Confessions of a social media manager: Channel 4 on Facebook's algorithm, spreadsheets and Jon Snow's toilet

PRWeek's series on social media managers talks to those responsible for online customer relations at some of Britain's biggest brands and organisations. This week is broadcaster Channel 4.

You could be forgiven for thinking TV channels have an easy job on social, with truck loads of ready-made content and a team of experts able to cut and package it to suit. However, the sheer number of broadcasters out there renders it a major challenge to stand out from the crowd. Channel 4 has definitely managed it, and here's how...

Name: James Smart

Job title: Senior social media manager

My typical day/shift involves…

First thing (on my phone, in bed), I check our feeds and see what went well yesterday – it can sometimes take a while for things to catch, so we see the truest measure of a post the next day. It’s amazing how much quicker I get through my morning routine after something’s taken off overnight. It’s also good to make sure everything went the way it was supposed to, because people occasionally take things the wrong way – if that’s the case, I might need to flag it with other people.

Once I’m at work, I go to a lot of meetings, from the producers of some upcoming new drama to brainstorming ideas for Channel 4’s take on the Oscars. I also spend loads of time on stats and reporting what’s done well, what’s done less well, and what we can do to get more of the former and less of the latter. If there’s a report that I need to contribute to, I might spend 50 per cent of my time exporting numbers from Facebook Insights and manipulating them to tell a coherent story. I bloody love a spreadsheet.

We work with an external social agency, That Lot, for our organic content and all of our ad posts are made by our in-house creative agency, 4Creative, so we’re always in constant contact with one another to work on briefs or deliverables of some sort. I get A lot of emails.

Which social media channels do you manage?

Channel 4 and E4 on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube; plus All 4 on Facebook.

We used to have accounts for pretty much every programme we made (134 profiles in total), but thankfully we’ve cut back and only focus on the channel accounts in an effort to make those more impactful and effective*. I’m sure setting up a 'Was It Something I Said' Tumblr felt like a good idea at the time, but it’s of limited value today.

(*it worked, by the way - Channel 4 is now ranked 7th in the UK and 39th in the world for social video by Tubular Labs, plus our channel accounts get more video views than any of our competitors. Not that we’re competitive...)

Which channels work best for the brand & why?

We’re a TV broadcaster, so our biggest asset is our video content that we know people like. Facebook’s algorithm loves video, so it’s no surprise that we get our best results there.

Twitter is still a great way to engage viewers – 40 per cent of Twitter traffic is about whatever’s on telly at the time, and we’re on telly all the time – so we still live tweet some shows. Even so, our average Facebook video gets 150 times more impressions than our average tweet. Twitter’s a good way to build relationships with our on-screen talent, but Instagram is also becoming more important for this.

Do you use video/gifs in your social feeds? If so, what kind?

Video is now the only thing we put on Facebook. If you think of our TV shows as the product that we’re trying to sell, it makes sense for us to show people the best bits of our programmes to get them interested in watching more. The algorithm is very much in our favour.

It’s taken a bit of practice to get any good at making our on-air shows work on social, but the principals are fairly simple: people are watching in mute, so make it work without sound; people won’t necessarily have seen the rest of the programme, so make it work in isolation; people scroll through their newsfeeds, like, well quick, so make it really stick out from the opening frames to grab their attention.

We’re quite lucky that the things people seem to engage with are also the things that fit in with some of the key points in our remit – diversity, unheard voices and inspiring change. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone’s in favour of all of the opinions in our content, but engagement drives reach, so debate is a good thing.

How important is measurement for your social strategy?

Absolutely imperative. We’re a really small team with limited resource, so we need to be very choosy about what we spend our time doing. With so many programmes, if a show isn’t landing with our audiences on social media, we need to think about moving on and working on something else. It feels a bit brutal at times, but if things aren’t working organically, there’s a chance they can impact the performance of the page as a whole.

We’re also constantly trying to find relationships between performance on social media and overnight television audience figures. We’ve seen that increased Facebook video views leads to increased views on All 4. So that’s nice.

My brand guidelines/restrictions are…

Broadly speaking: don’t break the law, don’t be a dick and don’t be boring. It’s amazing how difficult those are to stick to.

Common issues:

It’s not uncommon for programmes to deliver on the day of transmission, which makes it fairly difficult to do any effective marketing of the show. Also, it’s no surprise that the more daring and challenging our output is, the better chance it has of doing well on social media… but it also has a higher chance of properly rubbing people up the wrong way.

What makes a good social media manager?

Absolute top of the list is an understanding of what makes people share things on social media. You’ve got to fully get why it was that Video A did better than Video B. And then do loads more things like A and absolutely none of B. B needs to go away. Bye, B. Bye. Off you pop, mate.

I think in the early days, it was essential to have a strong comedy pedigree, since a lot of brands were investing in Twitter writers, but it’s the human stories that do the biggest numbers for us these days, so it’s not the end of your career if you’re as funny as plastic marine waste.

Best experience…

Drugs Live: Cannabis on Trial was a good one. Long story short, I had a wee in the toilet in Jon Snow’s hotel room. Doesn’t get any better than that. Not sure he knows this, by the way. Thanks, Jon.

Worst/strangest experience…

Your heart sinks every time someone takes something the wrong way. We reach so many people that it’s impossible to avoid upsetting anyone, but occasionally we say something on social that really upsets a group of people. We try really hard to avoid that, and we get right an unbelievable percentage of the time considering the amount of stuff we’re sending out, but it’s genuinely upsetting each time we get it wrong.

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