“Do or do not. There is no try.” —Yoda
As we started the JEDI desk at the University of Southern California in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, we knew we had to go all in. There was no try.
JEDI (Journalism, Emerging, Digital, Innovation) is a USC Annenberg Media student team that produces native content for social media and emerging platforms. The unit consists of Annenberg students, volunteers and students from different areas of study.
The team produces video stories, Instagram content, Snapchat stories, GIFs, personality-based video series for social media, mini-documentaries for social media, 360 photos, and news content, among other things. Basically, the students produce content similar to the styles you might see on the social media accounts of BuzzFeed, NowThis and AJ+.
It all started when students and faculty saw a need to better engage audiences. Broadcast videos being posted to Facebook weren’t working well on social media. These weren’t the results we were looking for.
It was December 2014. After I had a few informal chats with USC Annenberg Media student executive producer Fernando Hurtado, we moved forward and set up formal meetings. Annenberg Media Center faculty adviser and professor Rebecca Haggerty joined us as we discussed digital strategy.
It was a perfect mix. Hurtado was an uber-talented journalism student with fresh perspectives and Haggerty would represent the USC Annenberg Media Center faculty with an impressive background in broadcast journalism. We were going to start this thing called the mobile and emerging platforms unit.
As a former student news publications adviser and a digital professor at USC, I was interested in working with the Media Center to reach millennials and create engaging digital content while experimenting and pushing boundaries.
How could we better work with platforms that most of our audience and students at USC were using? We met almost weekly. We looked at analytics. Yes, there were what the numbers were telling us. But we also saw a huge need to develop content our audience was consuming on mobile devices and social media platforms. We needed to produce compelling stories that our audience could easily access. We wanted to go to where they were. We wanted work to be “shareable,” but what did that look like? Everyone loves cute, fluffy cats jumping around, but our students produce news, among other types of content. What did our fluffy cats look like?
May the audience be with you
Hurtado created a mission statement. We discussed goals, including trying something new every day. Snapchat, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook content — there was no shortage of how we could explore the digital space through storytelling.
With the support of Annenberg Media Center executive director Serena Cha, Hurtado formed a unit of student volunteers in the Media Center during the spring 2015 semester. He and other students experimented, particularly with video, looking for the formats that would work best for the content he and the students wanted to create. Haggerty oversaw the team in the Media Center and spent countless hours working with students and developing the team.
At the end of the semester, it was clear the team had momentum. This team was growing at galactic proportions. We needed to create a class to give students time and space to meet, brainstorm and strategize.
We were beyond excited. The unit was growing. There was a buzz around this new mobile and emerging platforms team. Journalism 499 (Journalism for Mobile and Emerging Platforms) was officially offered in fall 2015, but the class only ended up with four people enrolled.
Our director of journalism at USC Annenberg, Willow Bay, knew the importance of expanding learning opportunities for students. She supported the class and the growth of the unit within the Media Center.
The class, taught by Haggerty and me, produced weekly assignments on social media platforms. The students produced GIFs, Instagram photo series, videos and 360 photos, and they tried out new apps (like Evrybit and First Person). We had guest speakers from Fusion’s Snapchat team, spoke with Fortune’s audience engagement editor, and took a field trip to BuzzFeed. We learned that size matters not. The number of students in the class was small but mighty.
In addition, many Annenberg students contributed to the unit in the Media Center as part of their weekly required lab shifts. Others volunteered, excited by the chance to create something interesting.
Students in the class working with the JEDI unit planned special social media coverage and engagement projects. One project, diverSCity, focused on covering issues surrounding diversity at USC. The students created a Facebook page and took portraits of people in the campus community, asking them the same three questions. The variety of perspectives was eye-opening and powerful. The content was created specifically for Facebook.
The students also planned a community engagement event on campus tied to the diverSCity coverage, inviting students, staff and faculty to share their thoughts in person on problems and solutions surrounding the topic of diversity at USC. This type of engagement was exactly what we were looking for.
During the fall 2015 semester, something else happened. Two students (Barbara Estrada and Taylor Villanueva) who were part of the Media Center JEDI team created a fun video called “Similarities Between Arabic and Spanish.” Hurtado noticed the Facebook views on the video starting to spike. In a few days, the video had millions of views on Facebook.
In the meantime, the unit got a new name. Mobile and emerging platforms unit (MAEPU) doesn’t exactly glide off the tongue, so I suggested something else, like JEDI. The name stuck. (We are still looking for a desk to call the SITH desk, but that’s another story).
The following semester, in spring 2016, the class had standing room only during the first week of school in January and has already started to produce engaging content. So, what did we learn?
Learning the ways of the JEDI
Hurtado reported that by January 2016, the JEDI unit produced 300+ minutes of content, reached 30+ million people and increased followers by more than 30,000 across platforms.
He also analyzed the audience of many of our popular social media platforms. For example, Annenberg Media’s Facebook page is 59 percent female, 40 percent male with 62 percent of the audience in the USA and 17 percent in Mexico. In addition, 65 percent of the audience is between 18 and 34 years old. Hurtado noticed some times were better to post than others. Noon posts worked really well on Facebook, he said. Then, there were the small things that made a big difference. Based on everything he had observed in the past year running the JEDI desk, Hurtado started putting together tips for new JEDI students (or Padawans as we like to call them), and he shared them during the start of the spring semester with the new class. He also agreed to allow me to repost here:
Hurtado’s Facebook tips:
- videos with stingers at the end had higher average view
- videos with text and audio (voiceovers) had bigger retention rate
- non-USC-specific language in status bar increases engagement
- don’t put crucial audio in first two seconds because of autoplay feature
- photos tend to do better if they have wow factor
- if text doesn’t fit in tweet field, put text into picture
- tweets with pictures outperformed those without pictures
- breaking news content lives here
- add location to tweets whenever possible
- you don’t need to add hashtags to join larger conversation
- technology, sports and business content showed consistent traction
- if it doesn’t make you say wow, think three times before posting
- breaking news doesn’t do as well on Instagram
- lifestyle content proved to be more engaging
- use as many hashtags as you want
- the more niche the Instagram content strategy, the better
- the longer the story is, the better
- you can take pictures of Photoshop files and upload to story
- weird/quirky bits do better
- add personality to it if possible
- political debate coverage is easy to produce, but don’t go too long
- short: 80-second Snapstory
- long: 240-second Snapstory
- post more than two a day if possible, at least four hours apart
Haggerty and I also had several takeaways from professors’ points of view, including:
- Storytelling, above all, is at the core of what we do. All the cute puppies in the world will not take the place of good storytelling. While the JEDI unit produces light, off-the-cuff content, it also produces content surrounding breaking news and important community/global issues.
- Adapt and innovate. We saw a need and moved on it immediately. We provided input and advice, but allowed the students to lead and take ownership. We tried new things consistently.
- Strong curriculum is important. We created a class to support the JEDI team. The team could exist without a class, but the course gives structure, time, space and more students to add value and consistency to the JEDI experience.
- Institutional support is key. The directors of the school and the Media Center were willing to take a chance on this unit and allow students the freedom to produce content outside of traditional conventions. This provided support such as equipment and expertise critical to the unit’s success.
- Failing is okay. Some of the experiments that were tried and content that was produced just didn’t work. That was OK. We learned from it and applied those lessons as we moved forward.
- Stress the fundamentals of journalism, but recognize the changes in the industry and focus on experimentation.
- Make the experience interactive and fun. We had field trips. We took the students to a local high school in Los Angeles to share their experiences producing on social platforms. Giving back to the community is important engagement.
- Don’t be shy when it comes to new platforms. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Snapchat. We struggled a little with storytelling on that platform, but students are now hooked. They want to produce on the platforms where they live.
- Skills count. Our students knew how to write, edit, and shoot videos, and use simple graphics. They were able to leap into producing directly for social with confidence and competence.
- Analytics are your friend. We didn’t want to only make popular content, of course. But with the luxury of not having to chase page views or drive traffic to a website, students could focus on techniques that resonated with audiences. Students settled on multiple formats that included text for quick mobile consumption, an informal but not snarky tone, and strong visuals.
- Content remains king. Our audience responded to explanatory videos, breaking news particularly for campus-themed stories, and clever, well-produced features in formats that felt fresh and relevant.
- Collaboration is critical. The JEDI team involves Annenberg students, volunteers and students from other schools on campus who all work together under student editors. Leadership from Hurtado was a powerful inspiration to the first JEDI team and set the tone for the future. Volunteers were vital. Faculty collaboration was also critical. While Haggerty oversees the day-to-day operations of the JEDI desk as Media Center faculty adviser, I’ve provided input on curriculum and overall digital strategy. Along with students, both professors have been critical in making JEDI what it has become today.
We have faced challenges. Professor Haggerty and I noted the following:
- User-generated content is hard to come by. We tried several ways to elicit video stories from our audience, with limited success. We plan to keep working on the best ways to not only engage audiences, but participate with them.
- Not every campaign finds a niche immediately. Our students created a Facebook album, videos and even a live event around diversity on campus that managed to be both thought-provoking and effective. But a similar effort around women in sports reached fewer people. We’re still experimenting with the best platforms and content for each story.
- Serious reporting takes effort and commitment, no matter the platform. We’re proud of what the students have accomplished but want to keep pushing them to find ways to use social platforms to take on original reporting and complex subjects.
- Building a class from scratch and creating momentum for a new team was challenging. We had to constantly recruit, but it helped to have good content and an organized team, with specific goals and a defined workflow.
- Not every video is going to go viral. But take advantage of those that create traffic because it will help build your audience.
- Don’t get caught up with the fluffy cats. Yes they are adorbs, but it’s important to balance light stories with serious content. Consider the brand you want to develop and audience you want to reach.
Despite these challenges, the JEDI unit is in full force. It’s a popular unit and it’s fun to see students telling stories on the platforms they are constantly using.
“This experience, no exaggeration, changed the course of my career and my interests too,” Hurtado told me in a recent interview. “Before this, I didn’t know careers existed in this and that media organizations were dying to crack the code behind mobile and social native content. I learned a lot.”
Hurtado, who was known as our JEDI master, graduated from USC in December. After receiving multiple job offers, he started working for Circa in March.
JEDI has a new executive editor and is continuing to grow and innovate while preparing students for careers in journalism, social media, audience engagement and emerging areas of the media industry. In short, we’ve got a good feeling about this.
Amara Aguilar is an associate professor of professional practice in digital journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She teaches courses in mobile and emerging platforms, app design, digital news project development, among other areas. She loves journalism, Star Wars and all things tech.