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How we did it: Wearables at Work

In June 2015, I led an experiment in audience engagement and storytelling on social media at the Financial Times.

The output of this project consisted of

With this project, we tried to answer two big questions:

The story idea came from Sarah O’Connor, the FT’s employment correspondent:

Being tracked at work is already a reality for many people and the trend is likely to spread as wearable smart devices become more popular. Business use of wearables will raise privacy concerns and blur the line between home and office, but they also promise productivity gains and the ability to make workers “happier, healthier and wealthier”.

How we told the story

We fitted Sarah O’Connor with wearable tracking devices for a week while she did her reporting.

But instead of doing this behind close doors and publishing an FT article only at the end of the reporting, we divided it into two stages:

We hoped that this would generate greater interest in the project, encourage readers to share their own stories, and point us towards future stories on this topic.

What was new for the FT

How did we measure success?

Inspired by ProPublica’s Amanda Zamora, we set out clear goals and KPIs from the outset:

What are our GOALS?

What are our KPIs (key performance indicators) i.e. How we are executing those goals

What are our TARGETS i.e. what numbers do we want to hit

One problem we ran into was that it was difficult to come up with targets because we didn’t have similar past projects to compare this to. In the end we just came up with something that we thought sounded reasonable.

What we found

What are the benefits to making our reporting process transparent and public?

One of the big reasons why we chose to report the wearables at work story this way was because it was still a very nascent phenomenon in June 2015. Not a lot of companies were asking employees to use work-issued wearables, and so we knew it was going to be difficult for Sarah to find sources and report the story in the traditional way.

In that sense, the benefits of doing the reporting ‘out in the open’ was immense. We effectively condensed weeks of contact-building into four days, and found people to interview that we wouldn’t otherwise have known about. But the benefits were less clear in terms of building a bigger audience for our reporting. The main difficulty was that we had to build an audience for a new Facebook page from scratch, and to do so in an exceptionally short period of time (just 4 days during the ‘live’ stage). We had a thousand followers by the end of the live stage. The link to the final feature from our Facebook post reached 1802 people and was clicked on 443 times - an exceptionally high 24.5% conversion rate.

But those are small overall numbers even for the FT, and given the amount of effort we put in to achieve that result, it is not clear that this was a better approach compared to conventional ways of promotion and digital distribution.

How would we tell a story natively on Facebook? (as opposed to just publishing articles onto Facebook)

We found that videos work much better than text. Short text snippets work better than long, considered articles. Overall, Facebook pages are not a great storytelling platform. Besides the pinned post, there is almost no control post curation. Facebook’s newsfeed algorithms and low organic reach for posts make it impossible to rely on any follower ever having seen an earlier post.

Instead, it is probably better used as a place for either journalists or projects to have a digital presence over a much longer period of time than just four days.

What did this project take

About 20 to 25 full person-days of work, split between Robin Kwong, Sarah O’Connor, Nalini Sivathasan, Aleksandra Wisniewska and Kari Ruth-Pedersen.

In addition, we had support from Charlie Bibby, Petros Gioumpasis, Russell Birkett, Sarah Laitner, Maija Palmer, Michael Bruning and Karishma Kothari. Adam Jones’s team edited and produced the Business Life piece. Martin Stabe produced the podcast. Lloyd Thatcher designed the logo.

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