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Four lessons from a single successful tweet

What I learned from a single tweet about Facebook's 1 billion users announcement

Screen shot of a tweet that received 1,000+ RTs

One of the things I try to do on this blog is share what I learn about the fast-changing, confusing world of Twitter. In the past, I've posted about the downside of using text alerts for Twitter; the right way and the wrong way to use hashtags on TV; and how to be generous on Twitter.

Today, I want to share some lessons I learned from a single tweet I sent two days ago. While it doesn't unlock all the secrets of successful tweeting, it highlights some of the things that makes some tweets successful and some not so much.

Thursday was the day Facebook announced it had reached the long-anticipated milestone of 1 billion active users a month (active here means logging on at least once a month, and doesn't include robots and spam accounts). That morning, I tweeted a link to the announcement, "At last: 1 billion users on FB. Despite the other issues, that's an amazing milestone. Zuck's post/vid: #cjsm" (#cjsm is the hashtag of a social media class I teach for Columbia Journalism School's Continuing Education department; we use it to share interesting tech/social media tweets).

Like almost all my tweets, it received less than 10 RTs (those are the "native retweets" that Twitter calculates, as opposed to cut-n-pasted retweets that are counted as mentions). Nothing special.

At the end of the day, I sent another tweet about Facebook's milestone: "About a billion people go hungry every day. Wish as much attention would be paid to them as the billion milestone on Facebook."

As you can see from the image at the top of this post, that tweet received more than 1,000 RTs and more than 100 people hit "favorite" after reading it. Forty-eight hours after I sent it, I continue to receive RTs and comments about it. I also got hundreds of new followers as a result (I usually get 20 or so new followers a day, that day and next: 100+ each; today, I'm back to 18):

Screen shot of TwitterCounter, showing an increase in the number of followers, thanks to one tweet

It even ended up as "Tweet of the Day" on the DailyKos website:

Screen shot of a post on DailyKos

I also discovered that the tweeted helped raise my Klout score from 82 to 83:

Screen shot from Klout's iPhone app

I often say, "The dirty secret of social media is that almost everyone will miss almost everything you do on social media." And most of my tweets are seen by very few people. So what made this a more successful tweet? Here are four lessons I've learned from analyzing it:

1. "Do-gooder" messages can resonate: People like sharing what I call "do-gooder" messages. And this tweet, which went against the grain of all the Facebook praise that day, seemed to have struck a chord. Of course, sharing a tweet is not going to make a difference for the issue at hand (in this case, world hunger), but it might make the person who does the retweeting feel good.

2. It all depends on who retweets you: The reason this tweet didn't sink without a trace is that that several influential people were kind enough to retweet it (the equivalent of hitting "forward" on an email). Among the two I noticed right away were Jack Dorsey (@Jack), the creator of Twitter, and Nick Kristof (@NickKristof), the New York Times columnist I wrote a CNET post about in April. Having accounts with more than three million followers between them share your tweet is something that can jump start your tweet getting seen around the world.

Screen shot of the Twitter feed of Jack Dorsey, the creator of Twitter and CEO of Square

Screen shot of the Twitter feed of Nick Kristof, New York Times columnist

3. Twitter makes it hard to track the stats: While Twitter gives you the raw numbers of RTs and favorites as well as showing you mentions, none of these help you track the generosity of the individual people who thought your tweet was good enough to share with their networks. For instance, it's not possible to easily identify the accounts of all the 1,000+ RTers. The early folks disappear, with only the more recent ones visible. I just happened to catch the Dorsey and Kristof tweets because I was able to watch the early RTs. My Twitter wish list would include the ability to track every RT and favorite.

4. Success of a tweet is relative: So here I was, thinking I had this successful tweet, till I noticed what a truly successful tweet looks like, thanks to rockstar astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (@NeilTyson). His tweet about PBS aimed at Mitt Romney during the Denver presidential debate received almost 60,000 RTs and 11,000-plus favorites:

Screen shot of Twitter feed of @NeilTyson

Incidentally, 365 days before the tweet I'm talking about here, I had a different kind of successful tweet. It was the day Steve Jobs died and I tweeted the following: "A lot of people who like to think 'I'm a PC' own an iPod, iPhone or iPad - or all three. #stevejobslegacy"

The New York Times website was curating tweets with that hashtag and featured my tweet on the front page for a few minutes. Even though I've written more than 40 articles for the paper, none had made A1.

Screen shot of the day Steve Jobs died, featuring tweets with the #stevejobslegacy hashtag

What are your thoughts on what makes a successful tweet? Post your thoughts in the comments, please.