By Margaret Looney
2013 was a busy year for The New York Times social media team. The Times’ Twitter account, @nytimes, increased its follower count by 5 million, and the team hired three new editors to accommodate the influx.
With engagement on this scale–the account now has more than 10 million followers–a mix of successes and failures are bound to happen. The social media team looked back at what did and didn’t work over the past year, and Michael Roston, the Times staff editor for social media, shared the lessons in a recent Nieman Journalism Lab post.
The team used SocialFlowto track the year’s most successful tweets in terms of clicks and retweets, and learned these lessons:
- Stay in tune with your organization’s guidelines for breaking news stories.
“The more prepared we have been with clear protocols for how our Twitter efforts fit into The Times’ overall coverage of a developing story, the better we’ve performed,” Roston wrote.
Twitter followers come to the news feed for breaking news updates more than anything else, Roston said, so the team ties all update tweets to reports already approved by newsroom editors, and often retweets reporters who worked on the story.
By cautiously following these guidelines, the Times steered clear of major errors on Twitter during the developing Boston Marathon bombing story. The tweet’s bombing coverage was one of the most clicked and retweeted stories of the year, along with the Syrian conflict, the Westgate mall terrorist attack in Kenya and other major stories.
- Give reporters the freedom to tweet their own news.
When Times reporters have a scoop, they are allowed to break the news by tweeting from their personal accounts. @nytimes often retweets these accounts, and the social media team noted heavy engagement between Times followers and these exclusive tweets.
“Letting our trusted reporters deliver some news first helps them connect directly with an interested audience, and delivers news in a timely manner without sacrificing our commitment to accuracy,” Roston wrote.
- Tap into your audience to extend your storytelling.
To offer its audience background info on high-attention news stories, the social media team coordinated Twitter Q&A sessions with reporters, with the Times’ institutional accounts moderating these discussions. For example, the @nytimesworld account curated reader questions about the political crisis in Egypt, and Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick answered them.
“The use of Twitter in this fashion proved highly accessible to a burgeoning Times audience. It also was easier to follow than Q&As between individual reporters and readers using Twitter to speak directly to them without an intervening agent,” Roston wrote.
- Avoid automated tweets if possible.
Though the team has faced some success with automated tweets, like with its second most-clicked tweet of the year about James Gandolfini’s death, they try to make this the exception to the rule. During a weekend when the team set up the account to send automated tweets, an erroneous tweet entered the Twitter stream and circulated for a couple of hours before it could be corrected.
And even a small editorial tweak to an automated tweet can turn out to be a much more popular piece of content than just running the headline of the story with a link. “Twitter is a platform that helps extend The Times’ journalism to an audience that is not always the same as the one that visits our website directly. When we fit our storytelling to the medium, we do the best possible job of connecting with that audience,” Roston wrote.
- Opt for clarity over cleverness.
“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,” he wrote. The team noted a more consistent response from the account’s followers when they were straightforward and direct, rather than clever or coy, because these tweets are “ultimately rewarded by substantial reader interest.”
- If it worked the first time, use it again.
Many community managers will schedule retweets of the week’s content to post automatically during the weekend, either for those who might have missed it the first time, or because the content proved to be popular. The Times discovered that scheduled Saturday and Sunday tweets actually raked in a substantial number of clicks.
“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,” Roston wrote.
But Roston cautioned publishers to be mindful of the type of content when deciding whether to recycle it. An enterprise story may be a better candidate for tweeting again than a breaking news story with a more finite lifespan.
IJNet Editorial Assistant Margaret Looney writes about the latest media trends, reporting tools and journalism resources.
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