Everybody loves to be retweeted, unless they’ve completely messed up, but it’s worth noting that retweets aren’t created equally.

Speaking from the perspective of a publisher, we love it when our links are shared. But what I really look for is the buzz surrounding an article, rather than the sheer volume of retweets a post generates.

The background chatter is more important to me than counting up the retweets. The problem is, some retweets contain little or no additional information from the retweeter.

This is something that can annoy people who see these retweets appearing in their stream. People like Andrew Moore, for example:

It bugs me when @Econsultancy get retweeted. It’s not conversation. If I want to know what they’re posting, I’ll follow them myself, thanks”

Andrew has a point, and the key phrase there is “it’s not conversation”. 

You can see what he means quite clearly by looking at the following screenshot, which he has annotated:

How to extract meaning from retweets

Clearly Andrew is following a lot of people who also follow @Econsultancy, and who like to share our links, but for him – and without too much in the way of conversation – it feels like overkill. Note that Twitter doesn’t currently provide any ‘do not show’ or ‘do not duplicate’ filters to allow users to strip out repeated retweets. 

Sometimes a retweet on its own doesn’t necessarily amount to much, especially when the same source is continually retweeted every time it publishes an article (which suggests auto-feeds based on keyword rules might be in play). 

Then again, I know that it often takes a few retweets for me to finally click on a link, so there is a flipside to this too. If enough people point something out I’ll ultimately sit up and take notice. And publishers like to see their links shared around… you never know who they might be exposed to, or who might subsequently comment or engage in some way. 

However, like Andrew, we certainly place a much higher value on tweets and retweets that contain comment and context. Why? Because we want the feedback, and to know if we’re doing something right or wrong. 

What constitutes comment and context?

For the purposes of this article we’re really just talking about retweets with links in them (as opposed to conversation-based posts, although I often add a “+1” or similar to those). What followers are really looking for is proof that the retweeter has digested the post. Signs that this has happened can include:

  • complete rewrites of the headline
  • “great advice”
  • “this is bollocks”
  • other types of comment
  • insertion of tags
  • “read this” / “check this out” 

I don’t always add a comment when retweeting, as sometimes there’s no need, or no room, and I don’t retweet from the same source constantly (not even Econsultancy links, though you may see a couple of those from me on the average day). But as a rule I do try to.

For the purposes of transparency it’s worth pointing out that I have certainly retweeted links from trusted sources as a kind of note to self, with the intention of reading them later. But it’s not a habit, more an occasional occurrence when I’m on the move or pushed for time. It’s not ideal for followers, and using ‘favourites’ is perhaps a better way of doing this.

Best practices

The main thing to remember is to leave enough room for additional comment, given that we want to encourage Twitter users to add comments to retweets…

Writers

I advise writers to try to craft headlines that are compelling and honest, but to also try to fit them onto one line. That’s for aesthetic reasons as much as anything, but in an age of retweets it leaves plenty of space for comment (and for subsequent sharing with hat tips).

Remember that a retweet contains not only a headline and link, but also the @TwitterUserName and the “RT:”, and sometimes a hashtag or other comment. The more space you leave, the better. And besides, long headlines are a bit sucky.

Apps

Lots of apps now invite you to unlock features in exchange for a tweet. The mechanics are straightforward, but the messaging can often be improved.

A couple of weeks ago I visited a Twitter-anchored charity web app, as MoreThan had promised to donate £2 to the Have A Heart Appeal in exchange for a tweet. A neat campaign, and an easy way for me to support a charity (I urge you to do the same).

The process involved clicking a ‘click to tweet’ button, which prefilled a form with the following message:

I’m @morethanfreeman I’ve added my avatar to MORE TH>N’s #HaveaHeartWall Add yours and they’ll donate £2 on your behalf: http://t.co/J3aLtg4

The issue was that I wanted to add a comment, but there was no room to do so. Also, there was no ‘characters remaining’ counter, so I didn’t know whether or not there was any space for me to comment.

I ultimately pasted the text into Tweetdeck to see if I could add a personal message, but the default text maxed out the character limit. 

For apps that are reliant on sharing I think it’s a good idea to leave some room to allow sharers to persuade their friends and followers, and allowing them to use their own words (tone of voice, language and passion are very important).

To conclude

As a publisher we cannot properly make sense of reader feedback by looking at the volume of retweets alone. Followers are in precisely the same boat: they ideally want shared links and retweets to be supported by additional messaging. I follow people who act as brilliant curators and critics, and without their chatter Twitter would be a less fun (and less useful) place. 

So, as I press the ‘publish’ button and this filters out into the Twittersphere I’ll be tuning in to the conversation surrounding the retweets in our Twitter Buzz panel (in the right-hand sidebar of this page), to see how this article has been received. In time we may extract only those tweets that feature comments, or just pull out the comments themselves…

[Image by Andrew Moore, rights reserved, and permission granted…]