Turning inner space into outer space

May 31, 2013

Putting the Twitter widget to work

A lot of journalists really love Twitter, likely because it reminds them of wire services — a constant stream of the latest news and information, along with some gossip and rumours thrown in.

And many of us join in because it seems exciting to be part of the headlong rush.

But really, there has to be more to it than that. After all, most of us are working for profit-making ventures and we don’t do stuff just because it’s fun — it has to contribute to the bottom line somehow.

The arguments in favour of Twitter are usually along the lines of branding. It’s a good way for news organizations and journalists to become known among the news junkies who frequently monitor Twitter. That makes sense to some degree, but it’s not exactly something you can put on a balance sheet.

The other thing we’re told is that it can be used to drive traffic to the website, boost pageviews and help keep the ad rates up. But all the data I’ve seen shows only a tiny percentage of visits to news sites is driven by Twitter. In fact, you’ll have much better luck with Facebook.

So while I’ve jumped into Twitter wholeheartedly, there has always been a nagging doubt about whether this was really helping anyone other than the people who own the service.

The first step toward a solution came with embedding a widget on the website. Lots of news sites do that, but we figured we would be more deliberate about how we use it.

The main advantage of the widget is that it updates quickly. So if, for example, someone is at the scene of a bad accident, they can take a picture, put it on Twitter and it’s available to our website readers soon after. And that was the key — providing content not just for Twitter (which pays nothing) but for the website, which actually does generate revenue.

But the trouble with placing a widget based on our account was that there was a lot of duplication. It seemed silly to tease a story with a link on the Twitter widget when the story might by sitting right beside it on the web page.

Also, we wanted to make it easy for the reporters to contribute through their own accounts. This would help them with their own branding and make the widget seem like more of a team effort. That’s when we came up with the idea of a hashtag unique to our site — in this case, #kamnews.

By running a widget based on a hashtag, we could target material specifically for it. What gets the hashtag? Just about any kind of picture that’s news related. It can be something breaking or it can be a behind-the-scenes look at a feature we’re working on. Also videos — so far Vine seems to work best because the videos it produces are short and upload quickly. Bits of text are also OK, but we’re concentrating on the visual because it is more engaging.

There are a couple of couple of limitations, though. First, videos don’t display unless you click on a link labelled Show Media. I worry that people will instead click on the link for the video itself and be taken offsite. There may be a way around this, but it is not immediately apparent.

The second worry is that the hashtag could be hijacked by disgruntled readers or people doing promotions. This hasn’t happened so far, but it’s still early days. A way around this would be to create a separate account just for the widget. But then all tweets would appear to be from the same user instead of the variety we are striving for. Also, the need to switch between accounts could create some confusion, especially if time is of the essence.

Still, the early results are encouraging. It’s far too early to know whether there has been a boost in readership, but it sure feels like there should be. A targetted hashtag widget brings in a stream of fresh content in addition to all the other updates we do — making the website more vibrant than ever.

It’s also a bit of a morale boost. Filing pictures to a service run by a major U.S. corporation is OK, but filing straight to the loyal readers of our website feels great.