@BBCBreaking at 10 million

  • 6 June 2014
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BBC Breaking

Whether it's connecting us to our audiences, informing our journalism, or allowing us to get that journalism to new audiences, social media is now a critical part of BBC News operations.

On one of the biggest social media platforms, Twitter, our flagship presence is our breaking news account @BBCBreaking, and today it passed the 10 million follower mark.

To be sure, Twitter account followers is a blunt measure. There are lots of "inactive" accounts, or "lurkers", out there. Not to mention many downright fakes - accounts set up for spamming and other dubious purposes.

We usually set more store by the "engagement" we're seeing around our social media activity - the impact we make through what we're doing, as measured by other people's retweets, shares, comments, mentions and so on. For example, research shows that the BBC is the leading publisher on Twitter, with our stories shared a record 2.9 million times in April.

But follower numbers are a widely-understood, straightforward metric. Hitting the 10 million milestone is a proud day for me, and everyone involved. It's also a good opportunity to reflect on and share how we got there.

Compared with other first tweets, @BBCBreaking's - sent on 22 April 2007 at 4.37pm - is not a classic of the genre. It cut off halfway through, a reflection of the service's early years when it was simply an automated feed pumping out links and headlines from the BBC News website, breaking Twitter's limit of 140 characters per tweet.

Fast forward a few years, and the account's most retweeted tweet (shared more than 75,000 times), breaking the news of Nelson Mandela's death on 5 December last year, illustrates how things have changed:

So what happened in between?

About three years ago we took a good, hard look at @BBCBreaking, and our other "core" accounts (@BBCWorld, which provides a wider diet of news, features and analysis to an international audience, and @BBCNews, doing the same for a UK audience).

We examined what they were for, who they were for, and how they were performing.

The big thing that resulted was a focus on "adding value". That might sound like horrible corporate-speak, but it accurately describes what we aim to do with @BBCBreaking and our other core Twitter accounts, and why they've been so successful.

The fact is that anyone can break news on social media - what counts is how you break it, and what you do after it's been broken. Adding value is the critical point of difference.

At its most basic that means we aim to use Twitter "natively", deploying hashtags and @handles in our tweets, where appropriate. We don't break the character limit. We use functionality including Lists and Collections. We limit our use of automated headline feeds - it's a way of getting the news out, but (as many other news organisations agree) lacks the human touch.

Most importantly, we add value through what we post - meaningful information and updates, illustrated where appropriate by images (and, soon, video and audio clips). We also showcase the insight and analysis provided by our network of correspondents, who take part in Q&As around big stories, like transport correspondent Richard Westcott on the missing MH370 airliner, and Brazil correspondent Wyre Davies on the World Cup.

We give our followers the information they need straight away, on Twitter. But we'll also direct them to more in-depth coverage on our website, as well as relevant TV and radio output.

None of this would be possible without a dedicated team of experienced journalists, expertly overseen by assistant editor Mark Frankel. Backing them up are colleagues elsewhere in our news operation, especially on our website teams.

The success of @BBCBreaking and our core accounts has been mirrored over on Facebook, where the BBC News and BBC World News pages now have 14.5 million fans between them.

The foundations laid on Twitter and Facebook have allowed us to grow and experiment elsewhere. With a reinvigorated presence on YouTube. With BBC News Shorts, 15-second videos designed for Instagram (and other places). With BBC Trending, a video/blog/radio programme examining the stories behind the biggest trends on social media. With Go Figure, daily information graphics giving a fresh, visual take on news stories to a social, mobile audience on Pinterest and elsewhere. With recent trials of services on instant messaging services WhatsApp and WeChat. We're also active on Google+ and Tumblr. And there's more to come.

Why is all this important? Because it's critical that we go to the places where our audiences are, and where they're increasingly consuming news. Especially younger audiences, who may not consume BBC News any other way. It's equally critical that we fit in with the experience in those places: social, mobile, personal.

Since 2007 @BBCBreaking has developed to become the beating heart of this drive. I'm really looking forward to seeing what we can achieve in the next few years.