Twitter: A Brief Overview
Twitter is a service that allows people to communicate in very short messages, which are known as Tweets. (Both "Twitter" and "Tweet" are trademarks of Twitter, Inc.) Tweets are limited to 140 characters, including letters, numbers, spaces, punctuation, and so forth. Tweets can be sent from, and displayed on, the Twitter Web site directly, as well as on mobile phones and many other interfaces. The limitation to 140 characters arises from the origins of Twitter as a way to use SMS text messaging on mobile phones as a way to send and receive Tweets.
Twitter has been adopted by a very large number of people for purposes ranging from reporting breaking news to simply sharing details of daily life. Many organizations now use Twitter to keep in touch with customers, donors, members, audiences, and more. The purpose of this article is to help your organization begin using Twitter to help achieve your organization's goals. This article assumes you have not yet started using Twitter.
First Step: Plan Ahead
While it might seem that creating a Twitter account would be your first step, that's a bit like picking up a movie camera to create a movie without a script. Instead, you want to plan ahead. The following items should be planned, or at least sketched out, before you sign up for Twitter.
- Decide who will be in charge of managing the organization's Twitter account. It will be up to your organization to decide how formal this process should be, but generally speaking the number of people directly using the Twitter account should be limited to a small number, possibly just one person. It is not necessary for the person(s) to have Twitter experience, although that will help. The person(s) should be available, and plan, to check for replies on Twitter at least once per day, ideally including weekends (or at least Saturdays).
- Pre-plan 8 to 10 topics to get started. This can include announcements, statements about your organization's mission, pointers to online resources, etc. The purpose of planning 8 to 10 items is to allow you to post, at a minimum, one Tweet per week for a couple months. That will help establish the organization's account as being worth following. Having more activity in that time frame is definitely advisable; if you can manage at least one Tweet per day, your organization will be much better off. However, those 8 to 10 initial topics do not need to be limited to one Tweet each, so you might have enough for daily Tweets with just those 8 to 10 topics.
- Draft at least one Tweet for each of your starting topics. This can be done in a text editor, word processor, or other software from which you can easily cut and paste text. Make sure each Tweet is no longer than 140 characters. Drafting these Tweets in advance will help "train" you to think in short messages.
Second Step: Learn Some Twitter-ese
Twitter users have adopted a variety of "standard" ways of doing things, and Twitter has taken some of those and built features around them. Here is a quick list:
- Follow — when you subscribe to Tweets from another Twitter user, you are "following" them (likewise, they are "following" you if they subscribe to your Tweets).
- @ — when you put @ in front of a Twitter user's username in your Tweet, like @JPPI, it will turn the username into a link to that user's Twitter account.
- Mentions/Replies — when you reply to a Tweet, Twitter will automatically use the @ notation mentioned above to begin your reply. If you use that notation in Tweet that is not a reply, it is called a "mention."
- # — when you put # in front of a word (or string of words), you create a "hashtag" for that word. Twitter will turn the hashtag into a link that will allow searching for other Tweets with the same hashtag. This is a way of grouping Tweets by topic. For example, if you regularly Tweet to inform people of new press releases, you might include a hashtag like #press or #PressRelease in each Tweet that announces a press release.
- Retweet — when you repeat a Tweet posted by somebody else, this is called a "retweet." You can do this by using the Retweet feature provided by Twitter; or, some people prefer to start a retweet with "RT " and the @username of the person who posted the original Tweet. For example, if the user JPPI posts the Tweet "It's a wonderful Monday!" you could manually retweet it with the Tweet: "RT @JPPI: It's a wonderful Monday!"
Step Three: "Prepare Your Mind"
Twitter is part of the global Internet, and the Internet can be a "wild frontier" at times. The apparent anonymity of the Internet can bring out some negative elements from the world's population. You may experience people who are greedy, angry, crazy, immoral, criminal, etc., just as you may experience people who are giving, cheerful, wise, etc. Remember that what you Tweet can be read by anybody anywhere, so you never want to stoop to the level of those who try to cause trouble. Your Tweets represent your organization, so remain professional at all times. Block spammers without comment, do not engage in pointless arguments, and find a balance between giving thoughtful answers to people with valid concerns and ignoring those who are just trying to cause problems.
Step Four: Create Account, Follow, and Tweet
Now it's time to go to Twitter.com and create your organization's account.
- Click the large "Sign Up" button on the Twitter.com site and submit the short sign-up form.
- Twitter will walk you through the process of setting up the account, by helping you find other users to follow (by topic, and from among your existing contacts, and by searching), but you can skip that for now if you wish. However, it is a good idea to follow other users, as this will help them discover you! (Do not overdo this, however, as that is considered spam and can cause your account to be blocked.)
- Confirm your account via the confirmation message that Twitter sends to your email address.
- If you followed other users during the initial account setup, their Tweets will appear in your Twitter Home page (the page that appears when you click the Home link while logged in). Skim through their updates to see what they've posted recently.
- Click the Settings link in the upper-right, and go to the Profile section where you can upload a small photo or logo, enter your organization's Web site address, and provide a brief description of your organization in the "Bio" field. Save your settings when you're done.
- Click the Home link and enter your first Tweet in the box under the What's Happening label.
Final (and Repeating) Step: Stay Active!
Twitter accounts, whether for individuals or organizations, will not build a significant audience if they appear to be extremely new or abandoned. The way to avoid this is to stay active! Keep the following in mind:
- Use your 8-10 initial topics as a guideline, but don't feel locked in. If conversations lead in other directions, follow the (relevant) directions your followers want! You can return to those topics later if other conversations die down.
- Post a new Tweet at least every week. Even better, post a new Tweet every day or several times each day. Don't re-use Tweets or re-hash content, though, because nobody wants to read the same thing over and over (and it would make you look like a spammer).
- You can see replies to your organization, and mentions of your organization's Twitter account, by clicking on the @username link on the right when you are logged in to Twitter. For example, if your Twitter username was JPPI, you would click @JPPI to see all Tweets that are replies to, or mentions of, the @JPPI account. Check this regularly, so that you can engage in conversations while they are still fresh in the other users' minds.
- Regularly look for new, relevant Twitter users to follow. Remember, you don't have to read every single Tweet of every single user you follow! Again, do not do this excessively. If you only have a couple followers and you are following hundreds of other users, it will make your account look like a spammer account.
- From time to time, change your background, account description, etc. to keep things fresh for your longer-term followers.
- Have fun! Twitter users aren't there to read stiff, dull sound bites, so try to keep things casual while still preserving a professional appearance.
Twitter can be a valuable resource for your organization. The overall costs are very low and the benefits can be quite high. Many individuals and organizations use Twitter on a regular basis, giving you a potentially very large audience. Don't hesitate to get involved! With the easy preparation described in this article, you should be able to use Twitter to help fulfill your organization's goals.