Did the Post's Election Twitter Experiment Work?

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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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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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