Secondhand Twitter Posse: How Big Is Yours, and Why Should You Care?

Yesterday morning, while I was working in my home office, I had Twitter running. One of the nearly 200 Twitter users I follow is DenverChannel — the Twitter presence of the local ABC affiliate, KMGH-TV Channel 7 News, to help keep local news (especially breaking news) on my daily radar. Around 10 a.m., DenverChannel posted: “We will be livestreaming Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s State of the City speech at 11 a.m. on our various online platforms.”

I thought that was great, so I immediately sent an “@” reply to DenverChannel, asking them to post a link so interested Twitter users wouldn’t have to search for this live coverage. They promptly obliged — which was great. Unfortunately I then got caught up with some business phone calls and didn’t watch the live video coverage.

This morning, I learned via instant message from my friend Michael Kirk that an interesting controversy erupted at the beginning of that event. Local jazz singer Rene Marie stepped up to the microphone — but instead of singing the Star Spangled Banner, she sang the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice” to the tune of the national anthem. Here’s a video from the Denver Post:

Popularly known as the “black national anthem,” Lift Every Voice was written in 1899 as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson. It was first performed in 1900, and gained popularity through the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Understandably, Marie’s surprise performance has sparked a heated local controversy — especially since Barack Obama was speaking today in Colorado Springs.

Channel 7 News streamed Marie’s performance live online — but according to senior news manager Wayne Harrison (who runs the 7 News Twitter presence), no one in the newsroom paid attention to the video feed until Hickenlooper started talking. So the news staff missed the controversial performance — and thus, the opportunity to alert Twitter users (and, in turn, their followers) who might want to tune in online or on TV while she was singing.

I can understand that in a city with relatively few African Americans (according to 2006 U.S. Census data, Denver is 68 percent white, 35 percent Latino, and only 10 percent black), and that didn’t play a leading role in the civil rights movement, local journalists might not immediately recognize the words or significance of “Lift Every Voice.” However, when something obviously and deliberately different is happening with a deeply symbolic aspect of a public ceremony, that’s when your news radar should kick in. And especially if you already happen to be streaming live coverage, that’s when your Twitter radar should kick in, too. (I wrote more about using Twitter to reach minority communities on the Knight Digital Media Center’s Total Community Coverage blog today.)

All it would have taken from DenverChannel would be a quick tweet saying, “Live: Local jazz singer appears to be changing lyrics of the national anthem at Denver Mayor’s speech,” followed by a link to the video stream. Had I or any of DenverChannel’s followers seen such a tweet, I’d bet at least some of us would have clicked over to watch — and then probably told our respective Twitter posses to check it out. Ripples (and pageviews to the 7 News site, TheDenverChannel.com) might have spread fast. Just by taking a few seconds to tweet.

That’s the value of your secondhand Twitter posse (your follower’s followers): When news breaks and you’re on the story live, these people have the power to drive lots of traffic fast. And it takes so little to get them started.

Currently, DenverChannel has only 152 followers on Twitter — which certainly doesn’t seem like much of an audience from the traditional perspective of a TV news organization. Why so few? Harrison told me that he launched his station’s Twitter presence just four or five months ago, so it hasn’t had much time to grow organically. In addition, 7 News apparently does little (if anything) to actively promote its Twitter presence.

Despite the ease of posting to Twitter, it’s not a top priority for 7 News. Harrison explained that when news breaks, posting to the 7 News Web site (not Twitter) is his first task — in part because the site has a much larger overall audience than DenverChannel on Twitter.

That makes sense… until you consider how easy and fast it is to post to Twitter, and who those 152 followers might include, and who they might be able to spread word to just as quickly and easily.

A news organization’s Twitter presence, even though it may include relatively few direct followers, can prove surprisingly influential — locally, nationally, and around the world. This is especially true when you’re followed by several active Twitter users (people who generally tweet every day). Active Twitter users tend to enjoy sharing breaking news — which means when news breaks and you tweet about it, they’re especially likely to “retweet” (forward your post) to their followers. Consequently, active Twitter users may be especially likely to follow news orgs via Twitter.

I took a couple of minutes to check out the first 20 of DenverChannel’s 152 followers. This selection includes 12 people who tweeted at least twice in the last 24 hours. Collectively, these 12 followers (just 13 percent of DenverChannel’s total Twitter posse) have 8,618 followers of their own!

That selection includes one major outlier: BreakingNewsOn, a Netherlands-based news aggregator that often retweets what it gets from news orgs via Twitter, which currently has 5,356 followers. For the sake of argument, let’s set aside that outlier (even though BreakingNewsOn would be especially likely to retweet breaking news to its large global audience). That leaves a group of 11 fairly normal active Twitter users — just over half of the selection of 20 I surveyed. Collectively, these followers represent a potential secondhand posse of 3,262.

Extrapolating the amplification potential of ordinary active Twitter users out across DenverChannel’s entire direct Twitter posse, it’s possible that the station might have 25,000 people or more Twitter users in its secondhand posse. That’s a significant audience, especially when you factor in their ability to spread ripples of breaking news even farther.

It’s also significant that 7 News attracted this valuable traffic-driving resource with a bare minimum of effort. Too bad they’re neglecting that resource so far, by not making social media updates their very first task in their strategy to promote breaking news coverage.

Twitter (and similar social media such as Facebook and Friendfeed) are all about what’s happening right now. Many (if not most) active users of these services tend to be attracted to breaking news — and they have a surprisingly strong ability to spread breaking news, as the Sichuan earthquake proved. That’s why your secondhand social media posse can be an especially valuable tool for driving traffic to your site. For most news organizations, the reason for participating in social media is to drive site traffic. So if you don’t make it a top priority to tweet your breaking news coverage fast, why bother being there at all?

Where do Twitter and other social media services fit in with your breaking news processes? Does your news org even have an active Twitter presence? (Red66 is keeping a list.) Do you know how large your secondhand social media posses are? Do you care? Please comment below.

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