Social Media ROI: Tweets Bring Traffic
[By Beth Lawton] When Twitter started in 2006, few people in the newspaper industry imagined it would turn out to be a social media darling embraced by every major news outlet in the country.
«I didn’t have any idea it would be quite as big as it was,» said Mark Friesen, online editor at The Oregonian, who set up the newspaper’s first Twitter feed in 2007. That feed now has more than 5,600 followers, and other Oregonian-based feeds add hundreds more.
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For all the hype surrounding Twitter, a few thousand followers doesn’t seem like a huge number – especially when compared to total print and online readership for those newspapers. However, Twitter has been climbing as a referrer to newspaper Web sites (sometimes even beating out Digg.com), and it is giving Twittering newspapers a lift with a highly desirable demographic.
«A lot of it is getting your name out there. It gives you a little bit more buzz, at least in the tech-savvy community,» Friesen said. «I think it does bring some readership that would not necessarily come to us otherwise.»
In July, Twitter had hit 50 million unique users, although not all of those account holders are active, according to comScore data. The service is still not profitable, but the company has announced plans to charge for some «corporate» accounts and other services later this year.
Newspapers are slow to monetize Twitter, too, but many are using it to communicate effectively with readers, build their brand and drive traffic to the newspaper’s Web site.
A Traffic and Brand Driver
«I don’t think it’s a big driver to the Web site directly, that I can tell. It shows up in our top 50 or so, but a lot of other things are more effective. But I think people like engaging with us on our twitter account,» said Knoxnews.com’s Jack Lail. «I look at how many they retweet, and if they asked us questions. I think it’s extending the brand and humanizing the newspaper and Web site a bit.»
The Palm Beach Post’s Mathilde Piard said having a person drive the newspaper’s Twitter accounts, rather than simply auto-posting through an RSS feed or from the newspaper’s content management system, can help. «I think we get a lot of Twitter kudos for that from the community,» she said.
That’s not to say that some automatically-fed Twitter feeds aren’t popular or effective. The New York Times’ main feed @nytimes, for example, has more than 1 million followers. In an article earlier this summer on Poynter.org, newspaper executives debated the benefits of human tweets versus automated feeds.
Another human-based Twitter account, @knoxnews from the Knoxville News-Sentinel had almost Web site 16,000 referrals from Twitter – more than Wikipedia, but fewer than Facebook, which had more than 37,000 referrals. The newspaper has more than 2,500 followers on its @knoxnews account.
Although Twitter «doesn’t compare to Google,» Twitter has been climbing as a referrer for Oregon Live, too. There, Twitter is normally above Digg but below Facebook in the list of top referring sites. «People are passing along links, too, by themselves – it’s not just the ones The Oregonian puts out,» Friesen said.
Piard said the service does send traffic to Palm Beach Post’s Web site in an amount that is «definitely not neglible.» She estimated Twitter contributes a few hundred page views per day from the service just from the headlines that the newspaper’s editors post. The newspaper has more than 4,000 followers to its @pbpost Twitter account. Like the other newspapers, the number of followers continues to grow.
All the newspapers said measuring how much traffic is coming from Twitter can be tricky with the increasing number of URL-shortening services readers use and non-uniform ways of «retweeting» links. Search Engine Land reported this summer that several Web traffic measurement services may be under-reporting Twitter traffic.
«I’m still not convinced it’s a really big local market, but I think a high percentage of people you would call influence shapers or opinion shapers are doing it,» Lail said, including people who work in the media and public relations and tech-savvy readers. «I think it’s reaching what is probably a very good demographic – people who are maybe over 25 and younger than 45 and have money, since they’re all running around with blackberries or iPhones.»
In a Poynter column about Twitter users’ «second-hand Twitter posse,» Amy Gahran wrote, «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.»
Gahran later said, «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.»
A Revenue Stream
The Austin American-Statesman sold a Twitter ad in September for a local haunted house, offering buy-one-get-one-free tickets to anyone who mentioned the ad. The newspaper has set rules around Twitter ads, Editor & Publisher reported. The ads must include a actionalble offer for food, drinks or entertainment. Ads can only be 120 characters long to give room for people to leave room for retweeting (i.e. RT @statesman), the ads can only go out twice per weekday on select newspaper Twitter accounts. The ads cost just $150. (See the ad here.)
The Palm Beach Post has plans to offer a premium-priced, 300 x 250 ad that contains a business’ Twitter feed. «Just giving them access to changing their ad online and on the spot is a great feature,» said Advertising Director Chadi Irani.
In addition, the Post is hosting local Tweet Ups for local Twitter users to meet in person. The happy-hour events, where people put their Twitter IDs on nametags instead of real names, have drawn more than 100 people. «We’re building our brand this way,» Irani said.
Other newspapers have reported including social media components in sponsorship or advertising packages. The Sun-Sentinel, for example, has sold contest sponsorships that include an element of promotion through social media outlets, including Twitter and Facebook.
Understanding Your Newspaper’s Followers
For a week in early August, the Palm Beach Post (which now has about 4,000 @pbpost followers) conducted a survey of Twitter users, which it publicized exclusively through the service. The newspaper received close to 100 responses. The Orlando Sentinel and the Sun Sentinel in Florida conducted a Twitter survey over this spring, receiving close to 150 responses combined.
According to the Palm Beach Post’s survey results, 45.5 percent of @pbpost followers said they visit the Web site more often since they started following the newspaper on Twitter, and 9.4 percent read the print edition more often. Only 7 percent of respondents said they read the print edition less often since following @pbpost on Twitter, and about 5 percent said they visit the newspaper’s Web site less often.
The newspaper’s Twitter feed also seems to be reaching a few people who do not read the print newspaper or visit pbpost.com. 40 percent of respondents to the Twitter survey said they never read the print edition and 6.6 percent said they never visit the Web site.
Piard said it’s hard to draw strategic conclusions from the survey with the limited number of responses, but the newspaper did learn a few things. A few people are looking for more sports stories via Twitter, and some followers asked for more Tweets during the evenings and weekends.
The newspaper does have a dedicated sports-related Twitter feed, but the newspaper will be making more efforts to tweet headlines about sports stories through @pbpost that reference @pbpsports to help Twitter users learn about that account.
The Sun Sentinel has been on Twitter since early 2008, and has focused on growing local Twitter relationships in earnest since last fall. The newspaper now has about 5,000 followers for @sunsentinel, said Social Media Coordinator Chris Tiedje.
«We’ve had a pretty solid mission from the beginning – our eye is on growing local visits and trying to connect with the people in our surrounding community,» Tiedje said. «As a local newspaper, that’s the leg we have to stand on.»
The Sun Sentinel’s survey results showed 58.7 percent of @sunsentinel Twitter followers visited the newspaper’s Web site more often than they did before following the newspaper. Another 38.1 percent said they visited the newspaper’s Web site the same amount as before.
In addition, 8.1 percent of Sun Sentinel survey respondents said they read the print newspaper more often; 75.8 percent said their print newspaper habit hasn’t changed; 16.1 percent said they read the print newspaper less often than before they started following @sunsentinel on Twitter.
Newspaper Usage Varies
How newspapers and journalists use the micro-blogging service varies from paper to paper.
Lail said the Knoxville News Sentinel does not have any automated Twitter headline feeds like some newspapers do. Instead, online editors post selected headlines that editors think will resonate with Twitter readers and drive conversation.
The newspaper’s largest account has been @bonnaroonews, which the newspaper used as a primary means to communicate news coverage during the Bonnaroo Music Festival each spring. «There were people there and there were people who wish they were there, and Twitter was the best way to reach both of them,» Lail explained. The main newspaper Twitter account, @knoxnews, has more than 2,500 followers.
«We’re still doing regular text message alerts, but this seems like text messaging taken to another level.»
Lail said Twitter users are sending in story tips and questions about things that reporters are following up on.
The Oregonian has Twitter feeds set up for its various sections, including business, sports and entertainment, in addition to several reporters’ own beat-related feeds. The most prolific of those Oregonian beat reporters is Joe Rose, who reports on commuting culture.
Twitter has allowed Rose to be a better reporter, he said. He can post updates to his blog from the road, and by using Twitter, he gets a «wider diversity of responses» to questions he poses to his audience. If he’s stuck in a traffic jam with other people, Twitter allows him to reach out to others commuters later in the day for a print story.
When a heat wave hit Portland this summer, Rose sent status updates and posted Twitter pictures from his own bike-ride home on a 106-degree day.
«The biggest benefit that it has is that when I’m in a crunch and need to write about something, people are already commenting about the big crash or whatever. …I think it’s becoming a central reporting tool. In my beat, it’s indispensable,» Rose said. It has made his reporting easier, «but it has also made the stories a lot better.»
Managing the Flow, Promoting Your Feed
«I don’t think it takes that much effort to be on these networks in a way that would bring a pretty good return,» said The Oregonian’s Friesen. That said, Friesen admitted the newspaper might have more followers if more reporters and editors interacted with their followers more actively.
Rose says he doesn’t think Twittering takes more than 15 minutes out of his workday. Rather than following every person who follows his Twitter feed, he follows just a few dozen local sources and relies mostly on @ replies to interact with his followers. He also recommends using a good organizing program like TweetDeck.
The Palm Beach Post’s Piard echoed Rose’s advice. «I think a lot of it is using the right tools and the right apps,» she said. Using TweetDeck, Seesmic or TwitterFox can make the workflow much easier to manage.
It’s not surprising that many people find their newspaper’s Twitter accounts through means other than traditional advertising and marketing.
Without doing any Twitter-specific advertising, the main @knoxnews Twitter account has more than 2,500 Twitter followers. The only promotion for the newspaper’s presence on Twitter was as part of a social media house ad that included information about the newspaper’s presence on Facebook and other social media networks.
The Palm Beach Post’s survey of its Twitter followers revealed the majority of people learned about the newspaper’s feed from other Twitter users. The second-most popular response was «other,» and most people indicated they had searched for the newspaper’s feed on their own. The third-most popular way of learning about the newspaper’s Twitter feed was through the newspaper’s Web site.