Big newspapers are joining Twitter at an alarming rate, in part because it offers another avenue for story ideas and scoops. Some newspaper execs are also trying to find a way to make money from Twitter.

This is a tricky area, because the people who use Twitter have shown that they are not fans of spam, or anything remotely resembling spam, and will take swift action (unfollow, possibly report the account) if it is suspected.

For big newspapers, which often have big debt loads and vastly diverse audiences, using Twitter as an advertising platform is challenging. But for small and medium-sized titles, an opportunity exists.

Last week I attended the news:rewired event put on by Journalism.co.uk, and hosted by City University London. Billed as a look at how the news industry needs to change its approach to journalism online, those in attendance included editors at the major national titles, and editors at small papers with just a few thousand readers.

I struck up a conversation with the editor of a local newspaper in South West England. The editor told me they were new to the social media fray and were unsure how it can be monetised or even used effectively for news purposes with a smaller readership.

Robin Hamman, a Senior Social Media Consultant at Headshift, mentioned that he gone through and found every single blogger who was active in St. Albans. He created a network of them, built out an aggregator in Yahoo! Pipes, and set about being seen as a member of that blogging community.

That became St. Albans Blog. He took the time to know the community, to know who was there and who was contributing what to the conversation locally.

In a small community to be the news source or news outlet, you’ve got to be connected to the community in a big way. Everyone’s got to know you, and you’ve got to know everyone. You have to know what they like and what they don’t like. Otherwise, how can you really be their news source or outlet?

As a small newspaper with a small, but specific audience, your focus is always on headlines that your local readers will find useful and interesting. On Twitter, your strategy is no different. However with Twitter, the opportunity exists to make some money, too.

Because you’re so connected to your audience, you know who the businesses are in town. If you’re a small paper with a Twitter account, it’s fair to assume that the majority of the people following that account are also locals. 

Here’s what you do:

  • Research who is following the newspaper’s Twitter account. Try to determine their average age, gender, and interests.
  • Determine what businesses in your coverage area offer services that are compatible with your findings.
  • Draw up a rate card for what you’d like to charge local businesses to advertise in your newspaper’s Twitter stream, according to frequency on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
  • Devise a strategy for how you’d like to deliver links in a way that it isn’t perceived as spam. It’s also critical to ensure that the advertisements are for companies and offers that readers will find interesting.

There has been some controversy about sponsored tweets. Some see it as being dirty, or that it dilutes your community. It makes you less trustworthy, some say. For a newspaper to begin doing this, I imagine the reaction would be similar.

But think about it: no-one gets upset when advertisements appear on a web site or in a paper. There isn’t collective outrage at the advertisements that appear in Google Reader or Tweetie. Why should this be any different?

Newspapers are selling their Twitter streams as an targeted advertising platform. If you’re a small newspaper and you sign up ten businesses to Twitter advertising scheme, charge them £100 per week, you could end up with a few thousand pounds worth of advertising revenue.

As your Twitter following grows to a certain point, adjust your rate to reflect the growing audience. If it drops, to a certain point, adjust it down.

The key point is not to alienate your readers. If readers begin to feel like you’re showing them irrelevant material, they will move on. For newspapers that try it out, there will be some outrage at the start of it.

Don’t be discouraged by that. Many view Twitter as a pure form of communication, unencumbered by advertising. But that’s changing. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Facebook, it’s that users will always get upset when things change. But getting upset and walking away are different things.

This isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ for any news organisation seeking a large cash injection, but it is a new revenue stream. And if done successfully, it could grow to be a healthy contributor to the newspaper’s overall bottom line.

Photo by Matt Callow via Flickr