Twitter and news: The start of a beautiful relationship

Is Twitter part of your media strategy? If you’re a news organization, it better be. You’re already missing the boat if you haven’t even started thinking about it.

Twitter — the ‘microblogging’ service that has exploded in popularity over the past year — has not only become one of the most popular forms of social communication, it has also developed into an incredible news delivery service. We’re seeing more and more breaking news stories finding it’s first mention on Twitter. From the terrorist attacks in Mumbai to the plane that made an emergency landing in the Hudson River, Twitter has played a role in first alerts.

But Twitter can more than a breaking news outlet. The very heart of Twitter lies on the development of “micro communities” that interact and communicate with each other. For a newspaper or news organization, these communities are readers and potential readers that can be attracted to you through this platform. These audiences can be brought to view and, in essence, become new readers to your products.

The key is to use Twitter for what it was meant to do — create a continuing dialog with your communities.

The beauty of Twitter is that its operation is very low-maintenance. Set up is simple. There are a number of off-the-shelf apps that can suit your purposes well. I prefer using Tweetdeck, a free third-party app that does the best job in organizing and categorizing your incoming tweets. Plus, the newest update allows you to send your tweets to your Facebook page as well. (Facebook is another social networking site you should be on as well. But we’ll get to that later.)

You can have one person utilize your Twitter feed, or you can have your entire newsroom involved. Again, training is simple.

Many newspapers have already set up an RSS feed designed to send headlines out to their followers. This is fine, because part of strategy in Twitter is to tout what you have to offer. But a big drawback to RSS is that is a one-way street on a system designed to be 2-way.

The essence of Twitter is conversation. You bring thoughts, ideas and suggestions to the table. Your followers add their comments and bring their thoughts. It’s like a continuing water cooler discussion. People who will follow one another in these micro communities trust the information being passed along, and will trust recommendations and suggestions that are brought into the conversation as well. Your value to the Twitter world is dependent on what you provide in the discussion.

An RSS feed is a terrible discussion partner. To really develop Twitter into a valuable asset, you need a personal touch that not only can get your followers’ attention, but interact with them as well.

To make your Twitter service really shine, it must:

1. Have personality: RSS feeds can’t make a follower laugh, scratch his head, or attract him into discussion. That’s why it’s important to have someone manually sending out tweets and create a Twitter ‘persona,’ such as the Chicago Tribune’s Coloneltribune or the suburban Chicago Daily Herald’s DHInsider. Nuance, tone and humor mean a lot in Twitterland. For example, here’s a story that was recently tweeted out by the Daily Herald:

RSS Feed: “Are there cougars in DuPage County?”
DHInsider:”Officials say cougars are in DuPage Co. The large nocturnal cats, that is, not the … well, you know”

Both tweets contained a link to the story. But The DHInsider item was retweeted (Twitterspeak for forwarding a message) several times by its followers. That means your followers are sending this to their followers, who may send it to their followers. And that third-plus level of followers who were unaware of you may find it worth their while to follow you directly. That, in essence, is building your audience.

2. Remember the conversation. Once you’ve established a Twitter persona, follow the people who follow you. That gives them the idea you’re interested in them (which, of course, you are). It widens the forum for you. As your audience widens, you can bring them into discussion forums that you can use for your news operation. For example, Twitter polls are easy. So are gauging reader opinion. Utilizing hashtags to create discussion topics can give you content that can be culled for stories or future products.

If a follower replies or direct messages you, be sure to respond. You don’t have to keep the conversation going, but be sure to make them know you value their opinion and following.

3. Go beyond headlines. The only thing RSS feeds are good for is sending out headlines and story links. But your site offers far more than that. If you have a great blogger, multimedia feature, video, etc., link to it from your Twitter persona. Don’t be afraid to occasionally retweet it. The lifetime for an average tweet is about 5 minutes, and you never know when your followers are watching you. So banging your drums a few times a day doesn’t hurt … but don’t overdo it. The last thing you want is for your followers to think you’re spamming them.

Your Twitter persona is also a great avenue to build up credibility among followers, especially during times of breaking news. You have the resources to verify information, so as the Twittersphere explodes with information on a breaking news event, use your persona to provide details and clarify misinformation. Here’s an excellent example from the Austin American-Statesman. The more credibility you can build, the more your followers will trust you.

4. Be consistent. Not everyone following you is on a 9-5 schedule. So be certain your Twitter persona is operating throughout the day and night. That’ll probably mean more than one person manning the feed. But the news business is 24/7, and if your Twitter persona is a newshound, your followers will expect it to be on duty all the time.

5. It’s not all about you: Don’t be shy to retweet, even if it’s from a competitor. Did a follower send out information that would be interesting to your community? Let them know. In today’s world, readers do not care as much about the source of the information as about the information itself. If you can become reliable enough to provide your readers with what they want, they’ll tend to stick with you. That means being sure to follow your local information sources. Most professional sports teams, for example, have Twitter feeds. Many business and commerce organizations are setting up on Twitter. Governments are catching on, too. If a team’s star player suffers an injury and the team’s announces it on Twitter, it’s faster to retweet that than wait for your reporter to dig up that info. Faster, cheaper, and still serving your followers.

Bottom line: The more you engage your followers, the more they’ll stick with you. The more information from you that is retweeted by others, the larger your sphere of followers will become. Be relevant, personable, and have a bit of fun. Your readership will grow faster than you can imagine. That that becomes a potential gold mine for readership in other products you offer, including your Web site and newspaper.

Too many news organizations and newspapers are so focused on building revenue that they seemed to have lost track of rebuilding readership and cultivating new readers. Twitter won’t build immediate revenues, but it is a low-cost, low-maintenance way of creating audiences that can be attracted to your existing and new products.

You can’t make money if you don’t have an audience, right?

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