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January 30, 2015

What New York Times teaches us about Twitter. And what it doesn’t

By Jon Bernstein

It’s becoming an annual event. Each January, the social media team at the New York Times takes a look back at the past 12 months on Twitter and shares some of the lessons learned. Mostly, the advice is smart – if occasionally bordering on common sense – and given @NYTimes now has 15m followers, the sample size is more than adequate to draw some meaningful conclusions.

Last January, for example, the team advised us that “If a tweet worked once, send it again”. This appeared to run counter to conventional wisdom that cautions against spamming the audience. However, the point made – and that’s borne out by click throughs, retweets and the rest – was that “a story that was of great interest to readers on a Tuesday afternoon is likely to be of interest to readers grazing Twitter on a Saturday night who didn’t see it the first time around.” Shelf-life allowing, of course.

This is especially true when a reader might be in front of desktop computer on a Tuesday afternoon but leaning back with a tablet on a Saturday night. Different devices lead to different consumption habits and appetites.

Among this year’s advice the team suggests resisting the urge to “peacock” a story. Translated that means stop showing off about the format – “displaying its fancy plumage” – and instead concentrate on selling the story itself. Obvious, maybe, but it’s something most are guilty of especially when time and money has been invested in a multimedia extravaganza.

Elsewhere, the social media team noted the primacy of news, the power of images to increase engagement, the balance between light and shade (the serious stuff and the fun stuff), and how best to interact with reader criticism.

So far, so sensible. However, the lead piece of advice – “don’t try too hard to please Twitter” – was a little misguided. That newspaper headlines sometimes make good tweets is a point worth making but but its own efforts to improve on a print original rather undermined the case.

The original newspaper headline ran like this:

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– “One Day in an Elevator With Obama, Then Out of a Job”

By contrast, the adapted-for-Twitter sell ran like this:  

– “A C.D.C. security guard was fired after operating an elevator carrying President Obama”

It seems unsurprising that the former was better received online than the latter.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, a good online headline or social media sell should combine the wit (either or both meanings of the word) of a newspaper headline with a dash of digital pragmatism. The “One Day in an Elevator” headline did both. It was smart and enticing, and it contained the only keyword that mattered: “Obama”.

By contrast, the reworked sell was pedestrian; the addition of the acronym “C.D.C” did little to enhance the telling and was more likely to be a turn off for those who didn’t know what it meant than a turn on those that did.

Sometimes, a made-for-print headline works but often it doesn’t. Sometimes, a redrafted sell improves the original; in this case it didn’t.

During last year’s World Cup, another US newspaper faced a similar digital dilemma. Covering the United States’ 2-1 victory over Ghana – which featured a goal inside the first minute and a winning goal, a header, three minutes before the end – the Washington Post went with this:

– “Ahead early, a head late”

It was nicely done and the play on words worked well when supported by a photo on the back page of the printed newspaper. It’s not a headline for digital, however, as online it was likely to lack context. Instead the Washington Post went with the following:

– “U.S soccer beats Ghana in World Cup thriller on John Brooks goal”

And although this doesn’t want for context (“U.S.”, “Ghana”, “World Cup”, “John Brooks”), it is, like the New York Times effort above, a little too pedestrian for a social media audience.

So while it’s true that “clarity works better than being clever or obscure”, as the New York Times itself noted in last year’s round-up, clarity plus wit works even better.  

Jon Bernstein is an independent digital media consultant and writer, formerly deputy editor, then digital director of New Statesman and multimedia editor at Channel 4 News. He tweets @jon_bernstein

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