At this very moment, there is at least one well-meaning engagement editor harassing a beat reporter for not using Twitter properly.
Twitter, mentioned no less than 18 times in the New York Times’ now-famous innovation report, just turned 10 years old in March. In that time, the social media platform has become as mandatory a tool for journalists as their laptop or smartphone. In every newsroom across the country, reporters leverage Twitter (and its 330 million or so active users worldwide) in an attempt to drive traffic to their reporting.
There are a number of different reasons for reporters to use Twitter. From sourcing stories to being alerted to breaking developments, Twitter’s versatility makes it an important tool in today’s fast changing world of journalism.
But with so many social media networks to choose from, does Twitter have an oversized influence on journalists, who feel it’s become a job requirement to live-tweet and share every detail of the stories they’re working on?
A new report from Parse.ly, a social media analytics company that works with large publishers such as Upworthy, Slate and Business Insider, suggests that in terms of traffic, the average publisher isn’t getting much out of Twitter.
Looking at data from 200 publishers during a two-week period in January, Parse.ly found that organizations typically sent just eight tweets per story, which received just three clicks per tweet and less than one retweet for each original tweet.
In fact, traffic from Twitter among Parse.ly clients represented just 1.5 percent of all traffic referrals, coming in well behind Facebook and Google, which each drove about 40 percent of traffic to Parse.ly’s partners. Even Yahoo! drove more traffic on average to publishers than Twitter, which barely topped Bing! and Pinterest.
Before you march in to your managing editor’s office with a pitch fork and torch demanding to be freed from Twitter’s shackles, there were some savvy publishers that managed to do a better job than most at squeezing traffic out of the social media network.
The top five percent of publishers in Parse.ly’s study received about 11 percent of their overall traffic from Twitter. Count Nieman Lab among the outliers. It receives about 15 percent of its traffic from Twitter, thanks in no small part to its audience being made up largely of digital savvy journalists.
“There is no “secret sauce” for digital publishers looking to improve their success on Twitter,” the company said, noting that the organizations that fared the best were producing “interesting and shareable” content that appeals to a large group of people.
It’s vague terms like “interesting” and “shareable” that drive journalists crazy. The realty is what is interesting to one group of readers might not even make a blip on the radar of another. Nieman Lab knows its audience well, but if you work in a major metropolitan newsroom, chances are the prevailing thought is that the entire city is your audience.
It’s an important distinction that most news organizations, who continue to use Twitter and other social media networks like a fire hose pushing out all their content, still miss. While the most successful companies did tend to tweet more per story than their counterparts, it isn’t the amount of tweets per post that matter—it’s that you’re sending out content you think will be engaging to your followers.
There are two different sides to Twitter: breaking news and conversational news. According to Parse.ly, it’s those breaking news stories, like the terrorist attacks in Brussels, where most news organizations can expect to get the most bang for their tweeting buck in terms of traffic spikes.
But even then, if you’ve ever watched your news organization’s traffic in real time, you’ll see that while those traffic spikes from Twitter can be large, the traffic they pull in tends to fade quickly.
More than 92,000 tweets with links to stories about the Brussels attack were shared within the first 24 hours of the incident. More than a third of those were sent within the first six hours alone. But after the initial news broke, traffic quickly shifted away from Twitter to Facebook and Google.
It’s in situations like this that Twitter becomes a more valuable tool for news organizations to promote themselves as knowledge leaders among users than it does to solely drive traffic.
As Hurricane Sandy devastated wide stretches of land along the East Coast in October of 2012, a Pew Research Center study found that Twitter, and the news organizations using it, were a critical lifeline to residents seeking updates and information.
New research in the journal Science Advances seems to back this strategy up. Researchers noted that a study of Twitter activity in 50 metro areas during Sandy “makes social media a viable platform for preliminary rapid damage assessment in the chaotic time immediately after a disaster.”
So if your company is focusing a lot of manpower and effort into curating a varied Twitter feed in hopes of solely driving direct traffic to stories, they may want to reconsider their strategy.
At Lehigh University’s student newspaper, The Brown and White, students transformed how their editorial staff functions after studying their social media posts and the resulting traffic trends.
Instead of using an arbitrary schedule to post content on Twitter, the students are growing traffic and engagement by keeping the focus there on breaking news, while devoting more of their traffic efforts (and manpower) on Facebook and search engine optimization for Google.
“The journalism industry is changing, and we can’t be an online-first publication without understanding what it takes to be successful in the digital space,” said Danielle DiStefano, the editor-in-chief at The Brown and White.
Unfortunately, it’s a lesson many news organizations and journalists still ignore. Do you know when your readers are online? Are there times when engagements on your Twitter account are higher than others? Are you on Twitter primarily to share your content, source news stories, promote your beat and your brand or a mix of everything?
All these are important questions to answer before developing a proper social media strategy. As Parse.ly notes, Twitter “serves a unique place in the link economy,” but it’s up to journalists and news organizations themselves to understand their place in that economy, and what they’re trying to achieve by tweeting in the first place.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at email@example.com.