Starting your news website: How to get the most promotional value from Twitter

Thank you to everyone who sent along comments about my last piece, Starting your news website: A checklist for students and mid-career beginners. In response to a few comments, today I’m going more in-depth on how to most effectively use a promotional channel for a news website – specifically, how to get the most from Twitter.

A Twitter feed provides one more forum for you to show the best of your site’s work to an audience. Ideally, the Twitter feed should encourage people to click to your website, as well as to use their Twitter feeds to spread the word about your feed (and your website and brand), to other readers you haven’t attracted yet.

Again, these tips are designed for beginners to social media – journalism students or mid-career legacy media journalists who are making the switch to online publishing. If you are an online news veteran, well… click the comment button and share your best advice, too!

Assign a person to Tweet

Some news organizations have chosen to automate their Twitter feeds, treating it like another form of RSS feed. While there are tools available to populate a Twitter feed from an RSS feed, you’ll have the flexibility you need to maximize attention to your tweets by putting a real, live person behind your Twitter account.

You need retweets

The key to eliciting clicks through Twitter is to extend your tweets beyond the reach of your followers. That happens when the retweet your posts to their followers, and so on, and so on. Retweeting powers your links exponentially. So how do you elicit retweets?

You don’t have a 140-character limit

It’s actually 135 characters, minus however many characters are in your Twitter handle. Why? Because that’s the most characters you can use while still allowing someone to prepend “RT @yourhandle ” to your post. Yes, Twitter’s rolling out a more automatic retweet feature, but it won’t be supported on the many clients and mobile applications through which many people access Twitter. So, for now, keep your tweets under your shorter character limits.

Retweet, to be retweeted

In order to be retweeted, your posts must first be seen. In addition to posting sharp, useful tweets, encourage influential Twitters to follow you by following them and retweeting their best posts. Don’t get spammy, because that will only damage your reputation. Nor should you retweet posts that have been retweeted umpteen times already. But don’t keep a great fresh post to yourself. Share it.

Follow those who retweet you

By watching what others who retweet choose to feature, you’ll have a better idea what retweeters are looking for. That should help you sharpen your posts.

Never wait to tweet

As soon as a story hits your site, tweet the link. If people can get your news faster through other sources, such as e-mail alerts, Facebook pages or even others’ Twitter feeds, they’ll use those sources instead of your Twitter feed.

Do the TV tease

If you’ve ever taken a broadcast writing class, here’s another place to apply what you learned. Write your tweets to encourage readers to click the links for more detail. Make your tweet a question, with an implication that the answer lies behind the included link. Strike passive voice and state-of-being verbs from your Twitter vocabulary. Use imperatives. Want people to click your Twitter links? Make them want to click.

Break news

Sometimes, you need to be so quick to tweet that you don’t have time to get a post on the website first. Don’t stress. Go ahead and post what you know in a tweet, then tweet again later with the link, when you have it. (“Here’s the latest we’ve learned on today’s blah, blah:….)

A picture is worth… another 140 characters

Arm yourself (or your staff) with Twitter-enabled camera phones. Then post photos to your tweets, when appropriate. Photos help place your readers at the scene and enable you to engage in visual storytelling. You can play some great verbal/visual games with cryptic Twitter captions, leading readers to click a photo link where the image will explain the original tweet.

Ask questions

The more ways you initiate engagement with your readers, the more likely they are to engage with you. Ask them questions through your Twitter feed. Elicit their eyewitness reports. Quiz them on the news. Ask them about their interests. Heck, you can even play games for prizes. (Think radio call-in contests here. It is a great way to build a followers list, fast.)

So, then, I will close this post with a question of my own: How are you using Twitter to drive traffic to and interest in your publication?

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. “Retweet, to be retweeted”
    I feel like this bit of advice is the rule of thumb for twitter; however, application seems more difficult than the concept. There is something relationally generic about asking a person to follow my tweets; ideally the value should create the followers. I know that this process is simply how the game is played but for idealist such as myself, I need to find a way to connect the strategy to the relationships.