Getting Started on Twitter

Twitter is clearly the Next Big Thing. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen CNN adopting it as a way of giving living feedback during their shows, celebrities from Britney Spears to Demi Moore opening accounts, and hundreds of thousands of new users join the ranks of Tweeters.

Businesses are getting into the Twitter game, too, using it as a way to provide near-instantaneous customer service, to promote their services, or to maintain brand awareness by staying engaged in ongoing conversations about their products and their competitors’.

We here at Lifehack have given plenty of advice about using Twitter effectively. Dozens of other sites have as well. But a lot of that advice has focused around principles for using Twitter, and often vague ones at that: join the conversation, don’t spam, add value, be helpful – that sort of thing. What’s missing is a guide to actually using Twitter, a “best practices” guide that will walk people and businesses through the process of building up a core of followers and beginning to build a reputation on Twitter. 

This is that guide. If you’re on Twitter just to keep up with friends and find the best parties, this guide isn’t for you. But if you’re looking to promote a business, build a brand, or keep up with your customers’ problems using Twitter, these 10 steps will get you through the early phases – and hopefully build up enough inertia to carry you through the next ones.

1. Sign Up.

You can’t win if you don’t play. Go to Twitter.com and sign up. Choose a good username – your name or some variation, or your company name. Avoid “cutesy” names (unless you have a “cutesy” brand) and names that are easily confused with someone else. Definitely avoid “AOL Disease”; that’s where every possible variation of your name is taken so you end up with your name and a string of digits after your name, like “dustin73948924” – if you have a common name, use a memorable and representative handle (but make sure you use it elsewhere as well, since you’re effectively [re-]branding yourself under this name). Make sure you post a link to your Twitter page on your blog, website, emails, and anywhere else you connect with people.

2. Download and Install Tweetdeck.

There are lots of Twitter clients out there, and of course you can use the website as well, but for business and branding use, Tweetdeck offers several features that make it the best choice. First of all, Tweetdeck is an Adobe AIR application, which means it runs on virtually every current major operating system. Second, Tweetdeck’s multi-column view lets you view a wide range of Twitter streams easily. Third, it allows you to create groups containing the tweets of a subset of all the people you follow, so you can separate out, say, business partners, clients, and suppliers. And finally, Tweetdeck has Twitter Search built in, and allows you to create permanent columns for each search term that are updated in more or less real-time. We’ll be using this last feature a lot in step 4.

3. Tweet 10 times.

You can tweet all at once, or over a few days, but before you do anything else, you should start getting a history built up on your profile page. The reason is that as you follow people, they’ll be checking you out, and many people won’t follow someone that doesn’t seem to be actively using Twitter – what’s the point? Your Twitter profile doesn’t say when you joined, so they have no way of knowing whether you’re brand new or possibly the worst Twitterer ever.

So put up a bunch of tweets right away. Make them good, but not fake – personal tweets are ok, as long as they’re substantive, but no two-word posts, or inane comments like “whee, this is fun”. And puh-LEASE avoid the urge to write “Is this thing on?” or “Checking out Twitter” as your first post. Everyone else does that.

4. Run three searches for your keywords.

At the top of Tweetdeck’s window is a strip of icons, one of which will say”Search” when you mouse over it. It looks like a magnifying glass. Click that and run a search on keywords relevant to your business or products. This is how you’ll follow (and join in on) conversations that are relevant to you, demonstrating your expertise while participating in the community. Tweetdeck creates a new column for each search – pick three keywords you think people are most likely to use to start with (you can also use phrases, just put them in quotes). For instance, if you’re Mountain Dew, you might search for “dew”, “thirsty”, and “extreme sports”. (You can always add more searches later – for now, while you’re getting started, stick to tree so you don’t get overwhelmed.)

5. Respond to 10 or more tweets.

If you’ve picked good keywords, you should have plenty of examples of people talking about your company, your product, your competitors, or things your audience is likely to be interested in. Pick 10 of them, hit reply (hover your mouse over the speaker’s avatar and click the “swoopy arrow” button (it will say “Reply To” when you mouse over it), and talk to them. Answer their question if they’ve asked one. Point them to a website or blog post they might be interested in (not necessarily your own).  Say how cool whatever they’ve linked to is. Ask your own question. Just generally, you know, talk to them. Like a person. NOT like a PR person, like a real one.

As you go through the next few steps, keep doing this – every day if you want, every few days or so at least.

6. Follow 100 people.

Now you have a track record of interesting, helpful things you’ve said – you make a pretty compelling person to follow. Some of the people you responded to in #5 will already have followed you, as well as some of your homepage visitors and others you’ve shared your link with. Now you want to wade into the general stream of Twitter conversation and make yourself known. So follow 100 people – that’s where the “magic” starts to happen with Twitter, and it’s a reasonable amount for a beginner to track.

How to find Twitterers worth following:

  • Check out your followers, and who’s following them.
  • Pick a couple of big names and look at who their followers are.
  • Use Twitter Groups to find groups of Tweeters organized by interest, place, or event.
  • Follow Mr. Tweet who will recommend Twitsters for you to follow based on it’s analysis of your Twitter stream.
  • Check out the top Twitterers overall, or by location, at Twitterholic.

7. Follow almost everyone back.

At this point in the game, it doesn’t pay to be too choosy about who you follow – you can always un-follow people later. There is a kind of etiquette to following and not following people – if you have few followers and someone follows you, it looks like a pretty big rejection if you choose not to follow back. On the other hand, once you have hundreds or thousands of followers, and especially when you’re already following hundreds of people, it looks more like good time management and less like a personal slap in the face when you don’t follow someone back. Of course, if they’re offensive in some way, use your own judgment, but the general rule should be “if they follow you, you follow them.”

Unless you change this in the settings, you’ll get an email every time someone follows you. And unless you’re insanely famous and can expect hundreds or thousands of new followers a day, I recommend you don’t change that setting.

8. Find at least 1 Tweet to respond to every day.

You’re following at least 100 people, you’ve got around 100 people following you, you’re watching and participating in conversations relevant to your company or brand – now you’re in maintenance. For a while at least, make sure you’re responding to at least one person from your keyword searches a day – these aren’t people you follow, so this is how you expand beyond your network of followers, and hopefully increase its size. It’s also how you build your reputation as an engaged, concerned expert. Which is the point.

Do as many as you feel like, but do it every day – you’re building up a habit here.

9. Post at least one “status update” every day.

Also post at least one fresh, interesting thing every day for a while – again, you’re building up a habit. Plus, you don’t want to appear to only respond to other people – you want to present yourself as an original voice in the Twitterverse, someone who makes waves and doesn’t just react to ripples.

10. Respond to almost every @reply or direct message.

If people care enough about you to contact you directly, show that you care about them by responding directly, in the same way they contacted you. That is, if they @replied to something you said, @reply to them back; if they privately direct messaged you, DM them back. You’re showing respect for your audience, engagement with the Twitter community, and hopefully your extensive knowledge and compassion. All of which beat a stick in the eye.

Bonus tip: Enjoy yourself.

Twitter is, first and foremost, a social environment. People use it to have fun. And they tend to be very good at sniffing out insincerity, PR-speak, and all-around social selfishness. If you’re not having fun, turn your Twitter account over to someone in your organization who will – or hire someone, if you have to. Twitter is not an advertising platform (yet?) and it is not a broadcasting platform – it’s a conversation platform, or better yet, an interaction platform. Interact genuinely and unselfishly – just like you’d like people to see you and your business.

As you walk through these steps, your competence will grow and you can add more searches, follow more people, and tweet more. These tips are meant to get you steadily to about 300-700 followers – after that, your only limit is the size of  the audience for your niche or niches that use Twitter, and your own creativity. Remember, your niche is more than just your product’s users or potential clients – try to connect with people who live and work in your city, whose share interests with you, or even just people whose tweets you like – that’s how you’ll build your audience and, hopefully, your clientele.

Good tweeting!

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