Should you use Twitter? The only honest answer is… “maybe.” The social network and microblogging platform is a media darling, and allows users to engage in meaningful, interesting conversations with people (“tweeps”) all over the world.
But it isn’t for everyone.
What is Twitter, and why should I care?
Twitter started out as a way for people to blog about their lives, in short bursts (that is, 140 characters at a time). That meant instead of writing beautiful, polished, five-paragraph blog posts, they could update interested parties as thoughts came to them rather than wait until they were able to sit down and compose something. In those early, heady days, people used Twitter primarily as a one-way bully pulpit, expounding on their philosophies, or maybe just sharing what they had for lunch. That got old, fast.
Eventually, the early adopters shaped and molded the platform into something more interactive and interesting. These days, though you will still find those who use Twitter as a one way broadcast channel, most users, who really want to get the most out of it, engage in conversations, share knowledge (via links), and build relationships. It has become a social network in its own right (which is why Facebook has morphed to be more like Twitter, actually).
Even if you have no intention of sharing the minutiae of your existence, following people on Twitter is an effective way of knowing what’s going on in the world. Especially your world. If you’re a thought leader in your industry (or aspire to be one), if you own or run a business, if you want a conduit to what people are talking about — or if you’re very, very lonely — following conversations on Twitter can provide you with lots of insight, interaction, and even some laughs. And if you really want to know what people are saying about your business, or maybe even about you, you need to track Twitter.
Here’s how it works:
1. Go to twitter.com and create an account. It’s easy.
2. Start tweeting before you begin to follow too many people. That way, you’ll have a chance to create the personality of your Twitter stream before people come across your profile.
3. Find people to follow. Start with the folks you know (you can allow Twitter to take a look at your address book, then follow the folks you want to follow). After that, search Twitter for keywords that are relevant to you, finding out who’s saying what, and following the tweeps who you find engaging. You might be drawn into a conversation yourself.
There are four basic types of twitter updates (or tweets):
The standard tweet is just you saying or sharing something. It can be an update about your life, a link to something you wrote (or read), a question for the masses, whatever. It’s a one-way broadcast.
-If you want to have the best breakfast, ever, order the Eggs Ponchartrain from Lucile’s.
-Does anyone know where I might be able to find a good Facebook application developer?
-We’re excited to announce a whole slew of speaking engagements! (link)
The Direct Message (aka DM)
A direct message goes directly to the person you’re addressing. It is not public. It’s kind of like sending an IM or a text message to a friend. To send a direct message, type the letter “d” plus the Twitter handle of the person you’re addressing, then write your message. You can’t send a direct message to someone who’s not already following you.
-D @elephantjournal I think this article is going to be longer than we planned.
The @reply (also known as a “mention”)
This is a public message addressed to one or more Twitterers. It’s an alternative to the direct message, but everyone can see it. This is a great way to engage in public discussion via Twitter. All you do is use the Twitter handle in your message, preceded by the @sign.
–@dalbee I can’t get your mother to stop calling me. From Jail. Please go bail her out.
-@meadrat Thanks for bringing me that dirty chai from @starbucks this morning!
The Retweet (or RT)
The retweet is a powerful way of showing other Twitter users that you value what they’ve put out there. You’re sharing their content with your followers. It’s kind of like an email forward. You are furthering the message that someone else sent. “RT” is shorthand for retweet. Make sure you keep the original tweep’s handle in the message.
There are, basically, two conventions for retweets:
-RT @GeorgeGSmithJr: When someone says “I’m not book smart, but I’m street smart” all I hear is “I’m not real smart, but I’m imaginary smart.”
-When someone says “I’m not book smart, but I’m street smart” all I hear is “I’m not real smart, but I’m imaginary smart.” (via @GeorgeGSmithJr)
If you’d like to add a comment, you can put it before the retweet, or after:
-Interesting article. RT @mgellman: What’s in a new logo? – http://tinyurl.com/kqpju5
-RT @mgellman: What’s in a new logo? – http://tinyurl.com/kqpju5 [Wow, that’s cool!]
Retweets and @replies are the currency of Twitter — they demonstrate that you’re an active participant in the community. Use them generously.
Okay, but what should I tweet?
When I talk to Twitter neophytes, I often hear, “I feel intimidated. Why would anyone care what I had for lunch? I don’t know what to tweet.”
To that, my answer is this, “Who cares if anyone cares what you had for lunch?”
Tweet whatever you want to tweet, and the followers will come (or they won’t). Or they’ll leave (or they’ll stay). Don’t worry about it.
Granted, if you are doing Twitter updates under a brand/corporate account, you should stick to gems of relevance and conversation. Tweet about your company, about relevant news, about recent blog posts or special offers, but also make sure you’re building a personality for your Twitter profile, and are engaging in conversation.
But if it’s just you, and you’re building a following for your blog or your consulting biz, or just because it’s fun to post Twitter updates, then enjoy yourself and don’t worry too much about how many followers you get. If you want to tweet about an article you just read, go for it. If you want to tweet about the jerk who just cut you off in traffic, do it (when you get to the next red light, right?).
My favorite Twitterers are the ones who mix in the personal with the professional, the provoking with the prosaic. Don’t forget that your @replies and re-tweets — that is, the way you interact with the Twitter community — are exponentially more important than what you tweet about yourself.
More and more, our professional and personal lives are becoming fully-integrated existences. We have friends AND bosses on Facebook. Our clients, our competitors, and our families follow us on Twitter. I see this integration as a healthy way to minimize our increasingly ragged souls, struggling each day to reconcile the multiple threads and tribes across our life experiences. Be who you are.
A few more helpful hints:
–Don’t be offended if someone doesn’t follow you back. In the old days of Twitter (aka 2007), it was customary to courtesy follow anyone who’d begun following your tweets. And, certainly, it doesn’t hurt to do so. But you’re under no obligation to follow a follower. Unless you’re at the exponential level, the number of followers you have is less important than the quality of conversations you’re able to manage and respond to. There’s no intrinsic value for a corporate twitterer, or even a professional selling real estate locally, to have a passel of random followers if he or she isn’t able to somehow give them a reason to pay attention.
–Shorten any URLs you use. Use a service like TinyURL, for instance, in order to fit more content into your 140 character message.
-Find yourself a good Twitter client (that is, a desktop application that will simplify your life exponentially). You can always use Twitter from the website, but it’s easier and more fun to track your friends via something like TweetDeck or Seesmic.
-Don’t be afraid. Have some fun. Start a conversation, ask a question, tell a joke. Find your voice in Twitter, find some interesting conversations, and you will soon be as addicted as the rest of us. (Feel free to follow me, if you can put up with it: @datingdad).
Eric Elkins is the boss at WideFoc.us Corp, a Denver-based social media strategy agency serving small businesses, consumer brands, agencies, and global corporations. He’s also the Dating Dad. Eric’s young adult novel, “Ray, reflected,” will be released this spring by Ghost Road Press. His favorite cocktail is the dirty Ketel martini.