4 pillars of successful social media strategy, from award-winning WPIX in New York

Leading up to LMA’s Digital Revenue Summit, April 22-23 in Chicago, where winners from the Local Media Digital Innovation Awards will be presented, we are showcasing some of the winners and the great work that will be on display.

WPIX won first place for Best Social Media Strategy among local media organizations with more than 750,000 monthly unique visitors.

Here’s what the judges had to say about the entry:

I liked how they had a very direct four pillar approach in their strategy, shared good examples, and then showed actual year-over-year metrics to back up their claims of success.

With this strategy, WPIX increased its social audience by 23 percent year-over-year, growing followers on Facebook by 23 percent, Instagram by 47 percent, and Twitter by 8 percent.

“Our connection to our audience, and their appreciation for the role we play in their lives, has never been greater,” said Rolando Pujol, Director of Digital and Social Strategy for WPIX-TV, in the contest entry.

Rolando Pujol, Director of Digital and Social Strategy, WPIX-TV

We caught up with Pujol to dive deeper into the social media strategy at WPIX and why it’s been so successful.

Can you provide an overview of your role, the WPIX team that works on social media, and how you collaborate to plan and distribute social content?

I’m the director of digital and social strategy, a role that has evolved into a central one at the station over the past six years at WPIX.  I have a core team of web producers who report for the website, manage our homepage and app, run our social media platforms, produce original live programming for our digital-first video production hub called the Social Media Center, generate original video for social and syndication through Tribune and partners, and develop specialized enterprise projects. But the digital team really extends to our on-air reporters and anchors. They all have digital roles to play and are highly engaged on social platforms, taking their cues from my team.

The digital team works closely to determine which stories to pursue, and how to present them on different platforms. In a series of formal and informal meetings throughout the day, we assess which stories deserve mobile alerts and carefully craft the wording. We select news stories as they develop through our “pillars strategy,” to figure out which to chase aggressively and devote resources to, and we work closely with reporters in the field to burnish our reporting throughout the day.

Stories of special importance, or projects that are essential to the station’s “New York’s Very Own” mission, undergo especially careful scrutiny, in which we apply what we call a “360” deployment strategy with a timeline and guidelines to distribute content across multiple platforms, with collaboration between news, creative and other relevant departments.

How did you go about developing the 4-pillar approach for your social media strategy?

The key to our success is understanding our audience, insights that we gained through experience, careful social listening and hyper attention to analytics. We thought long and hard about our strengths, the opportunities for audience growth in the market, and the insights that our data gave us on what our audience needed from us.

This produced our four pillars, which very much reflect our station’s mission of being New York’s Very Own.

Our audience depends on us for breaking news and weather. That’s like a lot of other stations, of course, but we have structured our digital and assignments desks to work together in ways that give us an edge on breaking news. We routinely “break” stories via push notifications, and are quick to “flood the zone” on major stories across platforms, going deeper on our Facebook Live shows, producing multiple sidebars, web-exclusive video, and other initiatives. We scale our response depending on the severity of the story. We are also committed to bringing as much live video as we can to viewers via Facebook and the PIX11 News app and have made that one of our distinguishing points.

On weather, we aggressively cover weather-related news, super-serving viewers at times when the stakes are high. But on a daily basis, regardless of weather conditions, we deliver across platforms. We have daily Facebook Live videos that include a forecast, weather discussion, and Q&A with the audience. These videos are sponsored. We also produce multiple daily weather updates on the Alexa platform featuring our legendary weatherman, Mr. G. We also have a weather app and distribute our forecasts on OTT, as well. Most recently, we collaborated with other Tribune stations on a podcast about nor’easters, storms that regularly impact the New York area.

“Flooding the zone” on stories of impact to our audience — how do we determine that? Oftentimes, our choices might differ from what other news stations in town are doing, but once we determine a story deeply resonates, we’ll embrace the story on all platforms. One notable example is our coverage of the mistaken-identity stabbing death of a 15-year-old Bronx boy, allegedly at the hands of a gang. It sparked a movement in the city and beyond, called “Justice for Junior” – the boy’s nickname was Junior. We became the leading news source for that story, in part, because using social listening and analytics, it became clear to us that our audience craved a signature news source that offered deep coverage of the case. We doubled down on resources, committing award-winning investigative reporter Mary Murphy to the story and crafted collaboration between digital, news and creative to cover the story with thoroughness and with respect, and for the long haul. We are now the only station offering gavel-to-gavel coverage of the preliminary hearings in the upcoming trials, turning an on-air reporter into an exclusively digital reporter. We offer multiple Facebook shows from a number of our reporters, television specials, extra coverage on OTT, live streams and more, and are presently developing a podcast on Junior – the first one we’ve done that will have a news focus.

Finally, nostalgia. When I arrived at WPIX in 2012, I felt like I was coming home. I had never worked there, but I grew up watching the station, loving its many and varied shows and traditions. And I knew that there must be thousands of people like me.

I was wrong. There were millions of people like me, almost waiting for PIX to embrace its past with classic content as well as new programming based on that heritage.

I soon set the station on a multiplatform path to embracing its heritage. The strategy included launching what become a popular Facebook page, Facebook.com/wpixarchives; producing high-quality documentaries for television, social and OTT; publishing OTT exclusive long-form vault selections; creating a series of Facebook shows with audience interaction; producing TV specials including retrospectives; and even discovering lost programs in the vault that we now air to acclaim and audience appreciation. An extension of this has been the development of a fruitful licensing business, a fresh stream of income for the station.

Most stations move on from their past, they hide from it, yet it’s one of the things that viewers cherish about stations. We have found that sharing and celebrating our broadcast heritage creates new viewers on all platforms and brings former ones back into the fold; sharpens our presence in an increasingly fractured media landscape, and creates wonderful opportunities for branding that resonate with our New York’s Very Own mission.

In what ways do you build and foster a social media prowess and digital literacy in the WPIX newsroom?

Digital is now at the heart of our operation – in news, creative and sales. The secret is simple: communication. The digital leaders in each department work closely together, constantly strategizing and seeking opportunities. The digital team acts as evangelists in the newsroom for the importance of web coverage, and we offer guidance to reporters and others for how to best present their work online. We have developed whole social franchises around the work of our reporters, including Monica Makes It Happen (social advocacy), Mary Murphy Mystery (true crime), Talk it Out with Jay Dow (honest conversations about hot-button subjects) and many more. These are whole franchises with powerful social presences. The key to this has been the growth of our Social Media Center, which offers an opportunity to reach audiences through online-only shows that also raise awareness about the station’s overall news focus and identity.

Beyond that, our senior managers, from the GM to news and creative directors, heartily embrace digital, a real commitment that has made an impact online and on-air, and has transformed us into an increasingly platform agnostic news operation.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned through executing this strategy during the last year?

Live it. Own it. Show up every day. Those are the lessons – it’s about consistency. At PIX11, our mission statement, New York’s Very Own, isn’t just a nifty slogan for our latest image campaign. It’s what this station is about – a station by New Yorkers, for New Yorkers, and about New Yorkers. We get to the heart of the story and we cover our communities with the zeal of a local newspaper aiming to make a difference. If we are consistent on execution and don’t lose sight of our pillars, we will stay true to our mission.

Finally, and this is the foundation of our pillars strategy — know your audience, listen to it, respect it. And remember that digital is never static. One you’ve found a strategy that works, don’t get too comfortable with it. Review it, tweak it and be ready to course correct as necessary. Television (or any legacy media) will never be in a position like we were for 50 years — with a model for news that hardly changes. Be ready to pivot, and often.

What advice do you have for other, potentially smaller, newsrooms that want to step up their social media strategy?

I think everything that we are doing is within the reach of even the smallest of staffs. The key is to figure out what the opportunities are in the market, and how your newsroom can contribute. The scope can be scaled up or down depending on resources and determination of what your own pillars should be. Another essential factor is collaboration — make sure you have the key leaders in news, creative, sales, engineering and other departments in alliance, working toward the same goals. When one department isn’t on board, your plans won’t work. Then you can strategize from a position of strength, regardless of how strong you are in people and resources.

Maybe, after your market analysis and with a team in place, you find you are in the best position to offer in-depth reporting on certain stories or neighborhoods, rather than chasing breaking news or weather. Fine. Focus on that. That’s your one pillar. Be the best at it.  Make sure you can deliver consistently, at high quality, and have an audience that is receptive to your efforts. What makes you special? How can you use that to build and super-serve the audience you are trying to reach? It takes a lot of thought and effort, coupled with developing a realistic plan, and then deploying the resources to make it happen — consistently, every day. No excuses. But it can be done.

Register today for the Digital Revenue Summit where Pujol will present on this strategy and we will be recognizing the best digital innovation in the industry.