Driving traffic (that doesn’t want the ride)

Nobody wants to be drivenThe new Pew study revealing that media companies use Twitter almost exclusively for spreading links to their own content comes as no surprise.

…mainstream news organizations primarily use Twitter to move information and push content to readers. For these organizations, Twitter functions as an RSS feed or headline service for news consumers, with links ideally driving traffic to the organization’s website.

Back when Twitter first came along, I predicted that media companies would immediately become big users, because they could easily see it’s one-to-many functionality. It’s what we know and what we practice. The strategy became:

  1. Get a lot of followers
  2. Feed them breaking news and weather
  3. Feed them promotional content
  4. Feed them stories, many stories
  5. Put a link in everything

Twitter is a terrific notification system, so it’s hard to blame media companies for this practice, but it points to a serious weakness that media has today: its mission can’t help but come across as hypocritical. What appears to be one of disseminating information and being society’s watchdog is actually a commercial mission to make money. There’s nothing inherently evil about that, but think about it. If influencing public life is the goal, then readership is what matters, and there are many ways to efficiently deliver unbundled content via the Web. When forcing people to read our content within our infrastructure, then it’s clear that monetizing that content is more important than anything else.

Using Twitter this way is easy, but it’s also lazy and sells short a tool for newsgathering and news dissemination. When I talk to clients about Twitter, the stumbling block question is always “How many people do YOU follow?” The answer is simple — none or very few. This means that Twitter is to them, in fact, nothing more than a notification system.

However, some individual employees of news organizations use Twitter in a myriad of ways, including to participate in its unique discussions. These employees seem aware of the new reality that their personal brands are everything in the world that’s ahead, so they participate in social media. These smart people may include links to their work as well, but that isn’t necessarily the sole purpose of their accounts. It gets very tricky for some media companies when they try to control the personal accounts of employees, because they cling to the notification system paradigm and the ethical (and profitable) mechanism of an opinion-less stage.

Twitter is also very useful on mobile device, so the practice of only spreading links — that then lead to a fully-packed website and not an HTML5 landing page — is ultimately self-defeating. This is a different playing field with different rules, and we risk our own relevancy by insisting that it’s best used to drive traffic to our advertiser-fed websites.

And nobody ever asked to be driven to such a place in the first place.


  1. is this any different than link bait laden cnn?

    i’d say no.

    the u.s. section is normally skewed to carry around 30–40% links to “certain” affiliates… regardless of the story’s newsworthiness.

    anybody wanting proof can just drop me a line as i have facts/figures dating back several months.

    f’in pathetic for “the most trusted name in news”.


  2. I agree that twitter is often used as an RSS feed for readers and that’s a good thing. I would venture a guess at very few of our twitter followers have subscribed to our feed–feeds never seemed to catch on with the general public. Our audience has selected to receive headlines via twitter from us. They know that if they follow us they will be among the first to know about breaking news.

    We follow about 2k people in a constantly refined list of newsmakers and engaged area residents. this list functions as listening post for us for trends and breaking news. We are also fairly aggressive in using twitter search to find sources for breaking news stories.

  3. mark h.,

    if the “detnews.com” is “also fairly aggressive in using twitter search to find breaking news stories”, then i’d be interested in their thoughts on the use of hash tag link bait by “certain” news organizations.

    i’ve come across an account that looks like it’s specifically set up for this purpose.

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