To build an audience on Twitter, journalists have to strike the right balance. The key is to be authentic, without embarrassing your employer or wasting anyone’s time.
Before typing the first letter in a tweet, ask yourself: Is this useful? Why would someone else find this insightful, funny, or helpful? Asking yourself these questions will help you craft more thoughtful tweets.
Here are eight additional pointers to keep in mind.
1. Find interesting information and credit the source.
Go a little deeper, instead of simply retweeting what someone else is saying. A tweet may make one point, but you may see a great quote or another point in the next-to-last graf of the story that’s being linked to in the tweet. Mention that quote or point in your own or retweet so you can amplify the message. (It’s a good idea to read stories others are linking to before retweeting them; you never know what story the link may go to.)
2. Ask yourself: Is my tweet awesome?
I mean, AWESOME. Tweet images. Find the wonder, incredulity, surprise. Don’t overdo it, though; if you’re saying “Whoa!” and “Wow” every hour, you’ll lose your credibility and people may not take you seriously.
Arid fingers of sand-blasted rock look like they’re barely holding on against the hot Saharan wind. twitter.com/Cmdr_Hadfield/…
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) February 20, 2013
3. Let readers help you.
Use tools like bit.ly and SocialFlow to track the popularity of tweets. You can also just look at your mentions to see when one of your tweets is taking off. If the story merits it, find another aspect of the story and include it in a later tweet. Listen to your community. You may get a great tip. Follow it, acknowledge it.
4. Behind the scenes: Find — and reveal — primary sources.
What’s new about your tweet? Twitter’s Mark Luckie says readers love a behind-the-scenes glimpse or two. Find the primary source, or link to the report a story is based on. Include the Twitter handle of the person who wrote the report or story you’re tweeting; doing so can help humanize your tweet/message, and increase the likelihood that the person will see your tweet. Sometimes an odd, humanizing factoid adds to our two-dimensional view of a public figure.
5. Zag when the others zig.
On the night of the State of the Union address, my most popular tweet began: “In other news, America has a new top dog’’ — with a picture of the Westchester Best in Show dog. Sometimes, completely different works, and makes you stand out from others.
— David Beard (@dabeard) February 13, 2013
6. Zag on breaking news, too.
If you’re not first, find the interesting angle lower down in the story, or look to the past for insight. When covering Oscar Pistorius’ murder charges last month, we guided readers to a 2012 New York Times profile in which the disabled athlete expressed his love of guns and his fear of intruders when he was vulnerable (at night, without his prosthetic legs). Following breaking news about Lance Armstrong, we included a recent bit of context.
7. Figure out how to add value.
What do you offer to your community that is different and could be helpful? Do you know another language that could work to your advantage? (Chinese? Spanish? Arabic?) Here’s how Russian-language skills helped a D.C. hockey site scoop the Associated Press on the Russian meteor story. If you’re an expert in a topic, share your knowledge with followers. If you think you can add clarity to confusion when news breaks, do so via your tweets.
8. Be authentic.
You are who you are. I don’t want to know what you’ve had for breakfast, but it’s fun to know (occasionally) that you like the Grateful Dead (@nycjim), English soccer (@JoeNBC) or satiric hashtags. (#snowquester, anyone?) Warn your readers, though, if you are going to start posting a lot of personal tweets for an extended period of time. And don’t expect to keep some of your followers if you’ve got 20 #DowntonAbbey tweets every Sunday night. Of course, there are exceptions. Author JenniferWeiner, for instance, has gotten a lot of attention for her live tweets of “The Bachelor.”
Let me know on Twitter (@dabeard) if you see a tweet that sticks with you — and tell me why. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section of the story.
David Beard is director of digital content, @WashingtonPost.