Medium + Twitter + Social Listening

An Integrated Model for Driving Public Debate

I’m trying something new here. Typically when I have an idea I’ll write a few hundred, or a few thousand, words to build out an argument. But the ideas below needed some visualization, and of late I’ve been inspired by the incredible Wait But Why.

Rather than write a massive essay, here’s my go at a hybrid essay + storyboard of the problem I want to work through — which is how Medium, as part of a larger digital ecosystem, can work with other platforms to drive robust conversations around policy and social issues. Let’s jump in.

This is you. Maybe you work at a think tank, nonprofit or foundation. Maybe you are an advocate, policy maker or academic. Whoever you are, you care about making an impact, and you view education, conversation and debate — the spread of ideas — as a vehicle for impact. You are a person who has things to say.

Medium helps you do that. Medium provides you with a platform to write, and exposure for your writing. It does this by leveraging the networks you are already part of (Facebook, Twitter) to connect you to readers, and allowing others to follow you on its own platform.

Medium functions as a distribution platform for your writing. As you write, your network of followers are exposed to your writings, helping you build a readership and (if you write interesting things) eliciting responses from your followers. This is the start of a dialogue, and the beginning of impact.

You are not alone. There are lots of incredibly smart people on Medium, writing intelligent, substantive stories, persuasive editorials and well-researched policy perspectives. They are all reading/responding to the work of others, just like you. Just as you have your own network of readers, you are part of someone else’s network.

These networks are connected as ad-hoc, emergent communities of interest through keywords (tags). Based on the tags you follow, you are a member of multiple communities of interest. As you write, you assign tags to your content, distributing your writing to larger communities of people who also follow those tags.

Communities of interest also organize around Publications. These are top-down tools that allow organizations/editors to curate the content of writers around specific topics. In the best circumstances, they can be hubs within the larger community of interest, and an aggregator of the strongest work in the space. They provide writers like you opportunities to connect with larger audiences. That means greater impact for your ideas.

The aggregate of these emergent, keyword-based networks and centralized publications form the basis of topic spheres. These can be about anything, but in the context of policy/advocacy/social impact, they include global development, education, criminal justice reform or any other political or social issue where a sufficient number of people are actively using Medium. When we talk about Medium as a platform for public debate and discussion, we are referring to the aggregate activity within these topic spheres.

There are a lot of topic spheres on Medium. The denser, more populated they are, and the more overlap between topics, the greater the potential for hosting a rich debate/discussion.

That’s what Medium is — the aggregate of topic spheres combined with a first-class CMS and distribution platform. Medium has already demonstrated the value of this model as a vehicle for public discussion and debate.

But Medium is not the only venue for online discussion and debate. Far from it. From traditional media, political blogs and social networks, to private listservs and dark social, there are lots of platforms where public debate plays out online.

Facebook and Twitter are two important platforms and the two I’ll focus on in the context of this model. Whether it is #BlackLivesMatter, the Ice Bucket Challenge or the #ArabSpring, these platforms are hosting important conversations that are having a social impact. As a writer, you want your ideas on Medium to influence conversations on these platforms, and you want these platforms to push traffic back to Medium to drive engagement with your ideas.

Twitter offers the greater opportunity of the two platforms. Like Medium, Twitter is ordered around interests and conversations, whereas Facebook is focused on personal networks. Twitter also has a much higher quotient of influencers who are already engaging in relevant conversations on the platform, as well as a few other natural features that make it a better partner to Medium in driving public debate (more on that later).

As a means of driving engagement, Medium is optimized to allow you — and your readers — to share content out to Facebook and Twitter in visually compelling ways (via open graph integration). This exposes your ideas to new audiences, and drives new readers back to your story. These simple (but well-designed) sharing and traffic-driving tools are the basis of a system that moves readers and ideas across platforms.

Medium is improving this system all the time. In fact, they are just rolling out an integration with Facebook’s Instant Articles, offering the possibility of greater traffic through the platform.

This is what organic distribution in a cross-platform, integrated system looks like. But there are two, big catches.

  1. The relevance of the audience you reach is limited by both the quality of your followers on each of the channels, and the ways your content is classified by each platform’s algorithm.
  2. Unless you already have huge networks, or get lucky, this system doesn’t naturally produce a ton of traffic or awareness.

There are (arbitrary) limits to organic distribution that also limit the impact that your story can have. Fortunately, there are other, smarter ways to reach relevant audiences at greater scale to drive greater impact.

Custom/Tailored audiences are one such way that you can drive targeted, high-quality engagement with your ideas. Both Twitter and Facebook allow anyone to upload email lists into their ad system as a way to build targeted audiences for advertising.

If you work at an organization with a robust email list and sophisticated CRM, you can segment out the most relevant people for your purposes (issue experts, etc.) and advertise your story directly to those audiences through promoted posts on the platforms. This ensures that you reach an influential audience beyond those you are able to reach organically.

This can significantly boost traffic to your story/ideas on both platforms, driving conversation and distribution within Medium’s network, and increasing overall impact.

Absent internal promotional tools (which Medium does not yet have), this is what a standard paid engagement model for Medium looks like. It maximizes the impact you can have through owned channels.

We can and should think bigger. More readers. More influential readers. More impact.

Social listening tools are improving dramatically and offer additional ways to engage directly with existing conversations, or identify high-influence individuals who are reachable on other platforms. There are two roles that social listening tools can play in driving greater distribution at scale for greater impact:

  • Collecting and aiding interpretation of data about the volume, channels and influencers involved in particular discussions online.
  • Distributing content into prominent, ongoing conversations.

The first role is common to all social platforms. The second is something I’ve seen only as proof-of-concept with select platforms, but is the logical next step in the social listening space, and will likely see broader uptake in the next few years.

(Important note: when we talk about social listening strategies, we are primarily talking about Twitter. Facebook’s privacy settings make the strategies we are about to discuss effectively impossible. I said earlier that Twitter was the better fit of the two platforms for this model — this is the reason why.)

Let’s start with collecting and interpreting data on conversations. This can take a couple of forms.

  1. Pure listening: Understanding the volume and shape of important conversations, including the volume of conversation, the sentiment of the conversation (be prepared to dig in deep to understand that), and the ebb/flow of the conversation. These signals are all inputs that can guide your content development (surfacing new topics and ensuring your writing is relevant to the larger conversation).
  2. Identifying Influencers: Most tools will surface who in a particular conversation is influential. Better services will go a step further and generate targetable lists of those influencers that you can fold into your tailored audience strategy (described above).

Understanding who is talking and what they are saying will make your content smarter, and help set goals for who you need to reach and engage to have an impact.

All of that social listening data has limited value if you don’t make it actionable. Actionable in this context has a very specific meaning — using the data as a way to target paid promotion of your content to specific people or into specific conversations. That can happen in two ways:

  • Target Small Groups Who Are Always Influential: This is the execution of strategies described above. Social listening tools can identify people who are consistently influential around certain topics (congressional communications or legislative staff, advocates, journalists, academics, etc.). Tools can generate lists of those influencers (via twitter IDs or handles) that you can fold into your tailored audience/paid distribution plan. This will increase both the size and relevance of the audience you are reaching, while maintaining a fairly small distribution program (from a budget standpoint) overall.
  • Target Large Groups That Are Ephemerally Influential In Real Time: At any given moment, conversations are surging on Twitter — whether that’s Merrick Garland’s confirmation (#DoYourJob), the Panama Papers, or #NeverTrump. Core groups of people are always discussing such issues (see above), but when issues bubble to the top of the public’s consciousness, non-traditional influencers may also rise in prominence. Some platforms can identify those unlikely influencers — thousands of them — in real time. By integrating with the Twitter ads API, they could help clients advertise directly to those influencers, also in real time.

This latter strategy is something that few platforms can do at the moment, but also the one that offers up the most interesting possibilities for driving larger-scale impact by talking to broader publics at a time when they are most likely to be receptive to your arguments (for example, imagine a strategy like this functioning as a safety valve during moments of racial tension or after a terror attack).

These are the three pillars of an integrated model for driving public discussion, debate, and ultimately real-world impact through the spread of ideas. It is by no means the only such model, and even with regard to how foundations, nonprofits, and think tanks can use Medium, it is incomplete (see: dark social, email etc.). Hopefully it’s a useful starting point for those organizations — or individuals — trying to think through how and why they should incorporate Medium into their thought leadership and communications work.

This is part of an ongoing series about how Medium can build a more robust digital space for public dialogue. Click “Follow” next to Design the Debate, to get updates when new articles are published. Follow us on Twitter here.

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