Have Twitter users stopped clicking on links?

Responses that start with “saved you a click” or “I didn’t click the link, but …” are ubiquitous on social media, especially Twitter.

But more and more, some analytics show it’s becoming less a punchline and more a reality at a time when publishers aren’t as concerned with soft social metrics like engagement and are more focused on direct referral traffic.

Those link clicks can translate into subscriptions, aka direct consumer revenue.

While Twitter is neither Google nor Facebook for the Tribune, it remains a top 5 referrer source, and it’s something that we can control. It outstripped email alert link clicks 7-to-1 at the beginning of 2017. For all its trolls and troubles, it makes a difference, audience wise.

Unfortunately, the number of monthly link clicks on the Chicago Tribune’s primary Twitter account, @chicagotribune, have declined 40.88% from January 2017 to July 2018, according to Twitter Analytics data. And that’s after a rebound.

That’s a big decline in a fairly compressed window of time.

Now, there’s one obvious factor, but then it gets a little strange, so bear with me.

First and foremost, the Tribune’s methods and overall Twitter strategy have been consistent. It’s mostly the same great team giving you some of the best Twitter on Twitter.

But, over time, the frequency has lagged a bit. The Tribune is tweeting fewer times each day.

Obviously tweeting 10 fewer times a day has an impact on referral traffic over time.

But, I would expect other factors to mitigate this. For example, we’ve added 200,000 followers, even with the impact of the recent Twitter bot purge.

That growth should raise the potential audience for each tweet.

And, if you look at overall tweet interactions — the total number of retweets and likes on a tweet via CrowdTangle — it’s been volatile but certainly not in freefall.

Monthly interactions and link clicks are clearly walking separate paths.

Now, factoring in that follower growth, it’s not surprising that both average and median per tweet impressions — the number of the times the tweet has been seen — have been flat to up. More followers; more potential impressions. And since last September, it’s been just gains.

And again, I might expect an increase in engagement like link clicks. Not for every tweet, mind you, but en masse over time.

But this is where it gets strange. Despite average and median per tweet impressions rising since last September, link clicks continue to trend down. Even as followers have sharply increased and impressions are drifting up, the average and median link clicks per tweet have fallen. A lot.

There’s your freefall.

In January 2017, a tweet sent from @chicagotribune had an average of 193.71 link clicks and a median of 116 link clicks. We tweeted something; more than 100 people clicked on the link to watch/read it. (And I still prefer medians in social media strategy to attenuate the outliers.) By July of 2018, that same tweet had an average of 137.68 link clicks and a median of 68. That’s a tremendous loss of per-tweet efficacy — and overall audience.

So, while the decline in daily tweets plays a role in overall monthly link click decline, the per-tweet loss is a far more damning influence (10 lost tweets x 116 link clicks vs. 62 tweets x a 48 median link-click loss). But what I can’t figure out is why that’s happening.

Tweeting less won’t impact the result of each individual tweet. And followers are up and interactions and impressions are steady to up. I would assume impressions (potential audience) and link clicks would follow similar arcs. But those last two charts are far from mirror images.

So are we just in the TL;DR era of Twitter? Is any other publishers seeing this per tweet loss in median and/or average link clicks? Because beyond just the loss in overall referrer traffic, we’re all just a little worse off if no one clicks the link anymore.