November 16, 2017

Social Skills | TechKnowledge

Social media is an important communications channel for libraries.
Experts discuss how to do it right

Social media has become a ubiquitous means of communication. In the second quarter of 2017, Facebook grew to more than two billion monthly active users, including 236 million in the United States and Canada—two-thirds of the combined population of those countries. According to a recent report in Forbes, Twitter’s growth has been slowing somewhat, but the number of average monthly active users on the platform grew five percent year-over-year to 328 million worldwide in Q217. According to a recent report in TechCrunch, Instagram has doubled its user base during the past two years, reaching 700 million monthly active users this spring. Social media is where people are online, so libraries need to be there, too.

One challenge that any company, nonprofit, or institution faces when using social media is that individuals primarily use popular platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to communicate with friends and family and to follow people, topics, and news of interest. They don’t want to be spammed by marketing messages; they want to talk.

“I think it’s really important, when people are reading [social media posts], that they are actually picturing people on the other end who are posting things, so that it’s not a completely impersonal, institutional voice but rather a conversational one, so that they’re compelled to participate in a conversation with us,” Allison Palmer, director of digital engagement for the New York Public Library (NYPL), tells LJ.

Compared with most brands and corporations, libraries do have “a leg up” in this regard, “as they aren’t trying to sell anything,” says Ellyssa Kroski, director of IT for the New York Law Institute, author, and independent consultant. “Their goal is to educate and inform people about what they have to offer, which is always easier than getting people to open up their wallets.”

Still, “don’t just post about your upcoming events and new resources. Use the channel for more than marketing. Post and tweet news and resources that might be relevant to your patrons and/or others in the field, even if they aren’t yours. Also, interact with others by following them and re-posting or retweeting their news. Social media shouldn’t be used as a bullhorn to announce library news but as a tool for conversation between the library and its patrons and fellow librarians,” continues Kroski.

Dictionary definition

Lisa Schneider, chief digital officer and publisher for ­Merriam Webster, offered similar advice during her keynote presentation at LJ’s “Social Media Made Simple” online course this spring. The dictionary publisher sets a great example of how a bookish brand can suceed on social media; it has 567,000 twitter followers and has had its topical,engaging social media style profiled by outlets including Time magazine and NPR.org.

“It’s called ‘social’ media,” Schneider said. “If all you’re doing is posting what you want to tell people, it’s not interesting. Imagine if you went to a party and all you do is talk about yourself…. That gets really boring” to others.

When Schneider first joined the dictionary publishing company, its minimal, businesslike social media approach didn’t align with the personalities and enthusiasm for language that she was seeing around the office, she explains. It was a missed opportunity.

“We would post one ‘word of the day’ every morning and one call to action to play a word quiz in the afternoon,” she says. Occasionally, someone would check what had been trending during the week and make a post about it. “We were a complete snoozer…. It just didn’t reflect the reality of [our workplace].”

As an example of the conversations the staff regularly have about language, Schneider shared an anecdote about trying to type an enthusiastic “Yesssssss!!!!” in a message to a colleague using her iPad. Autocorrect kept reducing the word to a bland “yes.” So on one of the company’s internal Slack channels, she complained, “I guess autocorrect doesn’t want me to sound like a teenage girl.” An editor immediately replied: “Autocorrect has no idea of the power of teenage girls to change language.”

“That’s the kind of thing that you see on our social media feeds” now, she said, adding that the spontaneity is genuine. It wasn’t a statement formulated in a meeting in an attempt to get a targeted demographic to follow the dictionary on social media. Best of all, there was a core of linguistic truth. “It was an honest answer if you understand how language evolves. It was funny and sounded snarky, but it was based in something really substantial,” said Schneider.

Trump Card

Of course, Merriam Webster’s Twitter account has also drawn a lot of recent attention for its jabs regarding the use of language by officials in the Trump administration. For example, when then-counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway told journalist Chuck Todd that then-press secretary Sean Spicer was using “alternative facts” to describe the size of the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration, Merriam Webster tweeted that lookups for “fact” had spiked following her statement. The official account paired the tweet with a definition: “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”

It was retweeted almost 50,000 times and liked more than 60,000 times within a couple of days.

Yet like the comment about language and teenage girls, this post wasn’t just snark or clickbait, Lauren Naturale, the dictionary’s social media manager, said during a Q&A with Vox.com a few days after the tweet.

“When a lot of people are looking up a word at a rate higher than usual, in a way that’s related to an event, we share that trend and try to add some additional information on the word’s meaning and how it was used,” Naturale said. “Four people were involved in writing and editing the ‘fact’ article, and none of us felt like we shouldn’t report the story; choosing not to report that trend would have been much more political than continuing as we always have. If you don’t believe that words matter, why are you consulting a dictionary?”

Talk, with personality

While subtly trolling the Trump administration might work for Merriam Webster, politics may not be a good fit for many library social media accounts. As Naturale explained, posting words and definitions in relation to current events was already a key part of the dictionary publisher’s social media mission. Libraries looking to bolster their social media presence should define their own mission and stay true to it as well.

While she “wholeheartedly” agrees that “personality on social media is very important,” Kroski points out that it is still essential to know your audience and stay focused on their interests and information needs. If multiple people will be posting to a library’s social media accounts, it’s important to get everyone on the same page.

“If you’re managing social media on behalf of a law library, for example, this is going to involve a very different tone than for a public library,” she says. “Just as libraries have website guidelines and policies set up for what specific colors, fonts, bullet points, and other content is appropriate, so should they have social media policies developed for tone, appropriate content topic areas, subjects to avoid, etc.”

And when posting to any institution’s official account, it’s best for individuals to err on the side of caution.

“If you’re hesitating about a post, it’s probably not appropriate,” Kroski says. “One great example of social media personality and effective use of social media is the burger giant Wendy’s (@Wendys), whose engaging and snarky tweets have caught the attention of millions of followers. But it’s also an excellent example of how quickly a fall from grace can occur, all from a single inappropriate post when they mistakenly tweeted a racist meme.” (ow.ly/bxdX30elFdp).

Distinctions and consistency

Librarians cited here all agree that users engage with different social media platforms in different ways. So simply reposting the same content everywhere is not ideal. Twitter can be great for quick responses to patrons, sharing third-party news related to upcoming books, news about library events, and more. Frequent short posts are typical for popular accounts. Less frequent but more in-depth posts focused on the library are better for Facebook. And with a visual platform such as Instagram, a library will want to use a quality image and research which popular hashtags are relevant to the message and image before posting.

“We think about…the type of platform and what is actually available on that platform, whether [the content] is short text, like a Tweet, or something that could be much longer, whether it’s primarily text or visual,” notes NYPL’s Palmer. “We try to look at how people are using the different platforms and make content that fits. There is a lot of stuff that we will put on all of our platforms, but we’ll customize it for each, and we don’t do automatic cross-posting…. It’s worth the extra effort to post to each one separately.”

NYPL has a small team of people managing the system’s core accounts as well as individuals operating accounts for branches and collections. But basic rules of thumb still apply, and posting regularly is an important one, Palmer says.

“Not every library system is going to be able to have a full-time staff member dedicated to social media, and that really does make a difference,” she says. “If you get busy with other responsibilities, you might not be posting ­consistently.”

NYPL tries to establish a general schedule for all social media accounts tied to the library and advises making sure that each account posts at least once per day, Palmer says.

“Some accounts will post more than that, some will post a little bit less, but having that in mind and being able to dedicate enough time to consistently do that every day…can really guide questions about how many accounts each library system needs to have,” says Palmer. “Do we need to be on this new platform? Do we need a Snapchat account? Do we need to be on Pinterest? Really assessing capacity to do a platform well rather than spreading too thin on a bunch of platforms just for the sake of being in all of the places you could possibly be” is important, Palmer adds.

Tips for traction

Images and short videos can help generate engagement, explained Rickie Maschia, social media specialist for OverDrive, and Adam Sockel, marketing and communication specialist for OverDrive, during their presentation, “Hashtags, Trending, & Moments, Oh My: Social Media Marketing,” at Digipalooza, the company’s ­biennial user group meeting in Cleveland in August.

“Facebook posts with images are 2.3 times more likely to get engagement,” than posts without images, Maschia said, later adding that tweets with images receive 150 percent more retweets than tweets without.

However, at Merriam Webster, Schneider said they had found that “word of the day” posts pair well with pop culture GIFs on Twitter, but on Facebook, the word of the day gets a better response when posted as a large, unadorned word with a definition below in a simple, clean layout. “Sometimes different things work on different platforms,” she said. “You have to experiment and look at your data.”

Short videos are also a great way to get attention. Videos under five minutes in length account for 55 percent of total video consumption time on smartphones, Maschia said, adding that “I would say two and a half minutes is the sweet spot.”

If anyone on staff has a knack for giving quick book recommendations, talking about upcoming events, or discussing cool resources at the library, live-streaming will give the videos an additional boost. Users are about three times more likely to watch a live video than a prerecorded one on Facebook, Maschia said.

Other best practices recommended by OverDrive include tagging authors and their publishers and linking to the library’s catalog to get retweets when posting about a new title; posting reading lists when there’s buzz about a new movie or TV show inspired by a novel, such as The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu; creating occasional paid social media ads (for $25 or $50) that promote the library or feature recent staff recommendations; and making posts that tie collections of books into both major and minor holidays, such as National Wine Day on May 25 or National Grandparents Day on September 10.

Similarly, NYPL maintains a calendar of literary events that are relevant to its followers.

“National Poetry Month, author birthdays, things like that. We are constantly looking at our editorial calendar and refining those,” Palmer says. “We also have weekly meetings to discuss new social media content—new features on the platforms and how we can utilize those…. We also look at what is happening in the world, and what current conversations we can become part of.”

Although it can present a problem if an employee leaves, smaller library systems or branches might find it easiest to hand off social media duties to an individual staff member who finds the engagement fulfilling, while keeping in mind the time needed for the job and limiting the number of accounts accordingly.

“I have always found interacting with library patrons and fellow librarians on social media to be an incredibly enjoyable experience, and I think that definitely comes across in my tone and my posts,” Kroski says. “Be sure that the person you’re going to put in charge of managing your library’s social media wants to take on that responsibility because it will definitely show if they aren’t enjoying it!”

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Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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