In My Opinion: Cathy Ma: Making social media work for publishers

AT IPC Media, where I was head of social media for three years until May, we grew our social media following from 300,000 to four million and this year IPC Media has been nominated in the Digital Publisher of the Year category at the PPA Digital Awards.

We reached over 26 million visitors a month and we spent a lot of time thinking about what content our audience love.

And of course, these days, the Holy Grail of finding what content is being read and shared and what is not, requires publishers to think about their social media strategy.

Not that every publisher will necessarily get their core social media question correct. Instead of ‘What can social media do for me?’, maybe it should be more to the point, such as: ‘To increase our digital subscriptions, how might social media assist in achieving it?’ Just because one of your ‘stories’ on social media might be the subject of lots of online activity – including being liked and retweeted – that does not necessarily mean more business.

With a clearly-defined objective (say, how can we use social media to drive magazine subscriptions?) we can, for instance, start tracking our stories to measure how many people have clicked any promo links and maybe even who they are.

That involves tracking tools, web analytics software such as Google Analytics and Omniture. If you have a moment, take a look at this blog by web analytics author, Avinash Kaushik.

It should also involve goal conversion tracking on any payment system built into a website. In other words, if you are getting 5,000 visits to your site, how many people are going on to buy a subscription?

Of course, it is possible to use social media several times over to promote a single piece of content on your site. You can describe the one tale in several different ways. But instead of having each prompt link to your main story being the same URL, you can use URL-shortening tools, and then track who is clicking through which shortened URL. That way, you can begin to build an idea of what type of language – in your various social media prompts – mosts resonates with people.

A shortened URL also has the advantage of taking up less space on tweets, where space is at a premium. It might be that it also looks more like the original brand name (for instance, has

There are many free URL-shortening tools available, like or RadiumOne’s The likes of can help you find URLs on the cheap.

Now that we’ve got our clear business objectives identified, a tracking system in place and we know what stories work and what don’t, it’s high time that we let our creative juice flow. How to generate stories that are truly engaging and viral?

If you only have three minutes today, please check out the tried and tested methods of Jonah Peretti (a founder of The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed):

From his 13 ways to make something go viral, my favourites are:

* Be yourself;

* Try lots of ideas;

* Capture the moment; and

* Humour and nostalgia are inherently social

Remember, don’t share things that will embarrass yourself. Truly interesting people are those who have the capacity to care about other people and know what people want. That’s true on any media, and will always be true through any medium.

Coming from a completely non-hierarchical working culture (I started as a sociologist/academic on Wikipedia and then Yahoo! Europe), I had to adjust to the cultural shock of working in a lot more linear, hierarchical structure of traditional publishing. It makes sense, as print magazines need that sort of system to prevent mistakes. But online is different. Whoever dares to try and try to fail fast enough succeed faster. This is very paradoxical and probably is the hardest challenge I see most publishers have to overcome.

If you are willing to let go and empower your passionate staff to try, given the right training and support, then you will go far.

Cathy Ma is a former academic researcher on Wikipedia, a social user experience designer for Yahoo! and, until recently, the head of social media for IPC Media. She is now a social media consultant and is speaking at the PPA Scotland magazine festival and conference, Magfest, on the 11th of next month, in Glasgow.