helps its readers navigate and understand how Texas policy and politics impacts their day-to-day lives,” says Blanchard. “Answering reader questions and engaging with our audience is a key part of our service journalism work.”

In addition to providing critical information, social audio does help The Tribune build community by giving the audience the chance to engage directly with the reporters behind the news they read. However, their emphasis remains on using the new platform to provide readers with what they expect from the brand.

As Blanchard points out, people consume information in all kinds of ways — some via text, some via visual and some via audio. “I think giving our readers multiple ways to consume the news helps us serve all types of readers. I also think it strengthens our relationship with them. It helps our readers understand that, like them, we’re humans doing this work.”

Preparing to go live

While Twitter Spaces and other social audio platforms gives anyone the option to go live, it’s not something The Texas Tribune does on impulse. A lot of planning and logistics goes into preparing for an event and they leverage lessons they’ve learned over time.

The Tribune has a thorough process to be prepared before going live on social audio. Blanchard says that, prior to going live, they give everyone a chance to test their tech and make sure they’re in a space with a good connection and have the equipment they need to record good audio. Blanchard and his team prefer wired headphones to wireless headphones, for example.

“We always have a preference for actual microphones or wired headphones to Bluetooth or built-in laptop microphones. It ensures a higher level of audio, in our experience,” Blanchard says. “We’ve just found the audio quality is better and there is a lower chance of technical problems with the audio when you use wired headphones as opposed to wireless. Best to remove as many chances for things to go wrong as possible.”

It is critical to ensure that the moderator is prepared and set up with everything they will need. “We write an introductory script for the moderator and prep questions ahead of time, just in case we get very few audience questions,” Blanchard says. “We pepper in a lot of reminders for the moderator to do a fresh table setting of what the conversation is about midway through, so folks who join late can easily catch up. We try to limit these conversations to 15-30 minutes.”

Blanchard noted they don’t open the mic to everyone. If listeners want to ask questions, they have to tweet at or direct message The Tribune. From a moderation standpoint, Blanchard says letting just anyone speak can become a minefield. If anyone can join the conversation, it opens up the possibility to trolls or bad faith actors trying to attack journalists or guests. “We don’t want that to happen — it spoils the conversation. There’s also enough of that online as it is. There’s no need to make space for anymore of it.”

As for timing their social audio events, the Tribune tries to schedule them when people are most likely to tune in, which is typically lunch time, according to Blanchard. Time of day affects how engaging a conversation is and how many people tune in. “If you do a live audio conversation at 4:45 PM, when everyone is driving home, you’re not likely to get a ton of listeners.”

“It’s my working theory that people enjoy listening during lunch,” he says. “I’ve also seen newsrooms have success with this in the early morning or late evening. I consider 1-5 PM a bit of a dead zone, and typically avoid programming live conversations then.”

Monetize like a sponsored event

Beyond audience engagement and a new storytelling platform, media organizations can look to social audio as a potential new revenue source. The Tribune does not generally have sponsors for its social audio events. However, in some cases they’ve used social audio for what would have traditionally been a live event. As such, they secured a sponsor as they would for those events otherwise.

“Our conversation about our primary preview coverage on March 1, 2022 — for example — was sponsored by The Marchant Good Government Fund and Raise Your Hand Texas,” Blanchard says. However, he notes that “financial support plays no role in picking topics or guests for these conversations — or any of our journalism.” And, because The Texas Tribune is a not-for-profit organization, sponsorship is not a significant driver behind its social strategy. However, other organizations seeking to build a revenue stream on social audio might emulate the live-event model as one approach.

Certainly, monetization opportunities seem promising. However, social audio falls into a class of its own. It isn’t as neat and tidy as podcasts. Its immediacy and intimacy is one major differentiating factor, and it still seems to be space in which content companies are experimenting.

Takeaways

While Millennials might be digital natives, Gen Z are social natives, having grown up watching video and listening to audio instead of visiting traditional news sites, according to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2022.

Thus, it seems likely that social audio will play an increasing role in their consumption habits, given Gen Z’s heavy reliance on social platforms. Digital content companies need to keep an eye on the changing needs and wants of this next generation, as they exhibit different behaviors than those who came before.

However, when conceiving a social audio strategy, it’s critical to think about what audiences need, and expect, from your brand. Priority number one is to figure out how social audio uniquely serves an audience and what you’re trying to accomplish. For this brand, having a narrow focus on service-based journalism works best.

At The Texas Tribune, social audio offers immediate engagement with audiences and the opportunity to provide useful, practice advice and trusted guidance, and address its readers’ needs in a moment. Their experience demonstrates how social audio can be used to help audiences make decisions, on what to buy, how to do something, answer specific questions, and solve their problems.

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