When you look at a headline in a newspaper or a headline link on a news site, you are being sold on a product. These short bits of information are entry points to invite you deeper into the story. A great newspaper headline is an invitation to read the story. Same with a link, except the goal is a click.

The thing about headlines online or in print is they have other contexts. You view them in concert with photos and story placement to make decisions as a reader as to what you’re going to take time to consume as a reader. Thus headlines are cues that work with other cues for users, who use complex decision-making processes in order to determine what is worth their time.

Twitter is a bit of a puzzle, though. When you want to share a story, the most basic unit is the link, which unlike a news website isn’t embedded within the headline itself It’s a t.co or bit.ly style URL with no other contextual information. The goal is the same (CLICK ON ME!) but the way of getting there is unique on social. What to do? It comes down to Twitter optimization.

Twitter optimization works on the principle that all the 140 characters not used by your link are prime real estate for selling the story, for getting the click. Think about news you’ve seen shared on Twitter. You don’t just click on random links. You click based on the context provided with those links. Link pasting, but being able to optimize your tweets in order to get people to read what you share is more art than science – and it takes practice.

Twitter optimization can take many forms. I’ve listed some examples below. Although some of the applications are ridiculous, let’s imagine them all around the same incident: Bethlehem city hall is on fire.

BREAKING NEWS

Used in developing news situations. You start such tweets with “BREAKING:” and follow it up with what information is the most pressing to know. If you have a story, include a link. If the story is still being worked on, let the readers know the story is to come.

Breaking news tweets contain the bare-bones information of a news event. It usually is built around the 5 W’s, and although those 5 W’s can change as the news develops and we learn more, the point is that the basics are the building blocks of what we share in this style. Don’t share more than you can verify, and drop the main news. In essence, this is the nut graf.

Examples:

  • BREAKING: Bethlehem city hall in flames as three-alarm fire burns out of control. Story coming shortly.

DEVELOPING NEWS

OK so the breaking part is over. Your audience is informed and you’ve gotten the shell of a story ready to publish. A developing news tweet then expands on that by alerting the readers that the story is live but still ongoing. You’ve already shared the basics. What meat can you add to the skeleton. The key to these is you have to share them as you find out. You can’t share a breaking news tweet and then send a developing tweet 10 hours later. This is meant to be shared as the news is still evolving. Again, don’t share anything that hasn’t been confirmed.

This style is also the first where you’ll likely have a URL to share. In breaking news, you’re just getting the news out there, but the reporter hasn’t had time to write a story. You’re sending these out several minutes later, and it’s possible there are at least a few grafs of the story up on the site. If you have a link, share it. Every time. Keep sharing it with every successive tweet, because stories do get updated as they go!

Examples:

  • Bethlehem city hall is on fire and crews are at the scene. This story will be updated as we learn more. <link>
  • We’ve learned that the entire parks and recreation department has been lost in the Bethlehem city hall fire. Updated story here. <link> #bethlehemfire
  • Fire chief at scene, says city hall might be a “total loss.” Updated story here. <link> #bethlehemfire

So in this format, you are updating information in the story, publishing, then tweeting the URL. But you’re also Twitter optimizing each update! In the first one it’s that the story is live and a note that it’s going to be updated. In the second and third tweets, you’re sharing two pieces of information: the story is updated, and some standout piece of information. Notice here I’ve also started using a hashtag as it develops. Either I searched for one or discovered there wasn’t one so I made it in hopes others would use it.

STANDARD NEWS

So the fire is done, the info is gathered, and the final story for that day is written. Here you tweet out the link to the story. Here’s a few tweets you’d do. The first one is for the main story on day one. The second and third tweet examples are on imagined follow-up stories.

  • Bethlehem city hall burns to the ground; cause unknown. #bethlehemfire <link>
  • Fire investigators sift through clues to find Bethlehem city hall fire cause. #bethlehemfire <link>
  • Chief says clues indicate Bethlehem city hall fire caused by arsonist. #bethlehemfire <link>

These kinds of tweets are the most common. Most stories are produced and then rarely updated, so they stand as is. So you need to find the main news, or something interesting about each of these in succession. Look for key facts, or the nut graf, or something interesting. Never do “Here’s my story about X.” That’s boring.

Also, here I’m using the hashtag to connect it to earlier coverage. All of these things are important.

COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS

These are simpler tweets. Rather than saying what the piece is about, you add your own comments or analysis before including the link. Think of these as sharing indirectly with your audience what has moved you or compelled you to share this story.

Examples:

I really hope they catch the losers who set fire to Bethlehem city hall. <link>

It seems like Bethlehem fire department doesn’t really have a clue what happened with the city hall fire. <link>

One caution on these. These are fine as a regular user or even as someone who works in a part of the industry where opinion is OK, but if your job expects you to be impartial or neutral, these can get you in some trouble.

FACTOID

Sometimes we only like parts of a story, or maybe there’s one big nugget of information in a story that makes a story shareable. You wouldn’t normally share it but there’s just a piece of information that makes it shareworthy. That’s what this type of tweet is for, adding that information and then the link.

Examples:

  • Woah, I didn’t realize Bethlehem city hall was built after the last one burned to the ground.
  • There were 50 city departments located in city hall. Where will they go now? <link>
  • Just realized my city tax return was at city hall. Does that mean I’m off the hook? <link>

What you’re pulling out here are details, usually not in the lead, that are interesting or noteworthy.

QUESTION TWEETS

I like to do this when I don’t understand, or when I’m really interested in audience comments because I want to hear the perspective.

Examples:

  • Does anyone understand what the chief means when he talks about a “hotspot?” <link>
  • What does everyone think about the response time to the Bethlehem city hall fire? Could they have saved it? <link>

QUOTE TWEETS

This type of tweet is fairly new to Twitter, but it’s a common way media makers share. It’s a type of retweet, but instead of basically resharing a post you are adding value to it. How? By adding something extra. You don’t quote tweet and say the post is just awesome, most of the time. That’s what retweets are for. Instead, what extra insight, information, analysis, humor, etc. do you have to add to the source material. Twitter has a good guide on the different between quote tweets and retweets, including how to do them. Quotes get about a 20% boost in attention, so they are a nice way to get noticed while also sharing something valuable.

You would use these when you’re curating. These aren’t your own tweets, but you amplifying someone else’s and then adding to it. News organizations do this from institutional accounts by quote tweeting their own reporters who are sharing their work. This also can be done in breaking news situations by sharing tweets from sources, newsmakers (such as politicians or eyewitnesses to a news event) or people sharing information at other news organizations.

PICTURE TWEETS

Picture tweets get about 35% more attention on Twitter, and they are what the name implies. They could be any one of the tweets above except for a quote tweet, but you also include a photo. Why? Think about the Twitter feed. The photo makes the tweet deeper, so you are more likely to slow your scan of it. Now, this can be a tricky type of tweet because you need to have the copyright to the material. If you’re working for a news organization, you don’t have to worry about that. If you’re curating someone else’s tweet, though, that could be a problem. One way around it is to do a screenshot of a portion of a story, essentially make an image out of the text. Sort of like this:

The bold image up top is a picture of the text. Doing a screenshot can be pretty quick. On a Mac, use Shift-Command-4 and it’ll turn your mouse pointer into crosshairs; simply drag a rectangle around what you want to screenshot and it’ll take a picture and put it wherever those go (I recommend setting those by default to go to your desktop). On a PC, there are multiple ways, and this link has some ideas.

On these, be sure to include the link to the original. The screen shot quote is nice, but you need to point them to the source material!

CLICKBAIT

I’m going to include this because it’s been on the upswing of late. Upworthy has made certain tweet pitches and headlines popular using a unique style that teases to some unknown conclusion. You’ve seen them. “You won’t believe what happened next” or “X might surprise you” is the calling card. I’m going to be honest that I don’t really love this style. It often is mocked because the pitch usually isn’t even true – we often can believe what happens next.” This style is criticized for injecting fake drama into banal stories, or being tone deaf about in presenting serious stories. That said, they’re more common so it’s good to be aware of them. In fact, our fire example is a good look at their drawbacks.

Examples:

  • Someone dropped a cigarette at Bethlehem city hall and you won’t believe what happens next. <link>
  • Can big stone buildings catch on fire? The answer might surprise you. <link>

You can see from silly examples the drawback to these tweets. You can’t do them with serious subject matter, for one. CNN recently got pilloried for this one, a story about a teen girl allegedly stabbing her sister.

Bottom line: these can be useful to know, but they aren’t particularly useful in most contexts. I’m not having you practice these so that you’ll use them all the time, but rather so you know what the style is and know what the pitfalls are as this style evolves.


SUMMARY

The key to any of these types of tweets is picking the right one. You may have to think through this list at first, but as you get good at it you’ll see the obvious angle. If you have trouble, ask yourself why you are sharing the story. Is it the story itself or is it something specific about the story, or a particular detail? Answering that helps you pick the right tool.

Most media professionals are sharing content that isn’t of a breaking variety, sometimes several times a day. That means for each link you share, you may need to try multiple ways of attracting audience. The different types of tweets above

CLASS EXERCISE 
OK, now that we’ve covered the styles, it’s time for some practice. Follow the instructions below and construct the requested tweets, posting them on Twitter as you go. First you need to pick one story on a major professional news site as a basis for completing the three sections below.
1. Pick a story on a professional news site and pretend you are a reporter working a desk shift in the newsroom when the story you pick comes across the desk. Construct a breaking news tweet and post it. Remember this style has no link. You’re posting as if the news is breaking and a story is being worked on. (Unless the news is truly breaking, you’re going to need to pretend here)
 2. OK, now that the news is out and your reporter is working on the story, they’ve turned in an initial version to post on the website while they do the full version. Post a developing tweet based on the first two paragraphs of the story you’ve chosen. Again, the idea is the story will be updated but they’re just getting the news online, so focus on the initial paragraphs. (Again, you’re likely pretending here but that’s OK.
 3. An hour later, the full version is filed and posted online. Using the full version of the story from the previous section, post:

  • Standard Tweet
  • Commentary/Analysis
  • Factoid
  • Question Tweet
  • Quote Tweet (this one will be tricky; you’ll have to use the story URL in the Twitter search and find someone also sharing this story)
  • Picture Tweet (remember copyright, and use screenshots if needed!)
  • Clickbait

A couple things to keep in mind. First, always share the URL if applicable to the style (the quote tweet is the only exception, because in that case you’re sharing someone else’s story). Second, are there any hashtags you can connect these tweets to? Do a little searching on Twitter to find what you think is the best hashtag (or hashtags) and include them on all five tweets. Part of getting comfortable with Twitter is knowing how to search and find information to connect it with communities of sharing.

TO TURN THIS ASSIGNMENT IN:

Paste the URLs for each tweet into a new page you create on your personal website. Make sure to separate each tweet with a header that describes which type it is. Then follow the instructions on Course Site for posting the link to your page.

FOLLOW-UP ASSIGNMENT
You’ve tried it once. Now you’re going to do this again, but you get to pick the topic, news sites, and stories.
1. Pick a breaking news event sometime this week. What I would do is plan for a night to be on Twitter and just wait for some news to happen. When it does, post each of the following:

  • Breaking News
  • Developing News
  • Standard News

For each of these, I want you to share URLs if you can. Also, pay close attention to details. Share hashtags if you can find them.

 2. Wait for the content stream to catch up. Usually in the hours (or even next day) following a news event, there are a variety of things that will get written as follow-ups. These included longer news stories, sidebars with more context, opinion pieces and analysis, etc. I want you to produce a tweet for each of the following types, using a different link source for each.

  • Standard tweet
  • Commentary/Analysis
  • Factoid
  • Question Tweet
  • Clickbait
TO TURN THIS ASSIGNMENT IN:

Paste the URLs for each tweet into a new post on the JOUR 230 website (example from a past class here). Make sure to separate each tweet with a header that describes which type it is

Creative Commons License
Class Exercise: Optimizing your tweets by Jeremy Littau is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://jeremylittau.com/resources/optimizing-your-tweets/.