"oh this is going to be addictive" – Dom Sagolla, Twitter co-creator
What is this Twitter thing?
For the sake of all the Twitter virgins here’s the bare bones description (though to be honest, you need to use Twitter to ‘get it’):
Using Twitter is like producing a public diary of your thoughts and activities; but where each diary entry is only 140 characters long and is called a Tweet.
If you are familiar with Facebook – there are similarities. You can post notes (or Tweets as they are called on Twitter) and follow your friends’ notes and add replies or comments to those notes.
You can send direct messages to your followers.
Twitter gives you access to the thoughts and activities of people you know and people you don’t know. People you don’t know can be celebrities, sports stars, writers, politicians or anyone who has a Twitter account. So if it interests you, you can follow the thoughts and musings of the writer and comedian Stephen Fry or the singer songwriter Roseanne Cash.
Twitter lives in real time
It’s the ‘real-time’ aspect of Twitter that sets it apart from more ‘traditional’ blogging and social networking tools.
For example, Twitter aggregates and analyses Tweets almost as quickly as they are posted – and this both reveals trends in what people are talking about ‘right now’ – and provides a running commentary on events.
Those events could be the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising or – at a more mundane level – reactions to what the stars are wearing at the Oscars.
As a Tweeter you can join in the conversion about a particular hot topic by writing your own Tweets and responses.
Twitter on the TV
Tweeting while watching a television programme has become a popular pastime; using ‘hashtags’ you can see what your friends are saying about the events you are all watching.
Several TV programmes are now displaying hashtags as part of their opening sequences, e.g. #laterjools, #bbcfilm2011 and #bbcf1. Both Film 2011 and the F1 read out Tweets from viewers as part of their discussion.
Don’t worry if you don’t know what a hashtag is, we will explain hashtags later in this book.
Twitter, it seems, has gone mainstream; so now’s a good time to learn how it works and how it might work for you.
What is Twitter good for?
It is the very features outlined above that can make Twitter a valuable tool for any organisation.
At the most basic level it is:
A real-time message board for what you are doing.
A way to get reactions to your questions and activities.
A way to do market research.
A way to talk directly to the people in your target market.
A way to follow your competitors or funders’ thoughts and ideas.
A way to comment in real time at conferences and events.
A way to find new members or new funders.
A way to market and advertise your organization.
In essence, you can use Twitter to build stronger links with your existing network, find new members for that network and market your organisation.
Twitter for SEO
Evidence is growing which demonstrates that Twitter can also help with your search ranking. An experiment by SEOmoz (http://mz.cm/v8Vaix ) appeared to indicate that a link from a Tweet was a more powerful influencer of Google’s organic rankings than the same link from a website.
They admit that the results of their unscientific survey cannot be considered proof – but there certainly seems to be some evidence that Google rankings can be influenced by Twitter use.
Examples of how Twitter has been used
Twitter is a unique real-time service, here are some examples of how it has been used:
For meeting people with the same interests as you
If you are a Gibson guitar enthusiast you can join the other 375,285 (at time of writing) enthusiasts who follow the Tweets of the Gibson guitar company. If that’s your bag, you are instantly plugging into a community of people who want to discuss Gibson guitars.
To report your thoughts during an event
Twitter first made the news during the 2007 South By Southwest conference (SXSW) – when attendees Tweets were displayed live – as they scrolled down a large screen. (SXSW is an annual festival of music, technology and film based in Austin Texas).
This caught the attention of the many blogs and online news websites who felt compelled to spread the word about this strange new ‘txt like’ tool called Twitter.
Apart from the ‘wow’ factor for conference organisers and attendees, Tweeting from an event allows attendees to share their insights and lessons directly with their followers.
For promoting websites and blogs
With the tool Twitterfeed (www.twitterfeed/) you can automatically have your blog posts posted to your Twitter feed. Promoting your blog and your website in the process.
For breaking news
Over the last few years there has been no shortage of examples of Twitter being the initial source of breaking news stories.
Notable examples include the 2009 protests after the national elections in Iran, the New York plane crash (i.e. ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’; the first Tweet was four minutes after the plan hit the water) or the Egyptians protesting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011.
Twitter has also been used to short circuit official news channels allowing individuals to communicate their experiences directly without having them filtered by newspapers or television. This proved to be a significant factor during events such as the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising.
As a search engine
One way to think of Twitter is as a continually updating search engine; real people tweeting about real events.
Do you want to know what people are saying about a film you are thinking of going to see, or what people think is the best tasting Whisky, or what other people think of the song you are listening to – just try tweeting your questions. It might come up blank, or – more likely – you will find some inspiring answers.
For brand monitoring
As mentioned earlier, it is now possible to search Twitter pretty much in real time. This is an amazing computing achievement if you think about it, as there are something like 230 million Tweets a day.
So if someone on the other side of the world is saying something complimentary about you, or your organisation, you can find it and reply.
Conversely of course, if someone is saying something bad about you, it is important you know about this too so that you can manage the situation. See Handling Negative Feedback later in this book.
Brand monitoring can really help you connect to people at exactly the right time. There are many examples of brands and organisations doing this successfully.
A small charity "The Forces Children’s Trust" used Twitter monitoring tools to become aware of influential businessman and Dragons Den star Duncan Bannatyne praising the charity’s founder on Twitter. Within days the charity secured Duncan as a patron.
Not having any brand monitoring can be disastrous. If United Airlines had had some form of monitoring in place, it would have noticed the YouTube video "United breaks guitars" produced by Dave Carroll.
Unhappy with the baggage handling of the airline after a trip in 2008, he wrote a song that became an internet sensation. By the time United responded, the video had been viewed 10 million times, and 10% had been knocked off the share price of United amounting to a $180 million loss for shareholders.
You don’t want to spend the whole day typing in searches to search.twitter.com though. This is where integrated services like Hootsuite or Social Sprout come into their own. You can set up searches, which are monitored throughout the day and collated for you.
There are also excellent stand alone monitoring services, like ViralHeat.com that will send you a daily summary of social mentions from across the web.
For helping musicians
Twitter is awash with musicians Tweeting about their concerts, their recordings experiences and their drinking and eating habits.
Twitter seems to be a natural home of both the one man or woman band (building a career one Tweet a time) and the million selling pop superstar (http://popstarsontwitter.com/pop/).
For marketing a business
Twitter is being used as a serious marketing tool by both large and small businesses. The entrepreneur Nigel Botterill reports on his Entrepreneur’s Circle website that #250,000 of his company’s bottom line in 2010 was down to their strategic use of Twitter.
As a non-profit organisation you might think that business use of Twitter isn’t relevant to you; however looking at how others are using Twitter can give you great ideas. Here are some notable examples:
Dell is famous for having made great use of Twitter. They were one of the first businesses to open a Twitter account (http://twitter.com/delloutlet) which they used to to promote special deals on their equipment. As far back as 2008, Dell reported that its Twitter account had generated over a million dollars in revenue. Not bad, I say.
The Marriott Hotel Chain has been on Twitter since 2007 when John Wolf, the senior director of public relations started his first Tweet. Currently they have 156,662 followers and they use Twitter to communicate with customers, retweet customers who say nice things about them (they clearly use one of those brand monitoring services we mentioned earlier) and of course publicise their latest offers.
Best Buy has more than 2000 people dedicated to customer support via social media platforms such as Twitter (@twelpforce), Facebook and online forums. That’s a big commitment; Best Buy have clearly decided that Twitter isn’t a fad and that it has serious benefits for their business.
Twitter is great for introducing customers to the real person (or people) behind a company or organisation, as well as the usual stuff of launching new products and getting website traffic.
For voluntary sector organisations and non-profit groups
Twitter is perfect for Voluntary Sector Organisations and local charities. Whether you want to network with the wider community or ‘spread the word about your good works’ it’s a good place to be.
Charities can Tweet that they need more volunteers, need more donors or want more people to join management committee.
Put your requests on Twitter and there is a good chance somebody will pick up on it, and pass it on (i.e. Retweet it). Good news could be just one Tweet away.
Ok, I’m sure you get the picture, but before we finish this section, let’s have a quick look at the theory behind why Twitter, and social networking in general, can be so powerful.
A wee bit of theory: what’s so special about social networks?
Bear with us as we delve into the maths of networks; understanding these simple concepts can help you use them to your advantage.
Social networks are a special type of network as defined by mathematicians – a "small world" network, made so by the existence of random connections.
In a regular network, with highly ordered connections, you can see that the number of "hops" from one dot to another can be quite high. Try it now – how many hops it takes you to get from the top dot to the bottom dot in picture (a)?
In picture (b) all we have done is make some of the connections random, rather than to their nearest neighbour. This changes connectivity dramatically and many long connections become dramatically shorter. How many hops between the same two dots now?
This shortening is a characteristic of small world and also social networks. It has been the basis of much study, and popularised by the "Six degrees of Kevin Bacon" game, where it has been shown that in the huge pool of 1.5 million living actors, the number of links via movies from any one actor to Kevin Bacon is no more than 6. Try it here – it’s really quite amazing (http://oracleofbacon.org/).
What does all this mean? Social networks are interesting as it’s the random connections that give them their magic, reducing distances from one person to another.
Some people advise "targeting" people when using social media. For example, you might target people who are highly influential in your field. Yes, this is a valid strategy, but there is a lesson to be learned from the above diagrams; and that it is also important to make random connections that – unbeknownst to you – lead to the vital connection that can make a big difference to you or your organisation.
Twitter is already being used successfully by lots of individuals and organisations. You can follow their example.
It is unique, because everything happens in real-time.
It as a search engine – again with unique qualities based on its real-time nature.
You can use it to build stronger relationship with your existing network.
It can be part of your search optimisation strategy.
It allows you to get news as it happens and before it is filtered through the editorial process of the media.
You can use it to network with like-minded people.
You can use it to monitor your brand using free tools.
In short, you can use Twitter to get new ideas, build stronger links with your existing network, find new members for that network and market your organisation.