Unless you’ve neglected to turn on a TV, pick up a newspaper or listen to the radio in the last couple of years, you already know that Twitter is a pretty big deal. Since its creation in 2006 by American software architect Jack Dorsey, the site has clocked up an impressive 175 million users posting over 95 million ‘tweets’ per day. The magnitude of a newsworthy event is now measured not only by the amount of airtime or page space devoted to it by mainstream media, but by the amount of ‘tweets per second’ it generates on the site. With all manner of celebrities, politicians and businesses signed up to Twitter, it certainly seems as though anyone who is anyone (and everybody else besides) is getting in on the act. But what exactly is Twitter and what is it for?
Simply put, Twitter is a digital medium that allows you to create a unique stream of content with the aim of sharing it with your ‘followers’ whilst you in turn follow those of others. This stream of content, known as a ‘timeline’, is made up of bite-sized pieces of information known as ‘tweets’, each of which has a character limit of 140. The idea was born during a day-long brainstorming session at Odeo Inc., a little-known podcasting company fighting to redefine itself in a marketplace soon to be dominated by Apple. Dorsey, having only been at the company for only one month, had a previous background of dispatch system development for emergency service teams, who were constantly reporting back with information about where they were and what they were doing. At the time, SMS messaging was at its height in popularity and Dorsey wanted to extend his previous work and bring it into a more social context based on the new SMS format. And so Twitter was born.
Many of the site’s detractors believe that Twitter encapsulates everything that is wrong with a generation of people obsessed with communication technologies but seemingly unable to hold a decent face-to-face conversation. People with short attention spans and an acute inability to process even small amounts of information constructively and who are rather more concerned with sharing what their dog had for breakfast that day. It’s certainly true that a sizeable section of Twitter users are intent on sharing with the world the banal minutaie of their lives. Some of us may even admit that there’s a subtle charm in knowing that Britney Spears is just as afraid of going to the dentist as we are. But the fact remains that Dorsey’s original premise of Twitter being about sharing where we are and what we’re doing has evolved for the majority of users into the quickest and most effective way of interacting with people across the world about our most specific interests. For many, it has become a crucially important way of engaging with their business market, audience or even electorate.
Getting the best out of what Twitter has to offer is mostly about knowing which of its features and functions are most important, as well as how to use them of course. The first question you need to ask yourself in order to do this is why you want to use it. It may be a simple matter of curiosity given the number of times it’s referenced in the media, or you might want to explore how it can improve your business; whatever the reason, it boils down to finding the people who interest you and engaging in a form of dialogue. Creating your profile on Twitter is very much like getting ready for a party when the party itself is the only invitation; the image you project is what will attract and retain your followers. A good username doesn’t just state who you are, it is the name that anyone interacting with you will have to insert into their own 140 character limited tweets, so it’s important not to make it too long. If you are creating a profile for your business, you must make sure that the business name matches closely with the username – if your followers try to find you online after initially becoming interested through other forms of marketing, it will be cumbersome and perhaps even impossible for them to find you otherwise. Your biography is your first opportunity to attract new followers and you have just 160 characters in which write one that best describes you, so you must be succinct. A good biography will make clear whether you are tweeting in a personal or professional capacity and offer a very few defining characteristics of the person or business it represents. If it’s a very good biography it may even attract followers who engage in Search Engine Optimisation marketing.
SEO is the process of improving a website’s visibility in search engines so that you can find people who type in key words relevant to your specific interests more easily. Many organisations signed up to Twitter use some form of SEO to find and target their specific customer base.
Twitter markets itself with the slogan ‘join the conversation’ and that’s essentially the aim of its users – to start and join conversations about topics that are important to them, whatever the purpose of it is. Choosing whom to follow is a very important step to gaining the type of followers that you in turn want to acquire. To start with, choose a few people who interest you, whether it’s your friends, celebrities or even the places you like to shop. Whatever it is you want to ‘talk’ about or ‘listen’ to relating to a certain topic, simply enter it into the search field and Twitter will return with a list of tweets about it as well as people who are so passionate about it that they’ve used some or all of the words you’ve entered as their username. Decide whether you think that what they’re tweeting about is interesting. If you think it is, then follow them. Your next step is to take a look at whom the people you are following are in turn choosing to follow themselves. It is virtually impossible not to gain followers by doing this. And you will find that the people who you start to follow will by and large share at least some of the same interests as you do. Once you have gained followers ensure that you retain them by being a respectful Tweeter; always reference appropriately when retweeting so that the original gets their due credit, message followers directly if you can when they first start following you and look out for emerging customs and traditions such as Follow Fridays (#FF) or Charity Tuesdays (#charityTuesday) that will allow you to recommend fellow users to your followers.
Once you’ve seen some of the interesting things that people are talking or ‘tweeting’ about, it most probably won’t take you very long to want to create your own conversation that people will want to follow. To do this, you’ll need to learn some of the basic technical functions of tweeting, and the best way to do that (and also a crucial part of socialising is to take part in other conversations as well as creating your own and listening to others) is to join some other conversations. The @ symbol and the art of proper retweeting are the best places to start and a great way to ease into finding your own twitter voice.
So let’s say that you are now following a number of people you find interesting on Twitter. One of them starts talking about something you are very passionate about and you want to voice your thoughts on the matter. The best way to do so is to start off your tweet with the person’s username prefaced by the ‘@’ symbol. This automatically turns your tweet into a message that will appear in their ‘mentions’ tab, and anyone who looks at their full profile will be able to see what you have said, although it won’t appear in the feed that appears to their followers.
If someone has tweeted about something in a particularly interesting way, or you just want to pass on the words of someone you are a fan of to your own followers, then retweeting is probably the easiest way of doing so. You can do this one of two ways – either with a simple click of the retweet option at the bottom of the tweet or, if you want to add your own comment or label to it, then you can copy and paste the entire tweet. If you choose the latter it’s very important to make sure you reference the original author of the tweet by mentioning their full @username, prefixed by RT: (which stands for retweet).
Once you’ve got to grips with the basics you might want to start sharing interesting blogs or web pages with your followers. All you usually need to do is copy the URL (which is the www. address of the website you would like to share) and paste it into Twitter. However, the 140 character limit doesn’t always allow enough space for the whole link to be shared. A URL shortener, such as bit.ly or Google’s goo.gl, into which you copy your link and it will automatically shorten it for you. Just copy it and paste into your tweet and you’re ready to go.
One of the most interesting functions of Twitter is the hashtag. When you see your new homepage you will notice the ‘trending’ section, which will show you the most popular subjects that people on Twitter are talking about around the world. If you only want to see what’s most popular in your city, then you can change the setting. By entering a hash # symbol in front of any word or phrase in your tweet, a link is created to a page containing all the posts on Twitter with that same hashtag. It’s a way of finding out what everyone on the site is saying about that particular subject. For example, if you’ve just watched a great movie and you want to tell everyone about it you could tweet ‘#moviename’ and whatever you have to say about it, then once you’ve tweeted it you can click on the link your hashtagged movie has now created and you will have joined the conversation about that movie!
By getting to grips with these basic Twitter techniques, it’s very unlikely that the tangible benefits you discover won’t justify the media hype surrounding the site. Savvy businesses have used Twitter to involve their target market in business processes, getting opinions on what they think works and what doesn’t. If you’re starting a new venture, what better place to find the experts who can help and advise you on how to make a good start? Follow @TartanTantrum