Twitter length study: Do longer tweets drive more engagement and referral traffic?

Since Twitter’s expansion to 280 characters about two years ago, it’s been loosely acknowledged that tweets in the expanded range have somewhat higher engagement.

Reports have varied on how much of a boost this has provided. Social media optimization platform SocialFlow said tweets in the expanded range had double the retweets and likes but a small decline in link clicks. Social media analytics firm Sotrender also reported tweets in the expanded 141- to 280-character range had higher engagement.

Twitter verified to me in October the observation that longer tweets anecdotally were more performant than shorter ones. That extra space, they said, provided more room for people to express themselves and be creative.

In analyzing one year of Twitter Analytics data (23,732 tweets from the Chicago Tribune’s primary Twitter account between Sept. 1, 2018, and Aug. 31, 2019), we also saw this trend— but it wasn’t that dramatic at first pass.

The data show a 40% increase in average retweets and a 34.8% increase in average replies between the 1–140 character range and the 141–280 range. But not only are those percentages somewhat inflated by the low totals, like 4.31 replies, but other categories like url clicks only show a modest 2.6% difference. And really, 5.81 average replies for a long tweet is only .7 replies over the total average of 5.11. The engagement increase provided by the extra length didn’t feel consequential here.

However, the benefits of a little extra texture in your tweet may be far more profound. When you start to slice the numbers into manageable ranges, not just short and long, a more nuanced pattern emerges.

The Tribune data suggest that, in general, as the tweets gradually get longer, engagement sharply increases. And at the very longest range, we’ve seen the highest levels of engagement, impressions and link clicks.

Conversely, the shortest tweets are among least liked, least retweeted and least seen.

To illustrate this, I divided that Tribune sample of approximately 24,000 tweets into buckets of 20 characters each, reserving a dedicated column for anything 40 or fewer characters. The total count distribution was as follows:

As you can see, we had a limited number of the very longest and very shortest — enough to exclude those categories from the discussion since a single tweet could skew the average when your sample size is 31. So we’ll focus on the average engagement of tweets from 40 characters to 259 characters — effectively any range with at least a 500-tweet sample size (roughly 2% of our dataset).

Rather than share a screenshot of a conditionally formatted pivot table, I’ll break down each engagement type into its own bar chart to illustrate these findings. In pretty much every case, the difference between a less detailed tweet and a more detailed tweet becomes apparent.

The most common Twitter engagement, the like, strongly favors the longest tweets. Four of the top five character count categories (120–139, 160–179, 200–219, 220–239 and 240–259) fall into the expanded character count range. And the longest tweets have more than double the likes of the shortest three ranges.

Average replies follow a similar but even more obvious pattern. As the character count gets longer, average replies increase. Here we see a 145.45% gap between shortest and longest. Also note that the five longest ranges also have the five highest average replies.

It’s the same story in retweets. Only we see the broadest engagement gap between the longest and the shortest tweets, 21.32 retweets for the longest range compared with 7.38 for the shortest, about 189%.

Not surprisingly, more engagement like replies and retweets translated into more per-tweet visibility, reflected in an increase in average impressions. The shortest three character count ranges had the lowest average impressions and, again, we see the five longest ranges also have the five highest average impressions. The longest range of tweets (240–259) is 33.86% more viewed than the shortest (40–59), about 6,000 more average impressions per tweet. That total could add up fast.

Link clicks in this method don’t yield that classic Price is Right Cliffhangers pattern, but four of the top five categories (100–119, 140–159, 160–179, 220–239 and 240–259) fall into the expanded character count range. And again, the longest range has the highest average link clicks at 194.72 per tweet.

Lastly, even profile views — a more frequent path to a new follower than directly from a tweet — significantly favor longer tweets. The longest character count range of tweets have 59.96% more profile clicks than the shortest, from 4.82 to 7.87.

The reasons behind these engagement numbers are best illustrated through a few examples of some successful Chicago Tribune tweets — not surprisingly all from the top character count range.

This 254-character tweet had 1,022,644 impressions, 25,636 link clicks, 1,242 retweets, 153 replies and 4,616 likes.

This 241-character tweet had 135,128 impressions, 594 link clicks, 108 retweets, 31 replies and 158 likes.

This 247-character tweet had 312,832 impressions, 9,009 link clicks, 868 retweets, 127 replies and 900 likes.

In all of these cases, each tweet provides more detail than conveyed by just the headline. It’s an extra quote and context in the Game of Throne tweet (mostly George R.R. Martin bracing you for disappointment). The Skokie Police Department radar gun tweet sets up the text and images for a perfect then and now display. And the ICE tweet pulls out some of the specific questions the story answers — a much broader way to tease the article’s content. None of these are ground-breaking tweets. It’s all time-tested social strategy. But you need the extra space to execute these approaches and not just echo the headline already visible in the Twitter card.

So there’s not a magical threshold of 141 characters. The difference between 125 characters and 150 characters appears to be small. But the difference between 60 characters and 240 characters looks to be statistically significant. Not simply numerically, per se, but informationally. The extra caring and detail — more context, a quote, a fact or great turn of phrase — result in more engagement, more impressions and often more referral traffic.

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Kurt Gessler

Director of Editorial Ops at @ChicagoTribune et al. I also teach stuff at @UNLincoln @Unl_CoJMC. Practicing journalism et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur