VOA Director of Digital Strategy Matthew Baise speaking at an event

Matthew Baise: Making progress in digital and social media

BBG360 is a monthly interview series with professionals and difference makers in U.S. international media whose work is advancing the mission and priorities of the BBG. 

Q&A

How is VOA reacting to audience shifts around news delivery?Like all media organizations, the Voice of America is undergoing a massive shift to digital and social media as a means of delivering the news, telling stories and connecting with audiences.  We are moving quickly to keep pace with today’s challenges and the demands of the digital and social media world, which has drastically changed journalism.  We’ve made a lot of progress in transitioning from an emphasis on legacy platforms (television, radio) to those of the digital and social variety.  But our situation is unique in that we operate in more than 40 languages and dozens of countries.  Not only do we have to be nimble, but we have to treat every market as unique.

How successful has VOA been on the digital and social front?

In recent years, traffic to our websites has grown steadily from around 22 million monthly visits to an average of around 30 million monthly.  The bulk of that growth has come from the increasing access to mobile devices across much of the world.  But the real success story is in social: In the last year alone, our social media growth has been extraordinary, benefiting from the proliferation of platforms.  We have taken advantage of growth in key areas by getting ahead of those audiences shifts.  Facebook and YouTube remain our dominant social platforms, but we are experimenting with others such as Facebook Live, WhatsApp and Telegram.

How urgent is it for media organizations to keep track of the myriad social platforms that exist today?

A platform that’s relevant one day may be outdated or unavailable the next.  VOA Persian, for example, dropped Viber when it was suddenly blocked by authorities, shifting to Telegram because of its end-to-end encryption and growing user base in Iran.  They gained 50,000 users in three months and are growing faster than almost any platform I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if Telegram will overtake Facebook in Iran but it’s certainly possible.

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Facebook Live has been out for only a few months, but I understand it is evolving into a useful tool for VOA to connect with audiences.  What are some of the success stories produced by VOA’s language services with that platform?

There are dozens of these that have done well with audiences.  Just a few examples:

  • A VOA English Facebook Live stream from the island of Lesbos, Greece, showing hundreds of migrants being placed on a ferry to be sent back to Turkey, received more than 31,000 views and more than 2,600 comments.
  • Facebook Live played a major role in VOA’s audience engagement throughout the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Our newsroom did a live report from the White House lawn that received more than 100,000 views and more than 4,000 comments.  VOA’s Kurdish and Turkish Services, showing security agents accompanying Turkey’s president while clashing with protestors in Washington, received more than 675,000 views and more than 18,000 comments on the VOA English Facebook page.  And a Facebook Live broadcast of demonstrations at the Brookings Institution, where the Turkish president spoke, received more than 100,000 views and 1,240 shares on the VOA Turkish Facebook page.
  • Reasey Poch of VOA’s Khmer service interviewed the Cambodian owner of a doughnut shop in Long Beach, Calif. The owner told the Facebook Live audience, mostly in Cambodia, what it’s like to run a business in the U.S. and why so many Cambodian-Americans own doughnut shops in California.  The interview reached nearly 1.2 million people and totaled 455,000 views, 24,000 likes, 3,700 shares and 3,400 comments.

What does the future look like for VOA in digital and social media?

Those Facebook Live stories are fun to do.  But we at VOA have to figure out quickly how to turn that from a novelty into something our audience is going to come back to over and over across all our languages. I’m heartened to see BBG CEO John Lansing making an aggressive push into these platforms by setting digital as one of his top five priorities for the BBG.  VOA is making robust efforts to implement it, and as we continue to evaluate programming, resources, and staffing, I’m confident we’ll meet those goals.