What Advocates Can Learn from Mother Jones’ Online Growth
The liberal investigative reporting magazine Mother Jones is named for a legendary diminutive early 20th century labor organizer; so it’s only appropriate that modern-day advocates learn a thing or two from the moderately-circulated journal’s oversized social media impact.
In spite of its relatively low publishing profile (it’s supported by nonprofit grants and thousands of donors as well as advertising), Mother Jones has experienced explosive web traffic growth over the last several years. Breaking news exclusives like the video of Mitt Romney’s comments to a closed fundraiser about “47 percent” of Americans certainly help. But a cracker-jack online strategy has yielded a magazine with a circulation just north of 200,000 an average of 7 million unique website visitors monthly and 829,000 Facebook followers.
As this profile by the Nieman Journalism Lab explains, Mother Jones’ has crafted a very skillful social media strategy to funnel traffic to its website. And the ways it does so offer lessons for advocacy organizations looking to get as much bang for their buck out of social media.
First, the magazine made the strategic decision to put its eggs in one basket: Facebook. Most of its readers are there. As we’ve highlighted before, focusing on the platforms where audiences congregate most is sound strategy.
On Facebook, posts use aggressive headline captions or eye-catching images lead the way. So a story on Senator Rand Paul’s thoughts on the minimum wage gets this treatment:
Those posts with poor analytics are revised with pithier headlines.
Just as importantly, Mother Jones’ social media presence has a distinct personality. The AARP’s done this with it’s mythical audience of one — Rhonda. In the magazine’s case, it’s mainly derived from its director and agent provocateur Ben Dreyfuss. Through a blog hosted on Mother Jones’ website but with little connection to its journalistic content, Dreyfuss posts video, images, and stories that personally interest him that he things his readers would like, too. This Buzzfeed-y approach is designed “to bring new audience to Mother Jones content — a younger readership, people who might not be familiar with the Mother Jones brand but could one day become subscribers, or at least regular readers.”
The lighter fare also acts to anchor the magazine’s brand in readers’ minds, “so that when a heavily reported series or investigative story is published, there’s someone there to read it.” Its most shared stories, Dreyfuss said, is its hard news, not its “candy.”
If advocates don’t want go the blog route, cross-posting images or video from Pinterest, Vimeo, or YouTube to Facebook or Twitter can be the candy that keep your organization’s efforts in an audience’s mind, so they’ll be able to find out about the next big campaign or action item.
Thinking creatively about content that is substantive but easily-digested also comes into play for the magazine’s website. While it did extensive reporting on the issues surrounding the Hobby Lobby contraceptives case leading up to the Supreme Court’s ruling on it this summer, it got the most shares from a simple 8-quote list from Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion. While this content is still substantive, it didn’t require the kind of time or expertise that a straight-reporting piece would have. Anyone with some knowledge and a mouse, in other words, could have done it.
Mother Jones’ presence on Facebook also demonstrates an element of the platform that Beth Becker discussed in her recent post on ePolitics: that the service’s algorithm will reward content that people will want to be seen looking at by others. As Dreyfuss put it, “people really like to share things that demonstrate who they are as a person. One of the things we like to do is give them the opportunity to do that.” He gave the example that “you might not live in a state that legalizes gay marriage, but you are a person who supports gay marriage, and that’s how they end up liking and sharing those things.”