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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

How important are all those ugly Tweet Buttons to news sites?

A quick-and-dirty look seems to indicate around 1 in 5 tweets to a news organization comes from those Tweet Buttons.

News sites today are pockmarked with sharing buttons, those little “tweet this” or “like that” rectangles attached to seemingly every story these days.

In some ways, it’s not as bad as it used to be, when there were more social networks making a plausible claim on people’s attention. (Digg that!) But even in a world that’s mostly shaken out to Facebook and Twitter — plus maybe Google+ if you’re generous, or LinkedIn if you write about business, or Pinterest if you’re about shopping or food, or…sigh. Well, even in a world that’s mostly shaken out to a few social networks, those buttons are still a less than appealing set of warts on the body hypertext.

That’s the argument advanced by designer Oliver Reichenstein in a blog post (“Sweep the Sleaze”) that got a lot of attention this week:

But do these buttons work? It’s hard to say. What we know for sure is that these magic buttons promote their own brands — and that they tend to make you look a little desperate. Not too desperate, just a little bit…

Don’t worry. These buttons will vanish. The previous wave of buttons for Delicious and Digg and Co. vanished, Facebook and Twitter and G+ might vanish or they might survive, but the buttons will vanish for sure. Or do you seriously think that in ten years we will still have those buttons on every page? No, right? Why, because you already know as a user that they’re not that great. So why not get rid of them now? Because “they’re not doing any harm”? Are you sure?

Not surprising, coming from a designer best known in the technology world for building a minimalist writing app.

But do those Like buttons and Tweet Buttons do any good? To get some data on that, we can thank Luigi Montanez of Upworthy, who posted a Ruby script that allows you to see, of the n most recent tweets containing a given URL string, how many of them were generated by a Tweet Button. (More detail here.) Luigi found that there’s substantial variation among different sites.

I downloaded the script and decided to start running it on a variety of news sites to see if I could suss out any patterns. This isn’t hard science, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment, but it’s interesting! Here are the results from 37 news sites, first divided up by type of news site. (I looked at the 1,000 most recent tweets for each, rather than Luigi’s 500.)

The Y axis is the percent of the 1,000 most recent tweets that Twitter says were generated by a Tweet Button. So, 16.3 percent of those tweets to (The New York Times) came from such a button, versus 20.2 percent for (The Wall Street Journal).

Two broad observations:

Tech sites seem to be less reliant on the Tweet Button, as a percentage — as one might expect from sites with a social media-savvy audience. Presumably readers of The Verge are comfortable copying and pasting a URL into Twitter on their own, or tweeting to Verge content by seeing someone else’s reference to it in their feed.

Sites with a clear ideological profile — Daily Kos on the left (38.8 percent) and Red State on the right (32.1 percent), for instance — are among the heaviest beneficiaries of the Tweet Button. Could that be because their readers are explicitly looking to those sites for links to share on their networks, and the Tweet Button is an easy way to speed up that process? But Fox News seems to be an interesting exception to that observation — only 5.1 percent of its tweets came through the button, versus 27.3 percent for MSNBC.

Most other sites seems to fall into a broad middle, which makes sense. Here’s that same data, but this time ordered by percentage rather than grouped by type of outlet:

All right, let’s all visit Caveat Central — a place of particular interest to any journalism graduate student who’d like to tackle this in a more serious way and get a good AEJMC paper out of it:

— This is just a snapshot of 1,000 tweets’ worth of data, taken around 11:30 a.m. ET today. You’d need a much bigger data set to do any serious analysis. The numbers could be substantially different at a different time of day or day of week, for instance, or at different points in a story’s life cycle. You’d also need to get raw counts over time — “the 1,000 most recent tweets” might cover a span of 15 minutes for some sites and several days for another.

— This script doesn’t measure other Twitter app data — in other words, how many are using the Twitter iPhone app, how many are using news org-branded apps, how many are using TweetDeck, how many are using Twitter’s web interface? Lots of interesting data potential in there. It would also be interesting to correlate the results with each news org’s own Twitter presence; The New York Times’ 5.1 million Twitter followers no doubt make Tweet Button usage seem smaller in comparison. (It’s also worth noting that some sites may have something that looks like a Tweet Button that’s actually registered with Twitter under a different app name; those wouldn’t show up here.)

— Not all Twitter users are created equal, of course. How do the Tweet Button users compare to those using other means to tweet — particularly in the size of their Twitter followings? If Tweet Button users were numerous but had small followings, they might not be as valuable to news organizations as they’d seem at first glance.

— To do this justice, you’d also need to analyze placement of Tweet Buttons on sites. Audience composition isn’t the only reason Tweet Button behavior might change, of course; potentially much bigger is the placement of Tweet Buttons on each site. (Just below the headline? At story’s end? Both?)

But even this quick look would seem to support the idea that killing off Tweet Buttons would, for most news organizations, remove somewhere around 20 percent of their Twitter link mentions. Maybe more, if (as I’d guess, although with no data) that those Tweet Button users are often something like a Tweeter Zero — an originator that enables a story’s later spread through other means. (Here’s where a tool like the Times’ Cascade would be really useful.) Or maybe less, since some percentage of those Tweet Button users would still find other means to tweet without them. Here’s hoping some Ph.D. student runs with this.

What to read next
Angèle Christin    Aug. 28, 2014
Newsroom ethnographer Angèle Christin studied digital publications in France and the U.S. in order to compare how performance metrics influence culture.
  • Joe Ruiz

    A smaller consideration to take into account would be how useful the button is once somebody clicks. I actually like the buttons when implemented well. 

    Some buttons will include a tweet-tailored headline instead of one that would take up a bulk of the 140. Some sites include their handle, some don’t (I prefer when they do to give them credit). Some have their full site name, some don’t. Some include the section, etc. Some share buttons just place the URL and nothing else.

    I think if you’re going to use the button, tailor it for the service. The way sites handle that are a factor in whether I use the button or just craft it myself in Tweetdeck or

  • Whoah Way

    I use the tweet button when it is directly opens in twitter with one click.  End of story locations facilitate efficient tweeting. Bottom line, I get most of my news in my “home” page feed and/or through various lists I’ve created by subject. I’d say “retweeting” is ahead of tweeting by about 80/20.

    Another interesting subject for study: User lists as opposed to following. I follow very few tweeters, but track tweets of others by creating lists.A tweeter may have greater reach than that indicated by number of followers.

  • Whoah Way

    Hey! Where’s the darn google+ button!!

  • Jeffrey Lin

    facebook “likes” are an irrelevant attempt at measuring user interest.  all you find out is, based on N number of visitors, X number took the time to click “like” (without even being able to see how many “dislike”).  

    Tweets/retweets on the other hand, shows yes, someone “likes” it enough to want to share it with others.  So there’s a potential viral benefit. The question becomes, does anyone even see the tweet/retweet? (meaning, of all the tweets out there, how many do people REALLY just see?)  I have so many tweets in my feed if i’m not constantly starring at twitter I miss a lot.  Likewise (pun intended) “Likes” rarely show up on facebook feeds either.

  • HuckleberryHart

    Really interesting study.

  • David Brauchli

    Joshua, what’s most important isn’t the number of tweets, but the conversion of those tweets. If the NYT gets 16.3% of it’s articles tweeted, how many of those tweets drive traffic to the site? That’s what publishers are interested in and it’s why there are all those sharing buttons. When you look at the appalling conversion rates from google, if the NYT can convert even 1% of those 16.3% then they are happy. 

  • Ellie K

    Yes! To expand on that: On some websites, the buttons do NOT work! This includes a few Fortune 500 companies whose business includes software development. I will not name any names here though…

    WordPress would add an “AT” Wordpress that couldn’t be edited out, though that is no longer the case. For social media analytics purposes, some people choose to copy and paste into  bitly or another URL shortener, despite the t dot co URL wrapping by Twitter (not to mention Coremetrics or Omniture enterprise-level social media analytics apps). Copy and paste isn’t even necessary, as there are browser plug-in’s for that.

    All are reasons to “do it yourself” rather than use the website buttons.

  • Ellie K

    I like the HUGE Twitter button you created. May I have permission to use it for my website? I am not being sarcastic. I tried to make a giant button myself, but mine never looked as good as this!

  • Ellie K

    This is true! It is appalling how few URLs that are included in Twitter updates are clicked and read by anyone. Many are re-tweeted, passed around, but few translate into actual clicks on the website. My comment is based on empirical observation, but it does includes traffic to a few major media websites (not merely my own WordPress and tumblr blogs ;o)

  • Steve

    Perhaps the buttons are good for subscriber/reader retention. As an example, two seemingly equal news sites, one with a social button and one without. For readers who broadcast their interests on social networks, the buttoned site provides a social reward, the other does not. Those who value social networking will gravitate toward sites where they get social rewards (real or imagined) for their otherwise mundane activities. 

  • grist_olof

    I’ve always thought that the number next to the tweet button — particularly when it’s a high one — is at least as important as the button itself.  Also I’m pretty sure that this number includes the total number of tweets containing a link to the URL — not just those originating from the button.  

    What a number in the (say) high hundreds or thousands says to the reader is:  “this is an important story, which many others have read and shared.  You should too.”

  • Scott Hunter

    I like the graph arranged by percentages, which undoubtedly shows that Daily Kos and Red State offer way more worth retweeting than Fox News or the Globe and Mail. ; )

  • Christoph Trappe

    On a personal note: I consider myself fairly tech savy and I would hardly ever tweet or share something if the buttons aren’t present.

    Now, some apps on the iPad have build-in share functions so when I’m on that I don’t necessarily need those buttons.

    Also, over on we actually had people ask for them to make. Sharing easier.


  • Andrew Pelkey

    I think you’re right, and your comment is in line with what Jeffrey Lin said above. How many people actually see tweets and take one more step to click the link?

    But this tool isn’t about the percentage of articles that get passed around on twitter. It shows you, of all the tweets that contain a URL to a given site, how many of them came from a “tweet this” button on the site. But your point stands. The more interesting thing is what effect the tweet button has on enhancing traffic from twitter back to the site. I think it’s a safe bet that the buttons have no negative effect, like the quote from Oliver Reichenstein tries to suggest. Even if no one uses them, it certainly doesn’t _stop_ people from visiting your site if they’re coming from twitter in the first place.

    It seems like the interesting thing here is not going to be whether anyone should use the share buttons or not; this just gives a nice descriptive study of the behavior of different audiences on the Web.

  • Rob

    I like the buttons and get upset when a site does not have any easy way to tweet out. Yes I know I can copy/paste the URL, but prefer a button that when clicked will include headline, etc.

    If I need space to add a comment I will at times remove the whole “via @ so & so” statement at end of tweet. Personally those annoy me.