12 March 2020

Newsjacking—using social media to link your content to topical news stories in real time—is on the rise. New research by academics at the University of Edinburgh Business School and University of Southampton Business School suggests it's a fruitful approach for brands trying to catch consumers' attention.
Person viewing newsfeed on a mobile phone

Our colleague Ben Marder, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, says newsjacking content creates more positive attitudes than a non-topical equivalent, drives a better attitude towards a brand, and makes consumers more likely to purchase a product or service.

"One example of newsjacking is when KFC pounced on suggestions that Prince Harry had proposed to Meghan Markle over fried chicken. The firm posted social media content featuring one of their buckets with gold trim. All in good taste, you might say. However, businesses need to be careful, as ill-judged newsjacking can confuse a brand's target market and even damage the chances of consumers buying that product or service."

Newsjacking has received scant academic attention to date, so how does the new research help us understand its effectiveness?

"With my research colleagues, we adapted a real car company campaign and came up with newsjacking as well as non-topical content, and tested this on a sample of over 250 consumers.

"A key factor to bear in mind is that consumers' capacity to process information is precious, so anyone creating content for a brand on social media should think carefully about the frame of reference they use. The brand's keenest followers may find references to news stories an unwanted distraction. However, in the fight for favour with algorithms that are increasingly aimed at providing 'meaningful content', newsjacking is a way of making commercial content relevant for a wider audience.

"As you might expect, social media users able to correctly recognise the story being newsjacked show a more favourable response towards the product being marketed. It's clear that newsjacking will only be successful if there is implicit meaning that resonates with the consumer, so businesses should be mindful to consider only widely reported and discussed news stories, or ones highly germane to the target market. Failure to comprehend may simply confuse the consumer about the brand's true positioning."

What about timing?

"Timing is a critical factor. The effectiveness of any newsjacking message rises as a story spreads and falls as it becomes old news. There would appear to be an optimum time window. In an era of rolling news and global coverage this window may be very close to when a story first breaks. Delay will curtail the effectiveness."

And what are the risks?

"There is a risk that newsjacking is perceived as opportunistic or trivialising. For example, during the Arab Spring, menswear label Kenneth Cole tweeted: 'Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumour is they heard that our new spring collection is now available...'. Similarly, after a Malaysian airlines flight disappeared, an online coaching company referenced the story in a promoted tweet that read: 'Do you feel that employers cannot find you? Let's get your "black box" engaged...Here are some tips on how to get noticed in a very crowded job market.'

"Evidence to date suggests such posts can have an adverse effect on consumers' intention to purchase. Previous research I've done showed that controversial content, though appealing to the target market, was less likely to be shared on Facebook due to the existence of diverse audiences."

So newsjacking is here to stay?

"In short, yes. It's proving a useful weapon in content marketers' arsenal. Our study shows that newsjacking content is likely to garner more interactions such as likes and comments, and importantly shares, than non-newsjacking content. This is crucial for content managers keen on organic over paid reach.

Consumers are digital-savvy and becoming fatigued, so to have any cut-through, content creators will have to stay sharp."

Associate Professor Rob Angell of the University of Southampton concludes:

"Newsjacking is a risky business—as some recent social media catastrophes demonstrate. Certainly though, for newsjacking to have a chance of being effective, customers have to 'crack the code' and make the link between the content and the relevant news story. You're going to miss your shot if no-one gets the reference—a bit like a complex or niche punchline in a joke. It's only as funny or effective as a recipient's ability to make sense of it."

Ben Marder

Ben Marder is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

Read the full research paper: News You Can Use! Evaluating the Effectiveness of Newsjacking Based Content on Social Media.