Washington Post Twitter
The Post paid bought the hastag #election for the US midterms and the paper has continued to explore innovative ways of using the new Twitter

With a serious overhaul of its design and new site for media organisations, Twitter has been very active of late in courting news outlets. For some news organisations, getting on to Twitter is a recent development and the video streaming and other advanced capabilities the new Twitter offers are some way off. So amid all the hype of what the Twitter redesign might offer journalists and news media, is anyone actually putting it to the test?

Earlier this month the Washington Post took one of its biggest news stories - the US midterm elections - and did just that. First off, it used Twitter's recently launched 'promoted trend' feature - the first news organisations to do so - and bought the hashtag #election for the day. As a result, when a Twitter user clicked on #election on the election night, tweets from the Post were given top billing, while the #election trend appeared top of the worldwide trends listed by Twitter.

The Post won't disclose how much the election hashtag cost, but Katharine Zaleski, executive producer and head of digital news products at the Post, says this was not about buying a conversation, but "hosting it". According to Zaleski, 8.5 per cent of people who clicked on the election trend clicked "engaged", whether by clicking through, retweeting or following a feed, with a Washington Post story.

"I wasn't measuring [its success] by referrals, I was measuring by the engagement rate. It wasn't about traffic: it was about being part of the conversation," says Zaleski, who is a former senior news editor with the Huffington Post.

"We were inherently going to be part of the conversation: we're the Washington Post, we're one of the very few political news organisations who can invest that much into their content and coverage, but we basically hosted the conversation about the elections for that day.

"We chose a very broad hashtag to do that. If I'd wanted to be exclusive I'd have chosen some hashtag that people wouldn't have participated with as much, because they wouldn't have known to put it in their Twitter updates.

"It would have been impossible to keep it exclusive to just Post content, but we could have made it so that the New York Times and those guys didn't show up right beneath us. But we didn't want that; we wanted to host a big conversation."

Keeping the conversation broad with such a widely used hashtag would promote the Post's content though it would still be competing in the Twittersphere against other updates marked #election. But the Post's decision to buy the trend goes beyond simple marketing and marks a sea change from old ways of operating by news media, which looked outside of itself only to draw readers back to their own site.

During the midterms coverage Zaleski says she saw an opportunity to break down those old habits. Using another feature of the new Twitter, the Post streamed a live video show through the Twitter homepage - one of the first news organisations to embed live and taped video on the platform. The 'Election Day Twittercast' was also available on the Post's own website it took questions from readers only via Twitter.

"With the launch of the Post's Twittercast, the Post's video becomes a part of the interactive communication available on Twitter," says a release about the project at the time.

"We're one of the first news companies that has the ability to embed our video content in new Twitter. We promoted it on the WaPo website but you could only submit questions on Twitter. You could watch it on Twitter as well and only submit questions there, so you never had to come to our site," explains Zaleski.

"It's an acknowledgement that we don't expect people to come to us all the time. We're going to go to the audience too. There are these great audiences out there who are very engaged. Personally I love getting my news in the morning from Twitter, because these are people who I trust what they are sending out."

The Post has rebuilt its social media team over the past two-and-a-half months, says Zaleski, and Twitter is used by all staff for gathering news to keeping abreast of breaking stories elsewhere.

"We are pushing multiple updates and when there's breaking news we really batten down the hatches and make sure that we're completely on top of it. Not only are we pushing content out but we are engaging with our Twitter followers and our readers. Every day we put out a call-out via Twitter where we ask questions or get people to contribute to the Washington Post via the Twitter account," says Zaleski.

"Twitter is such a great company because it's an open company and you can really do whatever you want with the amazing amount of data. But it's firehouse so its very incumbent upon us to decide what we do with it."

As for the Post's plans to develop its use of social media, Zaleski points towards its recently launched iPad app. A key component of the new app is the 'Live Topics' feature, which aggregates the Post's content alongside multimedia and social media updates from around the web relating to the top three to five news issues of the day. Twitter feeds from experts or influencers are brought into the coverage on the app.

"Being able to really take the value of twitter which is gathering an informed group of people in real time to talk about and extend an issue, and really add the voice of the conversation, was something we're able to do on the iPad app, because it's a different platform," says Zaleski.

"Stuff like that really adds more value and we'll be looking to do more of that on with our site."

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