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8 Surprising Tips On Getting More Retweets Backed By Science

Three scholarly studies show how to earn more retweets, and in turn, a wider exposure.

[Photo: Flickr user Jeremiasz Dx]

Have you ever come across a piece of marketing advice about social media best uses and wondered, "How could you possibly know that will work?"

To take the mystery out of your social media strategy, here are eight tips backed by science about the best and worst ways to retweet, and what you’re about to read may surprise you.

1. More Tweets Won’t Make You Retweetable

Analysts at the Palo Alto Research Center conducted a massive study on 74 million tweets. Their goal? To get to the bottom of what caused people to retweet. They analyzed both the content and the context of the tweets, and arrived at several interesting conclusions.

The most surprising conclusion? The number of tweets you’ve posted in the past doesn’t impact how retweetable you are.

Histogram: Retweet rate (y-axis) and the number of past tweets made by the tweet author (x-axis). Source: Palo Alto Research Center study.

Tweet as often as you want. It doesn’t change the percentage of your tweets that will get retweeted. Even the average number of daily tweets has no impact on how retweetable you are.

Obviously, if you tweet more often, you’ll probably get retweeted more often, simply because there’s more material available. But your retweet rate isn’t related at all to how often you tweet.

2. Links Are Good, But Not Amazing

The Palo Alto study confirmed that you’re more likely to get retweeted if you include a link in your tweet.

However, it doesn’t make as big a difference as you might think. In general, 21% of tweets contain a link. Twenty-eight percent of retweets, on the other hand, contained links. The difference is there, but it’s easy to overstate.

3. Well...Except For TwitLonger Links, Which Are Amazing

Twitter may be known for being short and to the point, but it seems that TwitLonger links, which allow you to write longer tweets, make a big difference in retweet rate. Tweets with TwitLonger links are 6.06 times more likely to get retweeted.

By contrast, Formspring, YouTube, Twitcam, and Foursquare links were actually less likely to get retweeted.

4. Hashtags, On Average, Double Retweets

Only 10% of tweets contain a hashtag, but 21% of retweets contain hashtags.

However, it’s not as simple as using a hashtag. Some hashtags perform worse than average, and others perform very well. Popular hashtags were more likely to get retweeted than rare ones, but the popularity of a hashtag alone isn’t enough to predict how retweetable it is.

For example, #nowplaying was the most popular hashtag, but its retweet rate was 25% less than average. #ff, on the other hand, which was the second most popular hashtag, more than doubled retweet rates, raising them by 149%.

5. Both Followers And Followees Impact Retweet Rate

It shouldn’t be surprising that a tweeter with more followers is more likely to get retweeted. The relationship is pretty straightforward:

Historgram: Retweet rate (y-axis) and the number of followers of the tweet author (x-axis). Source: Palo Alto Research Center study.

More surprising is the relationship between how many people a tweeter follows and their retweet rate:

Histogram: Retweet rate (y-axis) and the number of followees of the tweet author (x-axis). Source: Palo Alto Research Center study.

Surprisingly, if you follow more people, you’re more likely to get retweeted. It’s unlikely that simply following a bunch of people is going to actually cause you to get retweeted more often. More likely, this is simply an indicator that if you build relationships on Twitter, you are more likely to get retweeted.

6. Seniority Matters

The Palo Alto study found that the longer you have been on Twitter, the more likely you are to get retweeted. Specifically, if it’s been over 300 days, you get a boost. The rate doesn’t seem to increase after about 400 days. Interestingly, if you’re new to Twitter, you also get a slight boost:

Histrogram: Retweet rate (y-axis) and the days since the author created the account (x-axis). Source: Palo Alto Research Center study.

7. Sometimes Anti-Relevance Is The Answer

According to a study conducted by Fetch Technologies and published in the Fifth International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, most retweets are actually conducted by people who don’t normally tweet about the same topic.

The authors of the paper monitored 30,000 Tweeters for one month, gathering data on 768,000 tweets.

To predict whether or not a user would retweet specific content, the researchers devised four different predictive mathematical models:

A general model, where the user would just retweet at random, weighted by the tweets they saw most recently.
A recent communication model, where the user would retweet based on how recently they had communicated with somebody.
An on-topic model, where the user would retweet based on how similar the content of the tweet was to their own profile of tweets.
A homophily model, where a user would retweet based on the similarity of their own profile to the similarity of the other user’s profile.

Of the four models, the homophily model was the best fit for the entire data set, although all of the models in fact worked together.

Now for the shocker.

While it was true that users seemed to retweet based on how similar their profiles were, it was actually the least similar profiles that were the most likely to be retweeted.

Amazingly, the more similar two people’s profiles were, and the more similar the tweet was to their own profile, the less likely they were to retweet it:

Source: Fetch Technologies study.

In other words, it seems that most tweeters are actually looking to retweet something they haven’t tweeted about yet.

Similarity, it turns out, isn’t what people want to retweet. Instead, they’re looking for something new to tweet about.

8. Causes Get Retweeted, But Don’t Get Credit

According to a study conducted at Wright State on weblogs and social media, causes have a tendency to get retweeted very frequently, but credit for the retweets is rarely present.

After investigating popular tweets surrounding the health care reform debate, the Iran election, and the International Semantic Web Conference, they found that popular tweets could be divided into four categories:

  1. A call to political or social action
  2. Collective group identity-making
  3. Crowdsourcing
  4. Information sharing

However, the first three, which all revolved around a cause of some kind, were much less likely to give credit to the source. They would get copied all the time, but without attribution.

So, if your only goal is to make a difference, then a cause is the way to do it. But if you actually want people to give you credit, you’re better off just sharing information.

Of course, it’s worth realizing that a retweeter doesn’t necessarily need to give credit to your Twitter handle as long as they are referring people to something on one of your properties. It’s possible to support a cause and get credit if it involves a form, a page, or an application somewhere on your site.

While the science of retweets is still very new, the scientific community is already teaching us new and unexpected things about how and why people share social content.

How about you? What have you noticed about what gets retweeted, and what gets ignored? How are you using data to support your strategy?

Carter Bowles is a strategist who leverages his technical knowledge of statistics (which he holds a bachelor's degree in) and his years of experience with SEO and content marketing to organize comprehensive marketing strategies. He works at Northcutt.com.