Last Monday Derek Thompson (senior editor at The Atlantic) missed a wonderful opportunity to talk about one of the things that makes Twitter truly great.
Let me give you some context.
Less than three weeks after deleting the Twitter app from his phone (part of a slew of 2015 resolutions revolving around better productivity), Derek redownloaded the app. Eventually he discovered a new feature: “View Tweet Activity.”
This got him exploring, asking questions, and digging deeper into analytics only to discover what I thought was a common truth: Twitter drives very little traffic to your articles.
Thompson writes, “Alas, my most popular tweets averaged a click-through rate of about 1.7 percent.” For reference, he notes a digital display ad in East Asia gets about the same rate. He concluded, “my prodigious use of Twitter in the last 30 days has cumulatively driven less traffic to TheAtlantic.com than one of my below-average stories.”
That discovery is related to another bit of conventional wisdom, the dirty little secret of our social sharing economy: people don’t actually read what they share.
We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.
Fortunately, Thompson didn’t declare Twitter dead or worthless.
Instead, he walked away with a different conclusion: “Twitter is sending less than 2 percent of its overall engagement back to the web.” Which he then closes with this statement: “99 percent of my work on Twitter belongs to Twitter.”
This is not a bad discovery to make. It’s called digital sharecropping. A concept he demonstrates he clearly understood when he writes, “Apps don’t pay my rent. A website does.”
So why share your articles on Twitter? Simple: for the social proof.
If you look at the feeds of top-shelf influencers you’ll see a prodigious flow of articles. If they genuinely read each one, vetted it, and shared it, they would be professional readers.
But that’s not what they get paid to do.
And fair enough: you blew through the one-thousand word article in less than four seconds. That may be reading. But it’s certainly not comprehension. But do we really care in the age of skimming?
The number one benefit in all this sharing is the on-page endorsement. Look at this:
Think of those 1,388 shares as votes for this article.
Listen. We all look at the number of shares before we read an article. It’s a heuristic that helps us decide what to read — and not to read.
Which is curious why The Atlantic and Business Insider display the buttons, but not the numbers. Instead, they rest on other heuristics like comments.
Is this because the shares are low? If so, there’s another approach. Sites like TechCrunch simply roll all the shares into one number:
These votes employ the user and wisdom of the crowd variety of social proof, not to mention a high share count plays into people’s fear of missing out.
So more Twitter shares — even if they don’t send substantial traffic — means a better chance someone will actually read your article.
And in the battle for consumer attention, every advantage counts. And let’s not forget one final benefit behind using Twitter: chances of getting your tweets indexed by Google.
Let me know what you think in the comments.