Category Archives: Interviews

Tools You Can Use: Current

Current: A News Project is a data visualization tool launched last month to give editors and writers a new way to determine which stories have the best chance of being read online. Seeing the potential for communicators to leverage this program to better understand the news cycle, I interviewed Current’s creator and my classmate from ITP, Zoe Fraade-Blanar about her project:

Q: What does the Current stream represent in non-technical terms?
A: This particular tool is pulling the top news stories from Google, which does us the favor of condensing them for us into general topics.  And to find out how the human population is responding it’s using the Google Hot Topics tool, surveying the fastest rising searches in the US every hour.  But there’s no reason any Trending Topics data wouldn’t work here – Twitter would be a favorite.

Q: Explain a bit about how using Current helps a journalist determine “news that matters.”

A: Ah, not even the smartest computer algorithm can replace an editor when it comes to placing value on a story.  What it can do is help one balance their soft and hard coverage.  In a world where a struggling editor might choose to raise their traffic by covering every celebrity scandal, Current lets them identify, say, the two that are most likely to give them the same amount of traffic.  Of course, Current is morally neutral – if you wanted to use a tool like this to generate the most sensational newspaper ever, that’s certainly a completely legitimate use as well!

Q: Although you built Current with news editors in mind, what features might be of interest to PR?

A: One of the interesting observations here is that there are two ways for a news item to make it into the interest stream: they can cause a big enough stir that they spawn their own meme, but they can also piggyback off of an existing meme.  For someone with PR in mind, hitching your topic behind a growing meme is a completely legitimate way to get noticed for companies without the resources to spawn their own.  When PR is pinpointed to what people actually want to know, it’s no longer advertising.  That PR turns into real honest-to-goodness relevant information.  Which is a beautiful thing.

Q: How does Current address a gap in the way we currently perceive news?

A: If Current, and projects like it, are successful, they should actually change the way the News sees news.  Right now it seems like there are two extremes – News media that wants to protect the perfect news coverage on some kind of idealistic pedestal, and News media that wants to use News to drive advertising dollars no matter what the content.  There’s a bit of a grey area in the middle as the pedestal people are forced by the economy to prune coverage areas they don’t excel in, and at the same time there exists an inevitable backlash against the more mercenary model, but the idea here is to give them another alternative.  The survival of News as an industry lies somewhere in the middle.

Q: You spent some time working with the New York Times analytic group before you built this project. What changes are you seeing in the way we value news at a technical level?

A: Of course, the real value for a story is how it changes what people think about a topic, but that’s a tough one to quantify (and of course, impossible to monetize).  A more Machiavellian metric would be the amount of conversions it results in for advertisers, one less so would be general clickthroughs, or clickthroughs from the story to another in-site story.

But I think all these miss the point, which is that some of the most important news is the most boring.  The most successful metric will take into account that some of the most necessary stories will be complete flops when measured by the numbers.  Those stories are what keeps the reader’s trust, even if they don’t keep the reader’s interest.  Like the blank whitespace in a drawing, replace too much of it and the whole becomes unreadable.  So perhaps it might be better to judge the traffic of a section as a whole, than on a story-by-story basis.

Thanks so much to Zoe for her time. You can download Current and try it out for yourself.

If you have any ideas on how Current could be a useful communications tool, please leave a comment.

Social Media Interview: Tyson Foods’ Ed Nicholson

Ed Nicholson Tyson Foods is trying some exciting engagement tactics with its initial foray into social media.

In the first post I read on the company’s blog, Hunger Relief , Tyson offered to donate 100 pounds of food to a food bank in Austin, TX for every comment left. They filled the truck in less than 6 hours and the post has more than 650 comments to date.

What an innovative way to raise awareness about Tyson’s philanthropic efforts! But more important, the company was giving its community a way to make a real world impact through social media participation.

I wanted to learn more about Tyson’s social media initiatives, so I contacted Ed Nicholson, Director of Community and Public Relations at Tyson Foods.

Ed was gracious enough to answer my questions about the company’s blog, its Twitter presence, how he measures ROI and more. He even has a bit of advice on how you can sell social media to management:

How did Tyson get started using social media?

I’m a big believer in social media, and have long been a personal user.  I was integrating some of my work here in Tyson into my personal social media activity. For example, posting updates on my personal Twitter and Facebook accounts and mentioning my work in my LinkedIn profile .

We added limited social media functionality to our hunger relief website when we put it online in December of  2007.  We assessed the usefulness, usability and strategic effectiveness of the site in Q2 of 2008, and did a re-design, which went online in July of 2008. The re-design took the social media functionality a step farther.  I also set up a Tyson Foods Twitter account in August of 2008, to separate the brand communications from my personal Twitter stream.

How did you decide what topics to focus on in your social media outreach?
I help direct the hunger relief efforts for the company.  As a communications professional and one of the most avid social media users in the company, it was a natural extension of what I do.

What percentage of a typical day do you dedicate to social media related activities?
Between 30% and 50%.

Who is Tyson’s audience for its social media initiatives?
We’re currently focused on building community among those who are interested in the issue of hunger (our primary philanthropic focus).  So we’re working with some of our partners in the issue–Feeding America and their member food banks, and Share Our Strength and their stakeholder network–to engaged them in what we’re doing with online communications.

Additionally, we want a broader audience–anyone and everyone–to be aware that Tyson is engaged in corporate social responsibility activity.

Ultimately, I can envision social media being used to build and nurture relationships–in very targeted ways–across our broad spectrum of stakeholders: Customers and consumers,  operations community members and key influencers in those communities, livestock producers and contract chicken producers, vendors and suppliers, potential employees and (most important) our own current employees.

Do you offer any training or rules for employees who want to participate?
As of now, engagement has been from within my direct circle of influence, and I’ve provided that training myself.

Which platform (blog, Twitter, etc.) has moved the needle the most for Tyson? Why?
It’s the combination of our blog and Twitter.  The blog does a number of things: It illustrates the depth and breadth of our engagement, articulating where we are and what we’re doing as a company.  It also serves as a platform for our stakeholders in the hunger relief community–food banks, the national organizations, and other advocates–to communicate their key messages. We know that if we’re going to be accepted by the hunger relief community as authentically engaged, we’re going to have to do more than blow our own horn.

And on a  tactical level, it brings together text, images and video.  While you can only do so much with 140 characters, Twitter has the capacity to be (if it’s not already) the most powerful viral tool available.  The efforts wherein we’ve engaged Twitter networks have driven more traffic to our site than anything else we’ve done.  Twitter also allows the relationships among those in its networks to be built in a slower, more complex way-much more like interpersonal relationships.  Both the blog and Twitter work together well.

How does Tyson measure success?
In a very broad sense, by the amount of engagement we’re seeing: The people with whom we’re building relationships and engaging in conversation.   I personally believe social media attract a greater concentration of the people Seth Godin refers to as "sneezers"–people who have the credibility, the networks and the capacity to spread stories far and wide.  I want to see our company engaged with these people.

We had a couple of experiments in which we integrated some in-kind giving (food donations) with a specific call to action using social media in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Austin .  We posted hunger statistics on our blog about those communities then offered in-kind donations to local food banks for comments indicating the blog entries had been read. We collaborated with established social media networks in those communities in the effort.  In Austin, it was the Social Media Club and 501 Tech Club , and in the Bay Area, it was a consortium of bloggers already engaged with the food banks there.

In addition to blogging, along with our partners in the effort, we reached out to Twitter networks and measured the "reach" of those who re-tweeted our key messages.  For example, in the Austin effort, we had 105 re-tweets with an aggregated follower base of more than 40,000.  When you consider that the messages reaching this audience are much more concentrated and brand-rich, and that they’re being spread among people for whom trust, credibility and authenticity are critical,  I believe you can place a lot more value on them than what most in the PR industry like to refer to as "impressions."

Any tips for other community managers trying to "sell" social media to their management teams?
Probably nothing you haven’t heard before from people much smarter: Be strategic.  Align your social media strategies and tactics to existing goals and objectives, then measure and show how they contributed.  Be able to report how other companies–especially competitors–are effectively using the tools.  Develop and implement a plan to get management themselves directly engaged–you don’t really comprehend and appreciate it until you participate.

If you have any additional questions for Ed about Tyson’s blog or social media efforts, please share them below.