Wednesday, September 24, 2008

So how *should* newspapers use Twitter?

On Monday, we talked about two newspapers that made poor use of Twitter. Which raises the question: What is a good use of Twitter?

Another way to ask this question is: If I were still back at one of the Silicon Valley tech companies I used to work at, and that company was actually a newspaper, how would we think about how to use Twitter?

The first thing we'd do is recognize that Twitter is a unique technology with unique attributes. Which means that even though is kind of looks and acts like a different technology we're already using (ie: RSS), we shouldn't immediately assume they're the same and start using Twitter for the same kind of stuff we're using RSS for.

Unfortunately, many newspapers are doing exactly that.

RSS is a great way to draw readers to your newspaper's website. It solves the reader's problem of "I don't want to have to visit a bunch of websites in order to decide what I want to read today. Instead, I want the headlines of all my favorite websites in a single place, so I can decide what I want to read." And that's how many readers use RSS. They sit down at their computer, open their RSS reader, and start to read the day's news. (Or yesterday's, if they're behind. Or last week's, if you're as behind as me.)

A quick survey of newspaper tweets (like The State Newspaper in Columbia S.C., or the Chicago Tribune, or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) shows that a bunch of editors looked at Twitter and said to themselves: "Oh, hey, this looks like RSS. Let's use it exactly the same way to broadcast our headlines and bring readers to our sites."

But they were wrong.

Twitter is a different technology with different attributes than RSS. And more importantly, users use it completely differently. Not acknowledging that users use it for something different than RSS is setting newspapers up for failure. What worries me most about that is that, once they fail to build up an audience using Twitter in this way, they'll decide that Twitter "doesn't work." And then close it down and never use it again.

And again, they'd be wrong. More importantly, they'll be losing a big opportunity to serve their readers -- and build up a revenue-generating audience.

So let's start at the beginning: What do "different attributes" and "different usage styles" mean?

Take cars vs. bicycles, for example. A very simplistic interpretation would say: "Oh, hey look: Things you can sit on that will take you somewhere." If that's all you understood about them, you might make the assumption that, since a car can take you on a 400-mile trip, a bike can too. Which, of course, it can't. And if you'd gotten on that bike expecting it to take you 400 miles, and then got winded after five, you'd probably think the thing sucked, kick it to the curb, and never use it again. And again, you'd be wrong. And worse, you'd miss out on an opportunity to enjoy all the great things bikes can do.

So what are Twitter's attributes?

-- Real-time delivery of something happening now

-- The ability to get updates on my cell phone, so that no matter where I am, I can find out what's going on now

-- Really short missives (no more than 140 characters)

-- Able to include links to the Web

-- Potentially interruptive (if I set my cell to beep at me when I receive a Tweet, it's going to interrupt whatever I'm doing)

And what's Twitter's usage style?

-- Users use it to stay on top of real-time events. As its founders stated, it's designed to answer the question, "What are you doing now?" (A very different question / problem, we should note, than what RSS was designed for.)

The next thing we'd do at my fictitious company is ask ourselves: Given Twitter's attributes and usage styles, what are the situations where it would make sense to use it? ie: In what situations would a reader enjoy or appreciate receiving short, real-time updates that are potentially interrupting whatever else they happen to be doing at the time?

You see where I'm going with this? The reader is not going to say, as you've already figured out: "I want you to interrupt me to tell me whatever the latest story you posted to your website is."

Instead, they'll say: "I want to follow along on something happening now that I can't attend but that I'm really interested in."

The obvious first great use, then, is sports games.

And not just major league sports or record-breaking Olympic swims. In fact, local papers will probably much better serve their readers by tweeting popular local games -- football, basketball, or hockey, for example. Think how many people in the community are heavily invested in those games. If they can't be there, wouldn't they love to be able to follow along from whereever they are? And not just the actual plays, but also the lousy ref calls, any fights that break out, and maybe even occasional commentary on the cheerleaders. Anything that helps a tweet recipient feel like they're actually there and participating.

Then next great use is any live event in which there's great community interest.

The first thing that comes to mind is the OJ Bronco highway chase. That was, of course, a long time ago. But it occured to me because he's back in court this week. And yeah, I realize that just about nobody had cell phones back then. But if we had, and if we hadn't had access to a TV while OJ was cruising down an LA freeway at 10 mph, wouldn't we have loved to have followed along via Twitter?

For a more recent example, we can turn to the Orlando Sentinel which tweeted the launch of the shuttle Atlantis back in August. Shuttle stuff is huge in the Orlando community. Most people can't attend the launches, of course. But there's probably a bunch of people who'd like to follow along and feel like they were there.

Or, for example, the day Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick finally got arraigned. Motown had been following his saga for months. How many people would have loved to have been (virtually) present for the day he finally had to face the judge?

So how do you make money from this?

Once our ficitious company had defined the situations in which it makes sense to tweet, the next question would be: Is there any way to use the tweets to attract readers to the website? After all, there are no ads in a tweet. No ads, no revenue. If tweets aren't going to be a complete financial hole, we'd have to figure out how to use them to lure recipients to our website.

The answer, thankfully, would probably not be -- is probably not -- particularly complicated.

Let's take the local football game, for example. Reading the tweets will probably only whet a reader's appetite for more, especially if it was a particularly dramatic game. So invite them (via tweets with links) to come on over to the website and watch clips of the best plays. Or read in-depth analyses of what went right (or wrong). And I should note this isn't a completely original -- or unproven -- idea. As I wrote about in a previous post, the NBA had been using a similar offering to drive traffic to their website.

Similarly, live-tweeting a mayor's arraignment just drives appetite for all the Web-based goodies related to that story. After you're done with the play-by-play, shoot over a few tweets describing the related video clips, podcasts, blog posts, photos, etc... available on your website. Junkies will click on through.

One more note: To do this successfully, newspapers are going to have to set up tweets differently than they do now. Most of the ones that are tweeting offer a single tweet channel that includes everything from the latest crime news, to football player trades, to city council goings on. Again, this is an implementation by someone who thought Twitter was the same as RSS.

Instead, smart news organizations will set up seperate Twitter channels for separate types of news or events. There would have to be some kind of mechanism for letting readers know what kind of channels were coming up (eg: "Sign up for tomorrow's tweets on the Kilpatrick arraignment" or "Follow the Cougars-Buccaneers game on Twitter on Thursday"). But the point is: People will want to follow discrete events, rather than getting ongoing grab bags of everything, so this is something news organizations will have to figure out how to set up.

Photo courtesy of apesara. Creative Commons license.

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