What’s it take to get retweeted on Twitter? Three computer scientists decided to find out. They created an algorithm that sorts through flows of social media data to determine which of paired tweets (i.e., “two tweets about the same link sent by the same person”) is more likely to be retweeted. The scientists wanted to find out if certain word patterns, phrase lengths, vocabulary choices and other content variables were predictive for which of two tweets on the same subject by the same writer would be retweeted more often.
After running through some 11,000 pairs of tweets, the algorithm got pretty good at predicting which tweet is more retweetable. Pretty good, but not outstanding. According to the New York Times, the algorithm “can guess which tweet gets retweeted about 67 percent of the time, beating humans, who on average get it right only 61 percent of the time.”
The Times developed a 25-question quiz Can You Tell What Makes a Good Tweet? to measure whether humans can beat big data analytics when it comes to guessing which tweets get retweeted. Take the quiz and see how you perform against the algorithm.
So, if an algorithm can predict retweeting patterns, can we use its insights to write better tweets (assuming that retweeted tweets were better, more engagingly written)? Well, not so much.
The study found that asking for what you want is a good strategy: People are very suggestible. Using the words “retweet” and “please” in tweets resulted in more retweets. Using unusual or novel words or phrases also seemed to be predictive of retweeting. However, once you start reusing attention-grabbing language, it quickly becomes less so: “Once an algorithm finds those things that draw attention and starts exploiting them, their value erodes. When few people do something, it catches the eye; when everyone does it, it is ho-hum.”
It seems that longer tweets are more likely to be retweeted than shorter tweets. Of course, given that this is Twitter, you can push length only so far. And don’t start maximizing tweet lengths with the expectation that you’ll automatically get retweeted more often. The upshot is that longer tweets have more content, and more content is more interesting than less content, so content-rich tweets will get retweeted more often. “So the lesson is not ‘make your tweets longer’ but ‘have more content,’ which is far harder to do.”
Turns out that there’s no secret formula for writing tweets that succeed in getting retweeted. Instead, write creatively about interesting content and you’ll get retweeted more often. That may seem apparent, but writing good tweets takes time, wit, and attention to detail to get right. If you want to win at the retweeting game, then you need to bring your A-game.
Let us know how you did on the quiz – and tell us if you have advice on writing tweets that get retweeted.