Mashing it up with Emily Banks

Emily Banks’ work day is not entirely dissimilar to mine, beginning by catching up on news on her phone in the morning and escalating to a frenzy of multiple browser tabs, social media accounts and analytics (and while I didn’t ask, I presume she also suffers from permanent inbox overflow).

emily banks mashable idealog interviewOriginally from Minnesota, today she calls Brooklyn, New York, home, where she is associate managing editor at Mashable. Before initially landing there as a copy editor, armed with AP Stylebook and Strunk & White, she did time in regional print and TV news – something she says was invaluable, even as that rite of passage is increasingly bypassed altogether.

“It’s so important to have the real world experience of working at a small newspaper or something like that,” she says. “You learn how to interact with people and do interviews, fill out, in the US, freedom of information requests ...”

Mashable’s staff, unsurprisingly, skews young. Banks is proof of how quickly you can rise through the ranks, and of a culture where ‘yes’ is more common than ‘no’.

“If you want to try something new, they’re usually totally open to it,” she says, citing Christina Warren, who made the case for, and then set up, Mashable’s entertainment channel section.

“We used to be strictly tech and social media,” she says. “Now we want to cover every part of our readers’ lives that’s touched by digital, whether it’s entertainment or how people use their iPads while watching TV. We also have our business channel, and we’ve gone through growing pains with all of those. We go through these identity crises everytime we launch a new channel.”

Mashable has a huge social media following (six million) and uses it both from an organisational perspective – sharing stories and responding to conversations – and an individual perspective.

“We encourage our staffers to have conversations in the comments on stories. At newspapers I’ve worked at previously it was like, ‘you can read the comments but don’t ever comment on your own story’, but we are definitely not like that. We want our reporters to jump in there and have a conversation, whether it’s in the comments of a story or people who tweet at them.

“We have some guidelines, you know, like what is an appropriate response if someone is being nasty in the comments. My policy is to always kill them with kindness,” Banks laughs. “That’s another thing about Mashable – we try to be really positive. We don’t want to write a story just to be mean, and we really are not snarky in the way we write. I think it’s part of the culture. Everybody’s positive, and everybody’s really nice, which is weird. I think it’s reflected in our interactions with our readers.”

Our jobs may have some things in common, but Mashable’s 20 million unique visitors means scale is not one of them. We don’t do A/B testing on headlines, nor do our staff communicate via great virtual chatrooms (they might be rather deserted). Nonetheless, it’s nice to be reassured that as publishers in the social media space, we’re all in the same boat.

“We’re all just figuring it out and have to watch and see how readers react – and if they react poorly we adjust our strategy.” For example, a certain social network that shall not be named, touted as a Facebook killer, has proved a bit of damp squib.

“We covered the launch of it and as Mashable staff we were encouraged to join and build our audience on Google Plus,” she says. “We were like, ‘oh great, maybe it’s another way to develop our community and drive traffic back to the site’ so we were really excited about Google Plus at first. But then it wasn’t driving traffic. You would get tonnes of comments on posts on Google Plus but they just weren’t clicking through to the stories.”

Google Plus-ers apparently hate all things Facebook and Facebook news (something I suspected myself ) and anything that’s too obvious (“They’re all early adopters on there so you don’t want to post anything that’s below them”). Ultimately, there’s always going to be some trial and error involved.

“You just have to see how receptive readers are and if they’re even there. Go where your audience is.”