Given 140 characters, how can you make the absolute most of every single word, hashtag, and link in a tweet?

We’ve been excited to test and experiment with answering that question by trying out headline ideas, power words, psychology, science, and more.

Now we’re happy to share the quantitative numbers—based on 1 million tweets from Buffer users—about what seems to drive the most clicks, retweets, and engagement on Twitter!

how to tweet

tl;dr

The top takeaways from Buffer’s study on ideal tweets

We’ll dive deep into all the Twitter data and findings below. Up top, I’d love to share the overall takeaways that we discovered when looking at the success of Buffer users on Twitter.

  • For tweets with images, shorter tweets of 20 to 40 characters did best
  • For tweets without images, longer tweets of 120 to 140 characters did best
  • The most popular tweet length was 110 to 120 characters
  • Tweets with images received more engagement than tweets without images
  • Tweets without links got more retweets, favorites, and replies than tweets with links
  • Engagement for tweets with hashtags seems to rise steadily all the way to 4 hashtags per tweet.

We are so grateful to have partnered with Lemonly on creating the infographics and charts for this research. Here’s the beautiful design the Lemonly team came up with:

Buffer Lemonly twitter stats infographic

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See below for more detail on each of these findings.

A note about engagement and data

In this study, we define engagement as the sum of retweets, favorites, and mentions divided by the number of followers of the account.

We chose to exclude clicks from our engagement measure because clicks were only recorded for tweets that included links (around 70% of the dataset), and we wanted to be careful to not skew the effects of our independent variables by giving so much weight to the link factor.

The dataset includes more than 1 million tweets sent between February 1 and February 17, 2015, in the Pacific time zone. (Toward the end of the article, I’ll share some of the limitations and caveats that a dataset like this might entail.)

Now to the results…

How long are the most engaged tweets?

What the data says about tweet length and engagement

You may have heard that the best practice regarding the length of a tweet is to use 100 to 120 characters, plenty long to get your message across while leaving room for others to add their own comments when retweeting you.

As Twitter has evolved, we were curious to find out if that recommendation still holds true.

From looking at the Twitter data, we noticed a couple of interesting trends:

  1. For tweets with images, shorter tweets tend to receive more engagement.
  2. For tweets without images, longer tweets tend to receive more engagement.

(We defined engagement as the sum of retweets, favorites, and mentions, divided by followers. We excluded clicks from engagement as the data included both tweets with links and tweets without.)

tweet research length

For overall tweet engagement by length—regardless of whether a tweet had an image or not—we looked at the results from all 1 million+ of the tweets we analyzed.

twitter research length

(This scatterplot chart shows the relationship between engagement per follower and character count, and the blue line running through the data is a smoother, to better visualize the relationship between tweet length and engagement per follower.)

You might notice here that although there seems to be a slight rise in engagement when the character count is less than 40 or greater than 120, the increase isn’t significant enough to quite warrant a claim that tweets with less than 40 characters are best.

In terms of raw numbers, tweets with 20 to 40 characters get around 60 percent more engagement per follower than tweets in the 60- to 80-character range.

We’re a bit hesitant to fully claim that 20 to 40 characters leads to more engaged tweets, due to a number of extraneous factors that could be influencing engagement also. For instance, one of the most significant factors to consider here is how many of these shorter tweets include an image. And it’s possible that fewer tweets have these shorter character lengths so the averages are more volatile.

So how many characters do tweets usually have?

Generally-speaking, most tweets are 80 characters or more.

From our Twitter data, the volume of tweets started rising steadily just after the 40-character length, and the volume peaked between 110 and 120 characters (the long-held idea for best length), with another spike just below the 140-character limit.

Buffer_Microcontent_091715-03

In another look, we cleaned the text field by removing hashtags, punctuation, URLs, and empty whitespace. We thought this might help better represent the true message of a tweet, minus the branded/business elements.

After cleaning the text we can see that the character count is more normally distributed around 60 to 80 characters.

Buffer_Microcontent_091715-04

Our best ideas about what this means

The first thought that comes to mind:

There are many factors that might influence the amount of engagement a tweet gets (e.g. sentiment, tone, multimedia, etc.). It can be tough to say if one tweet length is better than another, so we definitely recommend testing and seeing what works for your tweets.

To try to get a sense of what else might be affecting engagement, we can look at the top performing tweets where engagement tends to be higher in the data above.

Top Tweets by engagement per follower

Here’s a list of some of the top tweets we found in the study (and a thought or two on what makes these great).

What’s great about this: A fantastic, funny image that acts as the focal point of the tweet (the update text here amounts to a really great caption).

What’s great about this: The content is timely (our Twitter analysis was pulled during February, which included the Super Bowl), entertaining, and visual. Again, like above, the image and the text go together to make the joke. 🙂

 

What’s great about this: Dogs! The subject matter probably helped quite a bit. It’s also benefitting from the animated image and the funny factor.

And here’s a quick chart of all the top tweets:

My first thought when looking at the top tweets here is that almost all of the tweets include images! The number of tweets that included links (12) wasn’t too different from the number that did (8), but 18 out of 20 of the top tweets included a photo.

Which brings us to …

How does including an image affect engagement?

One of our favorite Twitter tips is to include images with your tweets. We’ve noticed a significant increase—sometimes as much as 150 percent more retweets—when we’ve tried this with our @buffer Twitter account.

Does this advice hold true for all users?

In our dataset of roughly 1 million tweets, around 42% of tweets included an image and roughly 58% did not.

Buffer_Microcontent_091715-06

How did the amount of engagement compare for tweets that included images and tweets that did not?

Tweets with images consistently received more engagement than tweets without images.

Buffer_Microcontent_091715-07

The above chart looks at engagement per follower, which is a way to analyze the data comparatively for those with tons of followers and those with less.

Tweets with images receive approximately 22.8% more engagement than tweets without.

We also ran the higher-level numbers here on average engagement in total. It’s possible that the stats here could possibly be skewed by bigger accounts or outlier results, though in this case, the charts seem to tell the same story – and maybe even to a slightly greater degree – as the one above.

Buffer_Microcontent_091715-08

Does including a link mean more engagement?

We know that including a link leads to more clicks (as there’s nothing to click without the link). But what is the effect on retweets, favorites, and mentions?

We found: Tweets with links tend to receive less engagement than tweets without links.

Around 70% of tweets in our dataset included a link, and the remaining 30% did not.

Includes Link-

What does engagement per follower look like for these two types of tweets?

Tweets that do not include links received approximately 25.1% more engagement, on average, than tweets that did include links.

Buffer_Microcontent_091715-10The average engagement per follower suggests that tweets without links tend to receive more engagement, and just in case you were wondering about what the average of total engagement looked like:

Buffer_Microcontent_091715-11

Our best ideas about what this means

Seems a bit counterintuitive, right? Tweets without links get more favorites, retweets, and replies than tweets with links.

I was fortunate to have the eyes of my Buffer teammate Tom on this data, and he had a really great thought as to what might be afoot here.

My hunch is it could be partly related to how behavior differs across various Twitter accounts.

I have a feeling that businesses and brands might use Twitter moreso to promote external content through the use of links while personal accounts might be more conversation-focused.
Thinking how this might work on Facebook, for instance, if a company with 1,000 followers posts out a promotional link, it might get 10-15 likes while a personal post to 600 friends might get 50-100 likes.

We took this idea and explored a bit further. What is the breakdown of tweets with links vs. tweets without links, based on different follower tiers?

Tweets With Links

It’s really fascinating that large accounts do post links in the vast majority of their tweets (around 70-80% of all tweets for accounts with up to 16,000 followers), yet the huge accounts—16,000 followers and up—post a relatively large amount of tweets without links!

Could it be that some of the huge accounts are having more conversations than smaller accounts?

It’s an interesting theory and a good reminder that the data we’ve explored here includes everything from everyone who shares with Buffer—both brands and individuals.

A couple extra thoughts:

  • Should brands start composing tweets without links? It’d be a good test to try. My best guess is that there’s likely a lot of factors that would be hard to predict. For example, are people less likely to engage with a conversational tweet because it’s from a business vs. from a friend?
  • It might also be interesting to mention that tweets with images were less likely to contain links than tweets without images. Since we learned from the earlier takeaway that image tweets get great engagement, it’s possible that images could play a big role in the engagement effect of tweets with or without links, too.

Can including a hashtag improve the amount of engagement you get?

We’ve mentioned in past articles that hashtags help your tweets. We’ve highly encouraged you to give them a try.

Does our new data support this?

Yes!

This plot below shows the average amount of engagement per follower for tweets by the number of hashtags included. It’s fascinating to see a clear positive relationship here. The positive effects of adding more hashtags seems to rise steadily all the way to 4 hashtags per tweet.

Buffer_Microcontent_091715-13

So how many hashtags do people usually use?

The majority of the tweets in our dataset, roughly 500,000, don’t contain any hashtags, and slightly less than 200,000 contain just 1. It’s interesting that there seems to be a clear positive relationship between the number of hashtags and the amount of engagement, yet most tweets don’t quite take advantage!

Buffer_Microcontent_091715-12

Further notes about methodology

In addition to the way that we went about measuring engagement (retweets plus favorites plus replies), one might also be tempted to give more weight to retweets because they are often considered to be more valuable than favorites or replies. An engagement measure like (2 * retweets + favorites + mentions) / followers could account for this difference in value, for instance. The challenging part was thinking about exactly how much more valuable a retweet is than a favorite or mention. Is a retweet really worth two favorites? We decided to try to keep the measure simple and minimize the number of underlying assumptions and estimations.

Reflecting on our engagement measure, we thought of other factors that might skew the amount of engagement that a tweet gets. The first such factor that came to mind was the number of followers that an account has.

If we think of engagement as retweets + favorites + mentions, then large Twitter accounts are naturally likely to receive more engagement than smaller accounts, even if the smaller accounts follow the best practices of tweeting. 🙂

To control for the effect of followers, we used a similar approach used in Dan Zarrella’s awesome study of hashtags, measuring engagement per follower. Using this as a measure of engagement, rather than just retweets + favorites + mentions, helps control for different follower counts and levels the playing field for smaller Twitter accounts. 🙂

Further notes about the data

It was fun to look at a slice of tweets from the U.S. West Coast set of Buffer users. Here’s why we chose this particular dataset:

With 1 million tweets we were able do a lot of manipulation quite quickly with a sufficiently large sample size. (Most of the analysis was done on a single computer, and analyzing many millions of tweets on one machine could get quite slow. ) We would love to include many more millions of tweets in the dataset, so we’re looking into using some advanced technologies (Spark and the SparkR package) to scale the analysis. Stay tuned. 🙂

Among the limitations that occur with a dataset of this particular size and scope:

  • All results will be skewed toward the sharing habits of U.S., West Coast users.
  • Seventeen days of data provided a sufficiently large sample, though in the bigger picture it’s somewhat of a short timeframe. It’s possible that other takeaways could have been found if looking at a different or longer set of dates.
  • We did our best to analyze the data to account for differences in the size/following of a profile. We weren’t yet able to distinguish between different industries or topics (which we imagine could be quite a helpful next step for future studies).

Over to you

We’re incredibly grateful to share this data with you (and to have Lemonly’s help with the graphs and graphics), and we’re eager to hear your great thoughts.

Our previous data study had such amazing reactions in the comments. I’d love to be available to bounce around some ideas with you here as well.

What questions does this data bring up for you?

What insights might you take away?

What can we help to clarify or explain?

I’ll be hanging out in the comments along with our data scientist Julian to help with anything we can. Excited to chat this through with you!

Image source: IconFinder, UnSplash, Pablo, Lemonly

 

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Written by Kevan Lee

Director of marketing at Buffer, the social media publishing tool for brands, agencies, and marketers. We’ve got a new podcast! ?

  • Tons of great data here Kevan. Thanks so much for putting it together.

    Very intrigued by the data around most large accounts doing mostly link posts but many very large accounts doing non-link posts also.

    From what I’ve experienced, it seems most businesses still see social primarily as a tool to drive traffic to their site. The vast majority of their posts set out to do this. You often see them post nothing but links to their own sites. From talking with other social media marketers, it seems that while many know that they should be posting a mix of things, they first have to show others within their organization the value of their work by driving the traffic to the site that’s expected. Until they can do that, they don’t have the freedom to explore creating a better mix without as many self-serving posts to drive website traffic.

    It’s certainly a challenge. We want to show that the end product would be better if we can take the time to build a better community and create a more engaged audience we can meet those goals easier, but getting the buy-in to take the time to do so (as it’s a slower process) is difficult in a business setting where results are expected right now, not in 2 quarters.

    Really enjoying the dives into this type of data. Hope to keep seeing more of it.

  • Patricia Brenes

    Great post. I always use pix in my tweets and usually the same 2-3 hashtags of my field and I get many retweets. I also add a link to my blog post and rarely make make isolated comments because lack of time and also because my blog is serious but done on the side as a “hobby”, and I have a regular job, so don´t have time to post comments except maybe to followers on tweets I think are useful and to attract their attention in case they are not following me back.

  • Wow, great study! I cannot believe that 50% of tweets don’t have a single hashtag. I like to do about 3 myself, when I can. I’m also surprised that more than 40% of tweets include an image. I bet we’ll see that go up – it’s more effective, I think.

    Clearly, people use Twitter a lot to share links to other sources. This is great info to have, I’m glad I found this post!

  • I always enjoy your Twitter research Kevan & Buffer! I find it very surprising that over half of the tweets in this study had 1 or less hashtag. In looking at my own tweets, I use images, links, and hashtags on most of my tweets. Now that I’m looking at this data, I am thinking about less link tweets. It would be very interesting to see a larger time range and with accounts form different areas included too. 1 million is a pretty large sample size to start with though. Thanks again and have a fun Friday Kevan. Cheers! 🙂

  • Tweets without links getting more engagement makes perfect sense to me. After you have read a tweet without a link you’re done consuming and decide whether it’s worth being retweeted or favorited, so you easily do that. If there’s a link however, the tweet itself is incomplete and I, for example, wouldn’t retweet or favorite a link tweet without having read what’s behind the link, but often I’m too busy or lazy to read the linked content or it ends up in a background tab or read-it-later app and will be engaged upon later.

    • And if you do read what’s behind, chances are you won’t return to the original tweet and engage with it.

      • Yes, exactly, because often you may not even remember where it came from. If you see something interesting within Facebook you can add it to your saved links there and it will remember who posted it. Sadly there’s nothing similar for Twitter or other forms of social media, at least nothing I know of.

      • Y

        For certain brand’s POV, isn’t that the point? Get people to your content, on your site, engaging deeper. To some, that is way more valuable than a like. It’s closer to a conversion.

    • Well said! This is essentially the paradigm you have to face when trying to drive traffic to your site, but at the same time you’re also measuring engagement and want to raise both.

  • Keith Kovala

    Wonderful information but did notice a slight hiccup in the data presented. The “greatest pie chart” is shown as an example and shows up in the top 20 dataset below that tweet as well. However the tweet pictured is from May 16 which is outside the February 1-17 time frame the study is said to cover.

  • Great analysis! Really like the breakout of the follower tiers, give a lot of insight into what’s really going on.

  • Great info! Thanks. BTW, the link in this tweet mentioned above — When you’re playing wii, but then you have to go sing in the Super Bowl pic.twitter.com/orb1ml8aFZ — links to an “account suspended” page on Twitter.

  • Petra Diener

    Great info, thanks heaps! Some of it I knew and am practicing (#tag, images) but I was very surprised by the no-link engagement rate!

  • Those hashtag amounts start to get ridiculous, almost Instagram level.

  • Kelly Stilwell

    I didn’t see this addressed, and wonder, does it make sense to RT and then Quote Tweet? Perhaps with a break in between?

  • MCatherine

    Good to know. Thank you.

  • Camila Borghetti

    So, here is my question: Should Twitter have an edit option? I would use it a lot! Any thoughts? why not?

    • Omar Gatti

      I’d like to have one, if Twitter set a shot time limit to edit, so that the writer cannot change it’s tweet, confusing their readers

  • David Hunt

    Tweets with images get more engagement: does this only apply to tweets which specifically have an image uploaded (i.e. the tweet ends in pic.twitter.com…)?

    Or does it also include tweets with links where the link has the proper meta data to display as a summary card with large image?