After thinking about it a bit, I realized the quick bit on Twitter in yesterday’s post didn’t do it justice. Saying that it “has the potential to be a key driver of engagement with the site” undersells its value. Twitter’s not just a place to promote ourselves. It’s also a tremendous place to learn from our community and to discover what makes folks tick. In fact, it might be today’s most effective teacher of what works on the Web. Why?
It offers some quick, transparent measures for gauging influence.
Follower counts on Twitter can be driven by any number of variables. Some Twitterers pursue followers through brute force – following every account they come across and counting on some percentage of those accounts to follow them back. Other folks got boosted into the Twitter A-list after the kingmakers at Twitter HQ handpicked them to be featured users. For all these reasons, follower counts alone are a very crude measure of how much people value a particular Twitterer.
The Twitter stats of my co-blogger at Snarkmarket, Robin Sloan. The high followers-to-following ratio suggests that Robin produces a high-signal feed. And he does!
But. Every metric on the Web is a very crude measure of value. Compare a site’s standing on Quantcast with their Technorati rank with their own internal traffic measurements sometime – you’d walk away with three drastically different pictures of their place in the universe. On Twitter at least, every follower is a distinct, persistent account that opted to subscribe to the followee’s feed. When you see that a person has 3,000 followers on Twitter, you know that every one of that person’s tweets is transmitted to 3,000 accounts (some fraction of which represent people who actually read those tweets). In many ways, that tells you a lot more than a numbering of pageviews or unique visitors.
When I’m evaluating an unfamiliar Twitter account, I often take a look at the followers-to-following ratio: how many others are following that account compared to how many others the account is following. That helps me determine whether folks tend to follow this account because it follows them, or whether folks folks far outside the Twitterer’s immediate network also tend to find it valuable.
It’s a great headline-writing coach.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of a particular tweet’s resonance on Twitter is the retweet. In other words, retweeting is the sincerest form of flattery. In written storytelling, I don’t think there’s any feedback quite as visceral as tweeting something and watching it spread, retweeted again and again.
Spend some time on Twitter, and you’ll quickly start to glean the factors that make a tweet particularly retweet-worthy. Similar information couched in different ways will draw very different results. Cleverness and pith certainly help, and if you’re linking to something, the content of the link itself is paramount. But mere wording affects a lot, and I’ve found that some of the same principles that make for good Web headlines hold true in the Twitter context as well.
Keep in mind that linking to content on Twitter isn’t a one-shot deal. If you’ve tweeted an item you think is important and didn’t see the response you expected, there’s no harm in trying again later with a slightly different approach. Jay Rosen does a stellar job of reiterating or rejiggering his tweets to reach slightly different audiences. I mean, don’t go crazy, but don’t feel crippled by the perception that you only get 140 characters to make an impression.
Which brings me to the next point …
True engagement on Twitter is cumulative.
One of the hardest habits for classic news-people to shed in their approach to the Web is their tendency to care more about individual articles than about the stream of their work. I recently spent a semester working with journalism students, and they seemed to come in two varieties – those obsessed with clips and clip counts, and those watching the Feedburner stats on their journalism blogs. Don’t get me wrong – individual posts are important. Although each post doesn’t have to be a lavishly crafted viral gem, each post should provide some value for your community.
But the stream is more important than the fragment. Kudos to you if you produce the definitive, heartwrenching story on the little girl separated from her parents in an immigration raid. Now can you become the definitive clearinghouse for information on how that story is playing out? The two things reinforce each other, of course. Having a series of terrific posts means you’ve got a terrific stream. But it’s always worth keeping in mind, when our aim is engagement, 1,000 new subscribers to our RSS feed are more valuable than 1,000 extra pageviews on a post.
Twitter constantly reinforces that message. As you engage on Twitter, you’ll find yourself watching your retweets spread through the tweetosphere with delight, but the real payoff comes as those retweets turn into followers.