Twitter is vital in the newsroom of any organization that creates content—this site, for example, finds the majority of its traffic there. But far less obvious than the need for Twitter is precisely how to use it.
In a recent post on Nieman Journalism Lab, some of the social journalism gurus at the New York Times outlined what they learned about Twitter on the front lines of breaking news in 2013. If you work for a media organization, their takeaways are well worth your attention.
Here's a truism that weaves itself pretty thoroughly throughout the technology landscape: As magical as algorithms and automation can be, they're nowhere close to fully replacing human intuition. This is true of everything from music discovery to smart thermostats. If we let the machines take over completely, eventually something's going to go wrong. It's also on true on social media, where many an editor has learned the hard way that auto-scheduling tweets can backfire.
At the Times, the lesson came in the form of an auto-tweeted weekend headline that incorrectly identified a Scottish tennis player as being English. Normally a quick fix, the faux pas won the Times hours of ridicule across the social Web.
Similarly, human intervention was able to turn a headline bound for print ("The Rock 'n' Roll Casualty Who Became A War Hero") to a much more specific, audience-friendly tweet ("He got kicked out of both Nirvana and Soundgarden. Then he became a war hero.") Both tweets went out over the official @nytimes Twitter feed and, as you might expect, the latter wording yielded far more clicks, retweets and favorites. Way to go, humans.
Even the most well-connected social media maven in the newsroom likely doesn't have as many followers as the news brand itself. Still, that doesn't mean everything has to go out over the official feed first. At the Times, the official Twitter accounts often defer to editors and reporters on the ground for details, which are selectively retweeted by the mothership.
This helps the paper maintain authenticity while leaning on third parties it knows are reliable. Meanwhile, editors and reporters get the serotonin high that comes with the trickle-down social exposure made possible by the mothership's massive following. It also builds a direct connection between readers and reporters, which can aid both in the long run.
Along these same lines, the Times has experimented with hosting Q&A sessions between readers and reporters, usually moderated by one of the official accounts.
Just because Twitter is virtually synonymous with breaking news these days doesn't mean the practitioners of news have any clue what they're doing when the news cycle kicks into high gear. This was a big topic of discussion at journalism conferences and news geek meetups all year long, especially after the Boston marathon bombing led to an online frenzy of misinformation.
Boston was hardly the only recent example of this, so newsrooms like that of the New York Times have established strict protocols and guidelines when it comes to breaking news events and how to verify the accuracy of reports that are rapidly making the rounds on real-time networks. For sake of one's reputation, it's something that comes highly recommended by the Times.
Indeed, many of the paper's top tweets in 2013 were about major, breaking news events like terrorist attacks, the new pope, war in Syria and the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling. When you've got that much traffic riding on big news headlines, it's best to get the details right.
This has been a sticking point for a lot of legacy media outlets for years. Often, the pun-riddled, clever headlines written for the printed page wind up online, where they flop.
It's not to say that everybody needs to mimic BuzzFeed and Upworthy, but if the meaning of a headline isn't immediately obvious at first glance, it probably won't get as many clicks as it would if it were thoughtfully rewritten.
Think about the myriad digital contexts in which it's about to appear: as a tweet, RSS feed item or headline on an aggregated web page, usually without the context of a subhead, first graf or accompanying art. As Michael Roston writes, "readers don’t click on or retweet us when we’re being clever nearly as much as they respond to clearly stated tweets describing the meat of the stories they point to."
Now matter how Twitter-addicted they may be, few users are going to see every single tweet your news organization sends out. Thus, if a tweet goes viral on Wednesday morning, it's safe to assume it will garner clicks and retweets a few nights later. "It goes without saying that if you tweet more, you’ll get more traffic overall," writes Roston.
"But what we found when we scheduled tweets on Saturday and Sunday was that the average click per tweet grew substantially. What that meant to us was that a story that was of great interest to readers on a Tuesday afternoon is likely to be of interest to readers grazing Twitter on a Saturday night who didn’t see it the first time around."