October 23, 2008
Publishers looking to social networks to connect with new audiences are finding Twitter, the short-form content platform, as a key channel to reach some of the most engaged networkers.
We talked to publishers who have established successful Twitter presences to find out how to get started and become good citizens of the community. Includes tactics for:
o Studying your potential audience
o Establishing a publishing strategy
o Growing your audience
o Supplementing your existing editorial and social-media efforts
In September, the number of Twitter users passed 3 million, according to TwitDir.com, an independent directory that tracks Twitter usage. That’s a 50% jump from the 2 million users who, three months earlier, were posting mini updates and sharing links on the mobile and online short-form messaging service.
Twitter’s rapid growth has made its niche audience an intriguing target for traditional publishers looking for new ways to connect with users they’re not reaching with their print, online or email initiatives. And the nature of Twitter messages -- frequently updated short posts that create group conversations and encourage link sharing -- represents a vital testing ground for the concept of micro-content publishing.
“What Twitter gives you is a real-time connection with people,” says Daniel Honigman, Social Media Strategy Coordinator, Tribune Interactive. “It’s really important to be able to have these small, personal connections.”
Major media outlets (e.g., The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, CNN and The NewsHour), along with smaller regional publications (e.g., The Austin American-Statesman), have generated thousands of subscribers, known as “followers,” for their Twitter feeds. By reaching out to that community, these publishers are developing new content strategies that are driving traffic, brand awareness and healthy online discussion about the topics they cover.
To learn more about the role of Twitter in a publisher’s social media strategy, we spoke to several representatives from media companies that have successfully launched their own Twitter initiatives.
Eight steps for testing the channel:
Step #1. Study the Twitter community
Before launching any social media effort, publishers must understand the community they intend to join. With Twitter that means learning the unique features of the platform, such as ways to send updates, subscribe to other users’ “tweets,” reply to those updates, and “re-tweet” messages.
It’s best to set up a personal Twitter account for your initial exploration. While testing the platform, you also can look for members of the community who are likely to be interested in your publications’ updates.
Ways to identify members of your audience using Twitter:
Searching for users based on location.
Twitter’s advanced search function lets you find users within a certain distance of a specific location. This tactic can help daily newspapers find Twitter users within their coverage areas who may be interested in local news, weather, sports and event updates.
Searching for users based on behavior and interests.
Are your publications focused on specific topics? Are you creating Twitter accounts for different departments within a larger publication? You can search for community members who are interested in those subjects.
Twitter’s search function lets you find Tweets that are tagged according to specific categories. Twitter’s “hashtag” function is the tagging system the platform uses to organize content according to its context. For example, you could search for hashtags related to:
o Movies and entertainment
o Activities and hobbies
Step #2. Set up your Twitter account
You’ve identified members of your potential audience using Twitter. And you see what topics they’re interested in. You’re ready to create a Twitter account for your publication.
Follow these simple steps to set up:
- Create a username, such as the name of your publication, or the name of the blog or department of your publication that will be using the account.
- Add an email address and create a password to login.
- Customize your Twitter page to reflect your branding.
Each member has a Twitter homepage where their most recent updates are listed, along with contact information, a bio, and statistics on followers.
These pages can be customized with design elements that reflect your branding. For example, you can add:
o Photograph or design icon to the page header next to your account name
o Wallpaper for your page
(See Creative Samples below for examples of publications’ Twitter pages.)
Step #3. Establish your publishing strategy
With your account established, you can begin publishing updates to your Twitter feed. Choosing the right content strategy for your Twitter feed will depend on your audience’s interests and on your own goals. But here are two tactics to consider when getting started.
Tactic #1. Take easy way: Use your existing RSS feeds.
If you already offer RSS feeds from your website, you have an automatic content source for your Twitter account. Third-party services provide platforms that will automatically convert your RSS feeds to Twitter updates (See Useful Links section below). Or you can develop a custom program that automatically ports your Web content onto the Twitter platform.
For example, The New York Times developed a custom application that sends RSS updates to their Twitter account. The tactic offered several advantages, says Jacob Harris, Senior Software Architect, NYTimes.com:
- You can set up multiple Twitter accounts based on users’ interest areas, such as news, sports, entertainment, etc.
- Decisions about what to publish are automatic -- saving time and effort.
“I am not personally making any editorial judgments,” says Harris. “I’m taking feeds that already exist and pushing them into a new format.”
*Important note: *
The Twitter update limit of 140 characters may require working with your editorial team to develop short versions of headlines for your RSS feeds. Harris wrote a rule into The New York Times’ Twitter translator application that automatically truncates any headlines longer than 140 characters. The paper has yet to resort to that rule, he says, “I’ve never seen it invoked. We’re lucky to have very concise copy editors.”
Tactic #2. Take hard way: Create customized or personalized accounts.
Major media brands, such as The New York Times, have had success porting their RSS feeds onto Twitter (The Times has more than 9,000 followers, making it the most followed newspaper on Twitter). Smaller publications might need another hook to attract followers.
In these cases, Twitter experts recommend adding a personal or customized approach to a publication’s Twitter presence.
“The point of Twitter is community and interactivity,” says Robert Quigley, Internet Editor, Austin American-Statesman. “There’s a lot to be gained by cultivating that community and treating people the right way.”
- For the Austin American-Statesman, Quigley acts as a personal link between the newspaper and the Twitter community. He begins and ends each day with a personal greeting to the community, posts updates regularly, and engages in conversations with other Twitter users.
- At the Chicago Tribune, Honigman and his team created a fictional character, Colonel Tribune, to represent the paper in the Twitter community. Colonel Tribune has his own editorial voice and offers an “insider” perspective on Chicago news and community issues.
Step #4. Make your "tweets" relevant to the community
If you’re not using RSS feeds as content, you have to choose the right content for Twitter. Choose topics that will connect with your audience and further existing conversations.
Tips on choosing content for Twitter posts:
- Focus on your niche, such as local news and events or topics closely aligned with your publication’s brand.
- Avoid too many personal messages.
Although establishing a human voice is important, don’t overwhelm the community with personal messages to specific Twitter members that could be handled privately.
- Find short, useful content best suited for users on the go (e.g., morning weather and traffic updates, tips on evening activities).
- Promote interactive content (e.g., online polls, live chats) available on your website.
- Share links to relevant third-party sources, such as local or topical blogs.
This approach helps build credibility within the Twitter community and generates communication among audiences with shared interests.
Step #5. Make your Tweets’ volume and timing appropriate
New Twitter users may be tempted to submit updates too frequently, overwhelming their account with multiple messages a day. Finding the right pace for your updates can take trial and error.
Tips to speed up your learning curve:
- Seek feedback from the community.
In the early stages of the American-Statesman’s Twitter efforts, Quigley regularly sent out Tweets asking the community whether he was posting too much or too little. He recalls one day, in the midst of a severe drought, when he began posting frequent Tweets about reported rainfall in the Austin region. After sending some 20 updates in the space of 10 minutes, he saw the number of followers drop. Now, he sends roughly 15-20 updates during his typical eight-hour workday. “A lot of people get updates through SMS, so you don’t want to flood them,” says Quigley.
- Create delays for reposting RSS-feed updates.
If your publication updates its RSS feeds once a day, you may need to space those stories over the course of the day.
Harris at The New York Times found that, initially, his system was dumping hundreds of stories into the newspaper’s Twitter account at the same time as the site’s scheduled daily RSS update. He’s since adapted his RSS translator program to space Twitter updates over time.
Step #6. Grow your audience
Twitter is a viral platform, say experienced users. Once you create an account and begin interacting with other community members, you can attract followers who will “re-tweet” your updates.
Tips on attracting followers:
- Identify a handful of active users in your audience to follow. Look for members who provide frequent relevant updates.
- Interact with the members you follow, replying on their posts or “re-tweeting” updates to your own followers.
- Don’t follow every Twitter user in your coverage area or everyone who shares interest in your publication’s topics. Users receive an email notification whenever a new member follows their updates; simultaneously adding dozens or more followers looks like spamming to the Twitter community. “That’s a really bad practice,” says Quigley.
In addition to viral growth within the Twitter community, consider promoting your Twitter account on your website:
- The Austin American-Statesman uses banner advertisements and text links on their homepage inviting users to follow the newspaper on Twitter.
- Quigley’s team also created Web pages dedicated to specific topics, such as Texas Longhorns football, that collect Twitter updates from their own accounts and followers.
Step #7. Experiment with additional Twitter accounts for specific uses
In addition to your standard Twitter accounts, you can find additional uses for the channel that suit your editorial or social media strategies.
Roles for specialized Twitter accounts:
- Breaking news coverage and major events
Several publications have seen significant jumps in Twitter activity around major news events, such as natural disasters and the current Presidential election.
During Hurricane Ike, for instance, Quigley’s team created a new Twitter account, @trackingike, which covered that storm’s landfall in Texas. Quigley operated from the Austin office as “ground support,” posting updates from the National Hurricane Center and “re-tweeting” relevant posts from other Twitter users.
At the same time, his team sent reporters to coastal areas to tweet eyewitness accounts from the storm. The account attracted more than 1,000 followers in 24 hours, and generated more than 300,000 page views at the newspaper’s website from links posted to Twitter. “It was a huge success.”
- News tips from the community
Updates from the Twitter community can supplement your editorial team’s reporting. Honigman’s team recently received tips on a bomb threat at Chicago’s Daley Center by monitoring Twitter posts from Colonel Tribune followers. He passed those updates on to the editorial team members; they were able to get a story about the bomb threat on the Tribune website within minutes.
- Community relations and customer support.
In addition to their news feeds, The New York Times has created a Twitter account for their corporate communications group to serve as a customer support channel for the paper’s Twitter feeds. The team receives feedback and answers any questions or complaints about the service. They also share technological glitches with the IT department.
Step #8. Track metrics to determine your success
Because Twitter is an emerging channel, publishers are still testing ways to monetize it. Quigley’s team has tested placing an ad in Twitter feeds (he could not disclose results). Honigman has tested using a special subscription code to track print subscriptions generated from Twitter followers. He said he’s seen a handful of new subscriptions from the channel.
But, like any social media effort, measurement starts by evaluating audience’s involvement.
Tips on how to monitor engagement:
- Track your followers. The more followers you have, the more potential traffic you can drive back to your website.
After establishing your account and monitoring the initial uptake, look for signs revealing that growth is leveling off. They could indicate that your content strategy needs to be refreshed. “You have to keep injecting something new,” says Honigman.
- Monitor page views generated from Twitter. Also, tracking clickthroughs from links posted in Twitter updates will help you determine what type of content is resonating with the community.
In addition, you can spot trends by examining ways your followers are accessing your Twitter updates. For example, The New York Times has seen that roughly half of its traffic comes from users on the Twitter website; the other half comes from users accessing updates from their mobile devices.
- Consider the brand awareness generated with a new audience. With the exception of major events, such as a hurricane or a Presidential debate, Twitter updates will generate a modest boost in page views.
Instead of viewing Twitter as a pure traffic play, consider the channel’s impact on your brand awareness. Twitter users tend to be a younger, technologically-savvy, highly engaged audience that traditional publishers have struggled to reach in the face of newer competitors.
“From an advertising and sales perspective, when you have a connection to this audience, you have a good first step,” says Honigman. “These are the people who are online doing Google searches for news because they’ve traditionally ignored or rejected their hometown newspapers.”
Useful links related to this article:
Creative Samples from Publishers' Twitter Strategies
Get Famous Using Twitter to Market Your Company & Yourself
What to Do About Twitter: Love It, Test It or Leave It?
Graphicdesigr.com - a blog that tracks Twitter usage and statistics for major newspapers:
TwitterFeed.com – site that lets you convert RSS feeds into Twitter updates:
TwitDir - a Twitter directory:
The New York Times