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Dear colleagues: What an editorial on Scotland can teach us about journalism

gam-squareAs media companies continue to transition toward digital operations, one of our goals at Parse.ly is to help them by sharing best practices. One way we do that is through resources, like our white paper “Why Being Reader-First Matters: An Editor’s Guide to Digital Media.” However, we believe it’s always best to hear it directly from the people in the field: our clients. Today’s post originally appeared in the Globe and Mail, by Tony Keller the Editorial Page Editor of The Globe and Mail, and is reposted here with permission.

“Dear Scotland: An Open Letter From Your Canadian Cousins” was published on Sept. 12, and since then it has been viewed more than 441,000 times, and shared more than 79,000 times on social media. It is the second-most read article in Globe history, and the second most-shared, after the Doolittle/McArthur story on the second Rob Ford crack video. 

(A note for stats geeks: According to the social media share counts that appear on the top of all Globe online stories, “Dear Scotland” has the most shares of any Globe story, ever. But according to Parse.ly, our internal system for measuring readership and social media sharing, the April 30, 2014 story on the second Rob Ford crack video is the most the shared Globe story. Either way, an editorial on the dry topic of constitutional reform in a foreign country isn’t supposed to be this popular.)

So what have I learned from this experience?

Content matters: An article on a difficult topic – if it’s a difficult topic that people care deeply about, and if it succeeds in clearly explaining that difficult topic – will be well read. Our readers are hungry for understanding. And people will give you their time if you can promise that in return you will make them smarter. This was an extreme case, but it illustrates a broader truth about our business.

Timing matters: The editorial landed just as the polls showed a shift in Scottish opinion in favour of separation – and the referendum suddenly became big news. The Scottish referendum and its potential consequences suddenly went from difficult, boring and unimportant to difficult, necessary and urgent. A huge number of people wanted insight into a formerly unknown topic, and they wanted it asap.

Headlines matter: A headline is a marketing campaign for an article. Bad headline? Bad marketing. Articles do not sell themselves. The structure of the editorial was a bit of a gimmick: the open letter from Canada to Scotland. The headline expressed that. It personalized an otherwise complex and dry topic. It promised an emotional, human connection. Had the headline been “Some Things to Consider As Scotland Votes” or “Scotland’s Constitutional Problems Have Echoes in Canada’s History”, I’m convinced that the shares and readership would have been much lower. I deliberately removed words like “Constitutional” from the headline – despite the fact that the topic of the editorial is constitutional history and constitutional theory. “How Canadian Constitutional History and Theory Applies To Scotland’s Constitutional Problems” is an accurate explanatory headline. It describes what the editorial is about. But it’s not a great sell.

Headlines matter (II): When it comes to social media sharing, headlines matter – times 10.

Facebook (often) matters more than Twitter: The editorial had 77,000 shares on Facebook, and about 3,000 on Twitter. However, each tweet generated more readers than each Facebook share – about 2 readers per Facebook share, vs. 5 page views per tweet.

Quality matters: A great headline may pull people in, just like a great ad campaign can sell the first batch of a product. But unless people get something out of reading the piece, they are less likely to share. People recommend a restaurant they enjoyed, not one they didn’t; the same goes for social sharing of articles. What was interesting to me was the number of times I saw people sharing the article by re-headlining it with a quote from the editorial – such as ”The Yes campaign seems to believe in the unreasonable proposition that you can improve your marriage by getting a divorce” or “If you take it apart now, you can never, ever put it back together again.” They were reading, and pulling out the threads that mattered to them, and that they thought would persuade their audience. They were acting as a second round of editors and headline writers.

Going viral is entirely in your hands, and entirely out of your hands: This article did not go viral because I or anyone else at the Globe repeatedly and aggressively shared it on Twitter and Facebook. Almost all of the sharing happened independent of our efforts. The article and the headline, together with a bit of luck and good timing, did it. So be of good cheer: It’s all about what’s on the page. Content is still king.

Follow Tony Keller on twitter @tonykeller1. If you have a story, lesson learned, or case-study you’d like to share with us, email hello@parsely.com