Chris Thilk

How Will 280 Characters Change Your Content Program?

What changes are you making to account for 280 characters?

As you’ve no doubt read by now, Twitter has raised its default character limit for everyone (more or less) from 140 to a whopping 280. The change has raised some serious questions about whether or not Twitter understands its unique value proposition in the online world and also lead to countless jokes involving the character count.

As with most things, this is a tempest in a teapot, something that people are shocked and amused by for a while before it becomes the norm and we all move on with our lives. Yes, there was value in having a tight character limit, which includes any links added to the update, but we’ll all move on. The appearance of longer updates in our timelines, now somewhat off and anachronistic, will soon be commonplace.

Brand publishers have long been among those pushing most fervently for more room in updates because, well, they have important messaging points to be pushing out. I can vouch for how hard it can be to summarize certain complicated issues, particularly those involving partner companies, sensitive talent and other factors, into 115 characters (again, leaving room for the link). Only slightly more problematic is needing to explain to others after the fact why you couldn’t do so.

Change In Features = Change in Behavior

One consistent in social media over the years is that each changed or added feature on a network leads to changes in the behavior of those using it. Every tweak Facebook makes to its user experience results in something new. Twitter’s shift from stars to hearts as a form of engagement was roundly criticized by almost everyone but resulted in increased usage of the feature, despite its drawbacks.

While outside commentators (including myself) love to wag our fingers and believe our own usage habits are nearly universal, deriding every change that’s introduced, it’s rare these companies aren’t careful and deliberate in rolling out new features. They’re using their own data and guidance to figure out what to offer more of or change to lean into current behavior or nudge people in the direction that’s good for the company. They know what they’re doing.

(Notably, the one area where tech companies often wind up reversing course after introducing something new is in the areas of privacy and safety. They know what users want, with that glaring exception. There’s more to say about how these companies are so driven by data that they lack empathy, but that’s another topic for another time.)

Changes In Behavior = Changes In Measurement

Because of the widespread use of social media in marketing, both organic and paid, all these changes in feature offerings result in changes in some aspect of program management. The use of images on Twitter became a lot more pervasive as native uploads were offered and later expanded to a four-picture gallery. Offering that functionality to third-party platforms like Hootsuite and others did so even more. Facebook has done everything it can to encourage companies to do adopt new features like photo or video posts, usually by punishing posts not in line with its priorities by sinking them in the News Feed.

Whatever the case, a change in user behavior necessitates adjustments in program tracking. Most third-party analytics services such as SimplyMeasured break out types of updates on different platforms so you can see how your photo posts did compared to how your video posts performed. If you’re truly dedicated, you can divide your Facebook engagement reporting by the different Reactions emojis, though that’s a manual process and not one facilitated through native Insights reporting.

All of these changes in audience behavior contain potential insights for the content marketing manager that can help guide the program going forward. It’s important to track what’s important both to you and the audience and make the necessary adjustments.

Tracking 280

The smart content program manager spent much of the last two days doing two things:

  1. Benchmarking current Twitter engagement stats so you know what current state looks like
  2. Rolling out the plans for 280-character updates you put together last month when Twitter announced it was toying around with the change. (Because you did do that, right?)

November, then, should be a time of experimentation. Updates should be a mix of those under and over 140 and include the usual mix of media. So do some 137 character updates with a photo and some with just a link. Do some with 215 characters with a gallery and some with a video. Mix and match all the potential elements. Ignore your metrics for now. Don’t look at any numbers. Just be tracking all these combinations in your editorial calendar.

Then when you’re compiling your November program metrics in the first week of December, break this out in your reporting. Show what worked and what didn’t. Where did engagement fall below your benchmark and where did it exceed that number? Where is there ambiguity that requires further testing and adjustment?

Use Your Numbers, Not Hysteria

There are likely a fair number of social media consultants and pundits who are screeching at the top of their lungs that every company needs to show how savvy it is by publishing nothing but 280-character updates right now. But what if that’s not what your audience wants or will react well to? What if, in six months, we find that industry-wide shorter updates continue to see higher engagement rates?

It’s totally cool to have a bit of fun with the expanded freedom now available. But remember that these are probably going to be fake numbers. What now gets 2,000 likes because it’s funny and unique might only garner 400 in a couple months when this is all commonplace. Always use the reactions and preferences of your audience, not the squealing of consultants, to find your way forward.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.