Social media services have given journalists new tools to discover hard-to-find sources and identify hot topics. In many ways, this allows for quicker bottom-up reporting, tied less to cyclical events or the agendas of established industry players. Likely, it gives the opportunity to interact directly with the oft-hidden people who are shaping industries or cultural trends.
Let's take a look at some strategies and tactics for understanding the people and topics within a given industry or beat:
Use the Twitter search page to discover who is talking about the topics you are focused on. In some instances – such as a search on "NJ Transit" and NJtransit – you get a broad cross-section of people discussing New Jersey's favorite train system.
Typing in "Library Journal" retrieves folks who are talking about the publication and topics within it. A search for librarians gives you an instant glimpse into the topic, the people and those interacting directly with them. And if you are looking to find librarians who are Twitter, there are directories you can check as well.
Identify & Follow
Identify who is on Twitter within the industry you cover or for the topic you are focused on.
These could be obvious people such as executives, politicians, consultants or other prominent members of a given community. Likely, you will find people whose official title might not give clues to the value of their role or influence.
See who has a large number of followers – those folks are clearly offering a great deal of value to attract such a large audience. Read their most recent updates, understand how they are using the service, how often they update, and the types of information they share. Gauge the usefulness of their content for your purposes.
Also, see who they are interacting with by looking for @replies. Look at who they are following and who is following them. This will quickly give you a glimpse into the virtual network of their world.
Begin following the people whose position or content you think will be useful for the topic you are covering.
Follow Hashtags For Events, Groups Or Topics
Using Twitter search again, you can find anyone who is posting about a certain topic or subgroup, such as these folks writing about the South by Southwest festival using the hashtag #sxsw.
Writing an article that gives you instant feedback as to what “Survivor” fans think of an episode as it happens? Just follow this hashtag: #survivor.
Hashtag.org is an interesting directory of hashtags, but you can also discover them simply by following people within a certain industry. Or consider creating your own – just make sure it's unique so that you don't blend your topic with someone else's.
If you are planning to cover an event, you can begin following the hashtag for that event (if one exists) weeks ahead of the event itself to understand the buzz going into it and who else will be attending. This could make a big difference in how you cover the event: instead of walking in cold and hoping to discover who is there and what they are interested in, you can go in with several potential ideas already developed and a sense of what (and who) you need to pay the most attention to.
And of course, you can begin interacting with people through hastags at anytime – not just observing, but connecting and sharing.
The tactics listed above will give you keen insight into the everyday world of a particular group or topic. Likely, you will find out breaking news first, and be able to track it as it evolves.
This will give you story ideas before others have written about them. These methods also will help you develop a list of sources that you can follow up with immediately for more information and quotes.
Join The Conversation
Begin posting updates on the topic you are interested in.
If you are just learning about a topic, expose the process of what you are learning and who you are connecting with.
Provide value where you can, and open up your world to the folks you are focused on.
Watch Who Is Watching You
See who is following with you, “retweeting” your updates, and giving feedback through @replies.
These less obvious sources could be people who are more open to engaging in conversation.
Anyone who shares content on the web for the topic you are interested in can be a good source, but bloggers tend to be truly in the trenches of a subject, especially for smaller niches.
Go to Google and type in keywords on the topic you are focused on, and pay particular attention to anything that looks like it could be a blog. You can try Google news, Technorati, and a variety of other search engines to filter out blog-specific content.
You can make a list, or better yet, open up an RSS reader and start adding blogs as you find them. You can whittle them down later on.
After you have collected a sizable list, dig into each blogger's archives to see which is most valuable, or begin following updates for a few days to see who is posting interesting content.
Review The Comments
Which blogs get a lot of comments? Who are the regular commenters? Who is providing value and creating conversation? These are the folks you want to put on your radar screen.
Add your own comments.
Give feedback, ask questions, engage with the authors and their audience.
Bloggers have made a real commitment to their industry and the topic they write about. Likely, they can direct you to others you should be considering as you source a topic.
Understand The Organization
If you have a sense of which companies make up the industry you are covering, then do a company search on LinkedIn. Here is Google's company page, as an example:
You will be shown current and former employees, new hires, recent promotions and job changes, open positions, and some information about the company itself.
LinkedIn also offers a "premium account" that gives you greater access to people and data in your searches. (I haven't used that yet, so I can't comment on its value.)
Understand The Network
LinkedIn provides an incredible amount of information on individuals, such as their work history, interests, and other places you can find them online (e.g., blogs, Twitter).
Suddenly, someone becomes so much more than their title, allowing you to find people with very specific skill sets and experience.
Facebook & Linkedin Groups
Need to talk to some engineers in New York?
A simple Group search on LinkedIn gives you many places to start.
Likewise, Facebook offers their own groups - over 500 groups came up for a search on "engineers."
If you are lucky, the industry or topic you are covering has a highly evolved forum or two – a place where practitioners discuss their work or consumers discuss their passions. This exposes hot topics and the people talking about them, and even gives you another opportunity to get involved yourself.
Use Google or other search engines to expose forums you don't know about, with basic searches such as "engineers" and "forum" if that is the group you are interested in.
YouTube, Flickr & User-generated Content Sites
Sites such as YouTube and Flickr offer another opportunity to see who is creating content on a specific topic and sharing it. Communities are built on these services as well, making it easy to identify like-minded people.
The usefulness of each of the services I've described above will depend on the industry or topic you are covering, the type of information you are looking for and, to some degree, your own established presence on these networks.
As you get more involved in social media, you will build a network of sources and a reputation, just as you would in the offline world. The rules of journalism haven't changed, but the tools have.
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* Adapted images: Public Domain, pixabay.com via getstencil.com