Did the Post's Election Twitter Experiment Work?

On election night, the Washington Post bought one of Twitter's "promoted trends." When users clicked the trend, #Election, Post content got top billing. It marked the first time that a media company had purchased a promoted trend to promote their own material, and I thought it was a really interesting move.

The question that many news organizations have been wondering since then is, "So, did it work?" According to the Post's executive producer and head of digital news products Katharine Zaleski, the answer is yes, even though it didn't drive huge amounts of traffic to the paper's site.

"The reason we did it was not so much for the traffic. It was more to be front and center in the conversation," Zaleski told me this morning.

The metric Twitter's head of media partnerships Chloe Sladden gave was what they call engagement. Of all the people who clicked on the Election link from the Twitter.com homepage, 9% of them engaged with the Washington Post. That is to say, they clicked on a link, retweeted something, or followed the Post's Twitter feed.

It's the first time that a media company's done this sort of thing, so we don't have a good comparison, but Sladden said that the 9% engagement was on the "high-average" for other types of promoted trends like today's "McRib is back."

"It was an experiment," Zaleski averred. "I'm really happy about it."

I think she should be, even if buying a Twitter promoted trend didn't crash the Washington Post servers. It shows that the Post is willing to take social media seriously as the means by which news is transmitted now.

Once upon a time, news organizations secured their centrality in national debates with outstanding reporting, great editing -- and the physical distribution of a paper. The power to move product and the power to draw attention to a story were interlinked.

Now, that's not so true. Newspaper readership has dwindled -- and for breaking news, people use television and the Internet. So, media makers are faced with a problem: how do they stay in the center of a debate that has balkanized when they can't rely on trucks and drivers delivering papers to keep them relevant?

One answer that we're all exploring is Twitter. We all Tweet as people and as institutions and we try out Tumblr and we have Facebook pages. Individual journalists are doing the yeoman's work of distributing their own work. They are writing the stories -- and driving the vans filled with twine-bound copies of the latest edition.

So, here's to the WaPo for giving their journalists a little help. It's a weird, hybrid world and I hope the money they spent on the promoted trend gets filed in the budget along with "gasoline for van" and not next to "technology development."

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