Just a little more than a year ago, I went into the office of the Austin American-Statesman’s Internet managing editor and asked whether I could start using Twitter to engage the social media community. I got the green light that day, and I have been tweeting as the voice of @statesman nearly every day since (in my own voice as opposed to using an RSS feed). We have more than 50 Twitter accounts run by newsroom folks, engaging people on a variety of topics.
Looking back on that year, here are five things that I have learned:
1. Newspapers are not irrelevant. From the day I started engaging people on Twitter using the Statesman brand, people have expressed their appreciation that we are there. Contrary to the belief by some that the newspaper industry is an outdated concept, there was a surprising amount of interest in what we had to say. In my year of running the Twitter account, I’d say at least once a week I’ve gotten an unsolicited note of thanks and praise for our use of Twitter – and for our content.
2. Twitter is not a huge page-view driver, but it does bring in new people. The days of giant growth on media Web sites are all but over, so it’s more important than ever that organizations get new people interested in their sites. New unique visitors are the holy grail, and Twitter (and other social media tools) are good at bringing them in. I did a survey of my Twitter followers in the fall, and the vast majority of the respondents (more than 125 people responded) said they “never” or “rarely” visited our site or read our print product before following us on Twitter. Almost all of those people said following us on Twitter led to them visiting our site regularly. Although I say it’s not a “huge” page-view driver, it can be big during breaking news. When Hurricane Ike hit Houston, our staff members were using Twitter to post what they were seeing from Houston and Galveston, Tx. We were also posting links to their blogs, photos and videos. That weekend, Twitter brought in more than 300,000 page views to our site.
3. It’s weird working without a net. My entire career, I’ve either had a copy editor behind me or I have been the copy editor who was working behind a reporter. With Twitter, there’s no such luxury. I’ve sent more than 4,600 tweets from the @statesman account. I’d say there have been about five of those that I’d like to be able to reel back in. None were really that bad – they just had errors I wish I had caught. Of course, I’ve had more than a few other typos or misspellings, but my tweets are relatively clean. My secret? Before I send any tweet, no matter how much of a hurry I’m in, I re-read it and take a deep breath before posting.
4. There’s a role for an “official” news Twitter account. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people say that Twitter is the replacement for the mainstream media. That’s somewhat like saying that the telephone might replace the newspaper. Twitter is a means of communication, and it’s a very good one, but there’s still a place for people who verify facts and have a long-built news reputation. People do turn to @statesman, @Nytimes, @latimes, etc. to verify stories. Twitter is great for passing along news, but it might be even better for passing rumors. Several times, I’ve either used our reporting staff and Twitter to quash rumors or verify events. I’ve noticed that people will hold off on retweeting something they’ve seen on Twitter until they see it from a reliable source.
5. Good Twitter use by a newspaper (or any other company) is as much about marketing as anything else. People feel connected to our staff members who are on Twitter. It’s pretty cool that anyone can ask Suzanne Halliburton a question through Twitter while she covers Lance Armstrong in France, and they’re likely to get an immediate response. For years before Twitter, we worked to break down that wall between the newspaper and our community. We included phone numbers on taglines at the end of printed articles. We put e-mail addresses in bylines. We let readers comment on our stories. Those are all good things, but none of them bring the staff member to the community quite the way Twitter does. Just as people can feel like they “know” Lance Armstrong through his @lancearmstrong account, they also can know Suzanne through her account. When people are that connected to your staff, it humanizes them, and that can only help our image.
Twitter isn’t the end-all, be-all of the Statesman’s social media efforts. We also have good blog communities, online bulletin boards, story comments and more. Yet Twitter is one of the best tools we have for engaging the community. I wonder what I’ll say I’ve learned from Google Wave a year from now.