Innovator Insights – WILL Media

Fathm’s Innovator Insights series explores the bold steps taken by individuals and organisations seeking to increase value and improve quality in journalism, communications, and information sharing and identifies what we can learn from them.

In this edition we spoke to Francesco Zaffarano, Editor in Chief of WILL Media; a pioneering Italian media company who have built a highly engaged, diverse, young audience around engaging journalism that is native to social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube. At Fathm, we think a lot about how to tell compelling stories on social platforms for projects like Viral Facts Africa: WILL are the trailblazers in the space. Even if your Italian is limited, it’s worth looking at how the team at WILL use memes, infographics, host-led video to unpack complex stories in a way that is journalistic, informative and funny.

Q. What’s the mission of WILL Media?

WILL was born to make the stories about the generational challenges of our times accessible to everyone. There is no way to build a better society without including people from different backgrounds in the public discourse. It is, of course, a matter of addressing the underrepresentation of minorities, but not only.

Too often, I have heard journalists saying that people simply don’t care about issues that are too complicated. Maybe the problem is that we haven’t put enough effort into making those stories appealing and accessible to a broader audience.

Suppose you focus on people’s needs and concerns, and you use that perspective to explain how the significant issues impact people’s lives. In that case, they will recognize that your journalism is relevant and valuable. Because it helps them navigate their problems and understand why things are the way they are in an ever more complicated world.

Q. What’s the secret to making social content that resonates with your audience?

I think it’s a matter of having the right mix of knowledge, skills, and mindset. You need authors with solid expertise to write thoughtful content, but you also need people who will advocate for the audience’s perspective when you have to make an editorial decision. And we should never forget that every single member of the team is also a potential member of the audience. Every afternoon we have a meeting to challenge all the content scheduled for the following day; every single participant, no matter the seniority, can say what they think about each piece of content. Is it effective? Did we explain the issue clearly? Would we share this post with our friends? We ask ourselves questions like these, and if the answer is “meh, it’s fine but not the best,” we simply don’t publish it – if our posts don’t convince us, how can they possibly work for our audience?

Prince Louis’ facial contortions offer an insight into the frustrations facing Italians trying to vote on legal reform in an upcoming referendum.

Q. Tell us about an example of WILL’s work that you are particularly happy with/proud of.

There are many examples because I would never choose a big, special project to answer this question. I think that informing people is 99% a matter of going back to basics and producing straightforward, compelling content that is useful and relevant. One example is an explainer we published on Instagram about an upcoming referendum we will vote on in June here in Italy.

This referendum deals with very complicated issues about the Italian justice system. Still, both politicians and the mainstream media are not explaining to people what they are going to vote on. A month ago, we started receiving DMs from people in our community who wanted to know more about it. And mind that no major news outlets were talking about the referendum then. So here you have proactive members of your community who feel the need to know more about a referendum no one is talking about – nothing less for the “people just don’t care about complicated stuff” adage. We simply collected all the questions and published an explainer on Instagram.

The post’s cover was one of the messages we received because we wanted to show our community that we are listening to them and building on our relationship with them.

That post was a big hit, the best performing for engagement, and the single piece of content that drove the highest number of new followers to our account in the past month. After that, we even published a series of follow-up explainers as more questions arrived and turned the first post into a video explainer for our YouTube channel. Bear in mind that everything started with a DM to our Instagram page.

Q. You publish almost exclusively on social platforms – what are the benefits & challenges of your social native approach?

Publishing directly on platforms is more immediate, and it makes it easier to build a conversation with your community. People can DM you with requests and give feedback on your content. That’s a lot of information about your audience’s needs that you can use to improve your editorial strategy. 

At the same time, the main challenge is that you don’t have complete control of the playing field: platforms will do everything they can to maximize the time people spend there and the data they can get from their activity. And if that means, for example, focusing on new features that don’t play a role in your current strategy, you risk losing momentum. Changes in the algorithm, pivoting to new formats, even black-listing specific topics: we have seen platforms doing all that in the past few years. The lesson is: if you are not quick to adapt to a changing environment, that’s a huge life threat for your business.

Q. Lots of media struggle with making topics like sustainability and the climate crisis land with audiences – how do you tackle this?

As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s a matter of focusing on relatable aspects of every issue. I think the media industry made a gigantic mistake in the 90s and early 2000s by focusing the whole climate change discourse only on stuff like melting icebergs. We projected the reality of climate change on a very distant level and made people think that it’s not something that is part of their lives.

We need to help people realize what climate change means for them. Don’t tell people about desertification in 50 years; show them the impact of a whole winter without rain in northern Italy this year. It’s happening right now; it’s happening in your backyard; you don’t need to wait 50 years to live the effects of climate change on your skin. 

But at the same time, it’s not just a matter of relatability. You need to give people a good reason to read about climate change, and telling them they are already screwed won’t take us far. We need to explain what can be done and what solutions are out there. I am not saying that we should sugarcoat the truth. Climate change is irreversible, and we need to accept that we must react with two goals in mind: adaptation and mitigation. But we cannot just tell people to turn their lights off when they leave a room. We must show them what paths towards sustainability are available and help them make more conscious decisions by raising their awareness and giving them tools.

Q. WILL has a really active and engaged audience – beyond producing great stories, how do you maintain that?

You need to be obsessed with the user experience. That spans from replying to private messages to crafting with care every single piece of content. And you have to keep testing and challenging all your ideas and assumptions about what the community needs. 

There is no silver bullet but a series of small good practices that we have made part of our daily work. For example, we kick off every editorial meeting with a brief from our community manager. He tells us which comments are driving the conversation below our content so we can think of ways to follow up on something the community is telling us. Our first attempt is always to serve better the people who trust us. And this is no crazy new theory about the future of news. It is nothing more than serving your community. I think good journalism boils down to just that.

We’re tremendously impressed by the team at WILL Media and their thoughtful, creative and rigorous approach to their journalism. If you’d like support thinking about how to tell better, more engaging stories on social platforms, check out Fathm Studio and get in touch!