The Big Roundtable’s Social Media Experiment

The BRT wants the stories it publishes to be "surprising" and ambitious - and for them to be read widely.
The BRT wants the stories it publishes to be “surprising” and ambitious – and for them to be read widely, of course.

Longform startup The Big Roundtable (BRT) recently commissioned three college students to put its assumptions about social sharing to the test.

The challenge? Taking one story, one month and whatever techniques they could think of (legal, of course), the three undergraduates were tasked with the challenge of racking up the most unique page views.

Said BRT Founder Michael Shapiro on the pub’s blog, “The contest was inspired by this simple, painful realization about the patterns in our traffic: there are none.”

Having struggled with pegging what makes people click — and how to get them to a place where they’re able to find stories — BRT noted high traffic numbers when its pieces were linked in other publications’ stories, but acknowledged that stories they thought would take the Internet by storm didn’t turn the results they anticipated. They wanted some answers.

BRT, led by Shapiro, editor Mike Hoyt and publisher Anna Hiatt, was formed in mid-2013, and is based on the idea that writers should be directly connected to, and supported by, their readers. Backed initially by a successful Kickstarter campaign, BRT has since been publishing quality longform (5,000+ words) pieces, some with media partners like Buzzfeed and Longreads, enabling authors to be paid via reader donation. Additionally, a “reader’s circle” receives 1,000 word samples of potential BRT content, so it’s not just the editorial team making calls on what gets read.

So, what happened with the BRT’s Great Social Sharing Experiment of 2014? Columbia Daily Spectator Editor Steven Lau took home the grand prize (a $350 book store certificate) after earning 6,000 unique page views on the story he was assigned (“The Man Who Hid In An Airplane Bathroom”).

Here’s how he did it: by ditching traditional belief that Facebook and Twitter hold the keys to big sharing, Lau relied on the idea that if he could find one “key influencer” in the field his story related to, he’d be able to glean a network gathering around the piece. The strategy was to make the story go viral among the people he knew would care about the content (in his case, people passionate about social justice). The way the story is shared may go beyond the boundaries of what we typically think. Email is more likely among concentrated networks than a Facebook or Twitter share.

“You can push as much as you want,” Lau told the BRT staff. “But it’s far more useful to have a few people really interested who will push on their networks. You need people who are so passionate about it they want to share it.”

Now, Shapiro says 6,000 views is “modest” for any publication, and this strategy, based on sociologist Duncan Watt’s book on social network formation theories, doesn’t work every time, but it’s certainly a valuable point to consider.

As Shapiro told me last year, their goal is centered around creating one particular moment repeatedly:

“Because we believe that there is no more powerful moment in the life of a story than when a friend tells another “You Must Read This!” We want to replicate that moment again and again, so that work that might otherwise be left unread, finds its audience,” he said.

Titling the blog that detailed the BRT’s social media experiment “Illumination: Round One”, one might presume there is more to come. And they’re certainly not the only ones in the publishing industry trying to figure out sharing patterns.

What do you think about social network sharing patterns? When are you most likely to read a piece of long journalism? What ultimately convinces you that yes, you “have to read this!”?