Be a better publisher

This post is based on a presentation to the NDF barcamp at Napier’s MTG in August 2015. If you’re someone who posts stuff online for your organisation – or you’re being asked to write something for that person – you might find it helpful to work out why.

There’s a lot of junk online

Header for an article on Buzzfeed titled '35 people who just realized that Seth MacFarlane is actually hot'. Really.A real article that a real person put real time into typing up. Via Buzzfeed.

There are also a lot of ways to put more junk online, quickly and easily and without thinking about it. Heritage organisations can fall into this trap just as easily as others.

Social media and online publishing often seem like the things that’ll solve our organisations’ outreach and audience engagement problems. Each new platform is the thing to do, and there’s a compulsion to get on board.

Usually, if we do get a channel up and running, it does make us very urgent about sharing, connecting, and upping numbers, but it also often turns into a grind of perfunctory, last-minute postings without any real connection to our goals – or those of our users.

Instead of taking the opportunity to upskill our users, or give them interesting inroads to the collections, or developing new ways to reuse what we hold, we frequently just add to the junk.

Aside from the trouble it causes us as we burn resources and put forward our worst face, we’re making it harder for our audiences to find *good* stuff, wasting their time and mental resources.

I’m hurting some of you now

I’m a big fan of this article by Kathy Sierra.

But if it’s ‘content’ designed solely to suck people in (‘7 ways to be OMG awesome!!’) for the chance to ‘convert’, we’re hurting people. If we’re pumping out ‘content’ because frequency, we’re hurting people. I’m hurting some of you now. That’s on me.

- Kathy Sierra, ‘Your app makes me fat’

It comes at content and apps from the user’s side of things, and focuses on how hard we often make it for them. I think about it a lot when, as editor of this blog, I’m deciding what goes in and what gets left out.

If you’re putting stuff online, you’re a publisher; it’s Legal Deposit’s definition, and it works for me. However, most online publishers don’t perform that role effectively. Publishers plan. Publishers understand their medium. (And dang it, publishers proofread.)

Planning gives you a concrete foundation and helps you avoid doing social media for its own sake. By creating goals, developing workflows, and taking your time, you’ll help your users get better at the stuff they want to do.

Know why you’re doing it

Why do you, unidentified heritage institution, want to publish online? Because it’s what everyone’s doing isn’t a good reason. Because it’ll look good on the annual report is definitely not a good reason. Because everyone’s on Facebook, by itself, isn’t a good reason.

Publish online because it’s good for your institution and your audience.

When you’ve decided you want to kick something off, there’s a bunch of questions you’ll need to answer.

What do I want to accomplish?

  • What’s the gap you’re filling by starting up a new channel? What’s new and different about it that makes it worth giving yourself a whole extra stack of work?

Who is this for?

  • Who’s the audience? How specific can you be? That’s going to affect a lot, from the platform you choose to the language you deploy.

Why should they care?

  • It’s a big internet. Why should people check out what you’ve got when there’s a gif of a monkey riding a pig to watch? How are you going to prove to them that you value their time and attention?

How does this help us?

  • To keep this thing going, you’ll need to be able to show how it benefits your institution too. What strategic goals is it attached to? What are the flow-on effects? (Collection surfacing is a solid bet.)

What is my source material?

  • What’s the content? Is it a specific collection? Is it interpretive material? Is everything digital-ready? Does it need editing or some other kind of transformation?

How are we going to do it?

  • Specifically, who is going to do it – today, in a week, six months from now. Establishing your processes, including who takes care of what, will save you a ton of time and make your channel far more consistent.

These questions are worth asking even if you’re not starting up a whole new channel. A single blog post, for example, needs to exist for a reason, and needs to come from somewhere.

A case study in Tumbling. Tumblring? Toombling

When we started on Tumblr last year, the answers looked something like this:

What do I want to accomplish?

  • Direct collection surfacing that our blog doesn’t handle well – our curators had been wanting more ways to share their collections online, but this blog is too in-depth to dash off a quick ‘look at this awesome thing’ post.

Who is this for?

  • Format specialists and enthusiastic amateurs – we had a particular collection area in mind, so we could focus on those people who are especially interested in the format. The objects themselves are then the main point of the channel.

Why should they care?

  • Access to a visually impressive collection at a good size – everything posted is nice and big, and looks good when it’s fullscreened.

How does this help us?

  • We free up our open access material, as required by our reuse policy – we’ve agreed, on an organisational level, to proactively push material out into the world if it’s open access.

What is my source material?

  • Digitised images from the Rare Books collection – a collection that’s substantially out of copyright, colourful and beautiful, and full of unique material.

How are we going to do it?

  • The Rare Books Curator will post to Tumblr, aided by the Online Editor and Online Content Coordinator – as the subject matter expert, Ruth Lightbourne had the knowledge and motivation to make the posts good and keep the account rolling. She had also already shared a lot of material online, in blog posts, Flickr albums, and research guides.

Collection images posted to Tumblr.Beautiful things on a beautiful tumblr. Via Turnbull Rare Books.

The end result is something that I think is solid, manageable, and worth doing.

The audience likes it – we’ve got around 1300 followers in about 9 months with almost no promotion. The curator was able to keep it going without adding a ton of extra work. It helps us achieve our broader goals regarding open access.

And now we’re getting our Ephemera Curator up and running on Tumblr too, and the Manuscripts and Music Curators are also interested. With each new account, though, we’re still going to be asking those earlier questions to make sure they’re worth publishing.

Show your work(flow)

I touched on the running of the platform, but it needs a bit more attention. Because it’s not just about one person posting now and again. You need a workflow.

People running social media accounts need time to make selections, write content, edit images, coordinate schedules, answer questions or find people to answer questions, monitor activity, defuse problems, follow trends, plan theme weeks, convince others to share stuff...

The ideal is for staff to have online publishing in their job descriptions. It’s a big part of mine, but web writing is also required for several Turnbull staff – without that I’d be hard pressed to publish anywhere near as much as I do.

We also have a lot of less formal support built up through years of conversations, gradual accumulation of successes, and individual or group training. That’s helped get people interested in contributing, and seeing the value in spending their time on it.

When you’re just starting out, especially when you don’t have the whole organisation behind you, you’ve got a couple of main options. Scope down, or find ways to share the load.

To scope down, you’ll want to do some picking and choosing. Use a collection that’s already online so you don’t have to arrange any digitisation. Pick an end date so you don’t have to commit to doing it forever. Probably don’t try to jump straight into video, unless you’re already super good at making six-second videos on Vine.

Or, build a team and split the workload. Get someone who knows the platform involved so you understand the constraints and possibilities – you’ll skip a bunch of time you would have spent on trial and error posting.

Have multiple posters and trade off days. Or specialise – have one person source material, one person prep it for posting, and one person fire it out. Just make sure you stay in touch with each other and stay on the same page.

When we started on Twitter way back when, we kept it small and we had a team.

The people who kicked it off, Courtney and Chelsea, decided to just post a couple of images a day. They were both also familiar with Twitter, allowing them to avoid a big part of the learning curve, and they split the work between them, one on mornings, one on afternoons.

Support from up the line

If the people who plan schedules and measure performance are on board you’ll get more time and more contributors. Probably not more budget.

I don’t think there are any guaranteed techniques for getting that support quickly, though. At the Library, conversations, persistence, and evidence of success have just gradually built up our management’s willingness to support it over the last several years.

NLNZ on Twitter started under the radar, and our Rare Books Tumblr was a semi-open ‘prototype’ for quite a while before being made official. Their success came before the stamp of approval, but that stamp is useful for expanding on what we’re already doing.

Picking a platform

Though most of the available platforms are pretty flexible, certain things will work better on Tumblr rather than Facebook, or on a blog rather than Twitter.

On this blog, we go deepest, really digging into the history of our collection items and the professional practice surrounding them. We treat it more like a magazine than social media.

Our blog posts are for people who already know who we are, but maybe don’t know what they want to do with us. Each post shows them a way to get in and do something at the Library – a lot of them are almost mini research guides or examples of how to get started.

They take time and a lot of involvement by subject matter experts, and pretty much every post needs to have a purpose and audience in mind. It’s heavy going at times, but it’s become an invaluable outreach tool.

Over on Twitter, we keep things much lighter, from the activity to the tone.

We’re still doing two collection images a day, but our use of the channel’s also grown with the audience’s expectations. We link to our new content and our events. We answer questions and take metadata corrections. We ask for feedback on policy documents.

We aim to be enjoyable, but not invasive. We’re showing up in peoples’ feeds effectively at random, so we want them to be glad they’ve followed up.

Our Facebook page is event-focused. We post our listings beforehand, and we post photosets of occasions after the fact.

We’ve branched out a little more widely since we launched there, but to really use it well I think it’d require the sort of resourcing we give the blog. It’s a behemoth, and I think it needs some real dedication and knowledge of the platform to get the most out of it.

And Tumblr’s my new best friend. It lets us easily show off some of our most beautiful collection material, the interface is straightforward enough to get our curators up and running quickly, and unlike Facebook they don’t assert any and all possible rights over what we post there.

The community of professionals and enthusiasts on there is huge and friendly, and it’s possible to learn a lot from them in turn.

That’s not everything by a long shot - there are other twitter accounts and blogs. We’re on YouTube, but more as video storage than community-facing activity. Our Flickr activity is gradually ticking up again as we release more open access images. We used to be on MySpace!

I’m an old man

I realised while doing this presentation that we’re only on platforms that are several years old. This isn’t because we’re aiming for the tried-and-true channels, in the face of all these whippersnappers. It’s because that what I know about, what I know how to use.

If you’ve got enthusiastic people who want to use Instagram, kik, or… Spotify playlist comments? Is that a thing? to communicate, great. If that’ll reach an audience and give them something they want, go for it.

This isn’t the only way for a heritage organisation to publish blogs and social media, but it is one way that works pretty well. If this post helps you get set up, let me know!

By Reuben Schrader

Reuben is your friendly neighbourhood online editor.

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Andy Fenton September 14th at 10:24AM

This is well-thought through Reuben - thanx for sharing. I'll enjoy passing it on to my colleagues & friends.
Delighted to hear the NDF Hawke's Bay Barcamp benefitted from this sort of contribution too... they're a great initiative & I thoroughly recommended them, likewise similar cultural heritage regional networking events hosted by Museums Aotearoa and LIANZA. We trumpeted this kind of event at the ARANZ Conference in Auckland last week.

Andrew Henry September 23rd at 2:33PM

Great post & very good advice, thank you :-) I totally agree on the the importance of putting creating web content in job descriptions.