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. <URL>
  • 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.
  • We’ve learned that the entire parks and recreation department has been lost in the Bethlehem city hall fire. Updated story here. <URL> #bethlehemfire
  • Fire chief at scene, says city hall might be a “total loss.” Updated story here. <URL> #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
  • Fire investigators sift through clues to find Bethlehem city hall fire cause. #bethlehemfire
  • Chief says clues indicate Bethlehem city hall fire caused by arsonist. #bethlehemfire

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. 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. <URL>

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

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.

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?
  • Just realized my city tax return was at city hall. Does that mean I’m off the hook? <URL>

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?” <URL>
  • What does everyone think about the response time to the Bethlehem city hall fire? Could they have saved it? <URL>

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. <URL>
  • Can big stone buildings catch on fire? The answer might surprise you. <URL>

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 (General Assignments Lab category, 10 points)
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.
1. You’re working a desk shift in the newsroom when the following breaking news alert comes across the AP wire. Construct a breaking news tweet and post it.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 9.56.34 AM

 

 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 this story (ignore the rest of it for now). Use the URL to link to it.
 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
  • Clickbait

A couple things to keep in mind. First, always share the URL. 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.

4. Time to try your own. Pick two stories from each of:

  • NYT
  • TheVerge.com
  • A news site of your choice

You’ll need to produce six tweets from these sites (3 sites x 2 stories). I want each tweet to be a different style. Don’t do any in the breaking style unless it actually is breaking news (i.e. the news just broke during class today)

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

FOLLOW-UP ASSIGNMENT (General Assignments OOC category, 25 points)
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/.