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Recommendations for publishers

The results of this survey make clear an intimate connection between Twitter users and news, and suggest some ways in which publishers can take best advantage of the platform.

That connection comes through in various data points. Among them, nearly 9 in 10 Twitter users (86%) say they use Twitter for news, almost the same number (85%) say they click on news links on Twitter, and 81% keep up with the news daily. Twitter news users also are optimistic about technology’s impact on news — 79% think news has become easier to get in the past five years and 61% get more news since joining the platform. In all these aspects, Twitter users are more engaged with news than social media users in general and non-Twitter news users.

What does this high involvement in news mean in the grand picture for publishers?

Although Twitter users make up a much smaller part of social media usership, data in this survey and elsewhere suggests Twitter’s influence ripples beyond the platform. In the survey, nearly 7 in 10 Twitter users (68%) see hashtags and Twitter handles or tweets displayed on TV; 61% see them in news stories; 52% from people reading tweets on TV or radio. Even a majority of non-Twitter users (51%) have seen tweets.

There’s also evidence that Twitter’s users influence sharing and the spread of information. This is illustrated well in BuzzFeed’s mega-traffic post of 2015, #TheDress. Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti reported that its post about whether an image of a dress was white and gold or blue and black received dozens of millions of views. By using a system to track sharing patterns, BuzzFeed found that almost 1 million of those views could be traced to the link in a single tweet, nearly a quarter of which were directly via Twitter and three times as many from other social networks and sites where people shared the link they saw in the tweet.

Distilling the findings from this research, the American Press Institute offers six broad recommendations for publishers to pursue in getting the most out of Twitter.

1. Get your journalists on Twitter

The data make clear Twitter news consumers discover new journalists and new news organizations on Twitter and then follow them elsewhere.

Three quarters of Twitter news users follow individual journalists, writers and commentators (73%) and nearly two thirds follow institutional accounts (62%).

Twitter users also are very likely to discover new journalists and writers, and importantly, then follow their work (67% have done so). Perhaps even more importantly, 50% of those who discover new journalists and writers to follow on Twitter also follow their work on other platforms besides Twitter.

2. Focus on the ‘right now’

Live events and breaking news are a time of discovery, when user behavior becomes more nuanced and users are most likely to discover new sources.

There were many findings pointing this way. When we asked Twitter users about the most important reasons they use it for news specifically, by far the top answer was “to get the news immediately, in real time” (70%). This greatly exceeds other motives like to discover new sources (47%), engage with journalists (27%), or follow trends and hashtags (19%).

Publishers should consider this when thinking about what content to promote on the platform. The data suggests that some journalism like breaking news or live events naturally fits users’ expectations.

Other content could be framed for time sensitivity. Features and trend stories can be tied to latest developments, and publishers may find success in framing of “what to know” at this particular moment. An example would be promoting a story about the Supreme Court in the context of “what to know ahead of Friday’s opinion” or resurfacing a feature about a Supreme Court justice when a relevant breaking news event occurs.

3. Focus on hard news

Twitter differs from other social networks in the types of news that users seem to be looking for. Many other studies and anecdotes have shown that on Facebook, the most successful content makes people feel strong emotions.

But we asked Twitter users to recall the most recent news story they interacted with on Twitter, and then why they did so. The top reason was that the story “shed new light on an important topic” (38%). This ranked much higher than emotional factors you would often see leading the way on Facebook: included that the story was amusing or unusual (15%); tragic (8%) or uplifting (5%); or might help someone (8%).

This suggests that users are interested in hard news or other content that adds perspective to current events. Interaction seems less based on emotion or practical help and much more so on the significance of the news content itself.

4. Sports and politics beats are particularly well suited to Twitter

We asked Twitter users what topics they are most passionate about following on Twitter. The answers were widespread with no clear majority, but a couple clear leaders.

Sports is the No. 1 topic for 25% of Twitter users, followed by politics at 21%. Both fit well into the “what’s happening now” behaviors of Twitter (each are tied strongly to scheduled events).

Next down is a close mix of technology, civil rights, and social issues at 11% to 14% each. Each of those is less tied to scheduled events, except in the case of breaking news or live events (such as an Apple announcement).

Because of this general behavior, news organizations would be wise to spend energy on sports and politics coverage on Twitter.

More specifically, the emphasis should be based around how the users follow this “passion topic” on Twitter. More than 3 in 5 Twitter users say they get news about their passion topic by following both individuals and news organizations that tweet about it. Consistency in coverage, as well as clarity that you do cover a specific “passion topic,” likely help make it easier for users to follow and engage with news accounts around topics they care about most deeply.

5. Save the hashtags for breaking news

Hashtags actually aren’t used that much for discovery — except during breaking news, when over half of users clicked a hashtag to follow up.

The large majority of people access news through Twitter by scrolling through their timeline (80%) or browsing tweets from people they follow (67%). In general usage, only about 3 in 10 Twitter users get news via search for keywords or hashtags or check trending topics. In breaking news situations, half look at hashtags and search.

Put another way, people seem more interested in diving deeper when something is happening in the moment. This coincides with findings from API’s Personal News Cycle research.1

Diving deeply into breaking news on Twitter involves more than search and hashtags. In breaking news situations, 51% of Twitter users say they go to a search engine for more information after discovering the event on Twitter, and 2 out of 5 identified a news organization via Twitter that they later went to directly and repeatedly for updates.

In breaking news situations, hashtags and search help users know what’s happening and point them to more sources. 30% said they followed a new source during breaking news they saw on Twitter. In the more general circumstances, they appear to mainly add to the character count.

6. Tweet mobile-friendly content

The majority of Twitter users access Twitter on their phone (82%). The predominant way of using Twitter is through its mobile app (72%). If publishers want to reach this newsy and potentially influential userbase, they should keep in mind that traffic coming from Twitter will expect to arrive at a mobile friendly web experience.

This is particularly important if the “cascade” idea holds true, where content discovered on Twitter gets shared more widely to other sites and platforms. If Twitter’s mobile users have difficulty interacting with your site due to slow load times or difficulties in pinching and zooming, an extra roadblock exists between their finding your content and sharing it on other networks, reading it thoroughly, and more.

Looking forward

Some new developments will likely reshape how Twitter is used for news in the future.

Twitter behavior regarding news may change if Twitter in fall 2015, as reported in BuzzFeed, introduces its Project Lightning feature. Mat Honan’s reporting indicates this would be a major feature that would curate tweets around events and place it centrally in the app. Users would likely encounter more news in the app, and the prominence of users discovering news mainly through their timeline could subside.

In late summer 2015, Twitter added a “News” button in a central location for some users.

Twitter also introduced summary teasers for links, and earlier this year acquired live-streaming app Periscope.

Social interaction has always been at the heart of news

That said, these new efforts still revolve around the “happening now” behavior that already drives Twitter, and so the platform should continue to serve largely the same purposes identified in this survey though in new ways.

It’s also significant that Twitter users on average are young (younger than even the general social media user), and that Twitter usage is fueled by the growth of mobile. Publishers would benefit from engaging and understanding this young, mobile-savvy audience that is essential to their futures on all platforms.

Social networks are no longer a new door into news. They have become a primary pathway to it, one that will inevitably change because they are user driven. Social interaction has always been at the heart of news — from the coffee houses of the 17th century where newspapers were born to the arrival of social media in 21st — and understanding how people use and create that flow of information is central to survival of news operations in the future.

  1. API’s research with the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found the youngest adults (18-29) are twice as likely to follow a breaking news story in-depth in the past week than any other general news story. Furthermore, the youngest adults followed breaking news in-depth at higher levels than any other age bracket (55% in ages 18-29 compared to 45% for those over age 60).

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