The jay. Be careful which blue birds you invite.
Your mileage on this post may vary, but the scenario I’m assuming is of a small or medium-sized company or organization where the interactive department (or equivalent) gets orders to evaluate Twitter as a customer service, marketing, or public relations tool. You’re in the implementor’s chair, but beyond the broad directive, you’re writing your own action items. Another post will address how this stage in social media adoption can be sped along using a variety of tools (for orgs who are ready to commit today), but for now I assume you’re simply using your web browser and maybe a simple browser-based Twitter client like Twitterfox.
How do you proceed?
- Sorry, the names ‘Cauliflower,’ ‘CauliTweet,’ ‘Cauliflower Marketing,’ and ‘eGreenCauliflower’ are taken.
1. Secure user names.
Organizations that commit to Twitter will end up with multiple user names. Figure out which ones you need, the same way you’d plan to buy up domain names when building a web site. If you might use Twitter for multiple company functions (e.g., customer service and marketing), consider creating distinct Twitter accounts for different areas.
In the later stages, assigning Twitter user names within an organization turns into an IT exercise, but for now, that’s not your job. Just get the accounts you’re sure you’ll need, and move on to step two.
If you’re reading this post and thinking, “Sure, I’ll do this three or six months from now,” I strongly advise you to do at least this step first, now. If you want to do the other steps in six months, fine, but Twitter’s namespace is getting tight. Get your names today, even if you’re not sure yet how you’ll be using them. In the future, I’ll post some thoughts on Twitter’s namespace problem and how it can be improved (by Twitter) or worked around (by the rest of us).
2. Create profiles.
Twitter is very useful as a referring site. Tweeting regularly will bring visitors to whatever URL you use in your Twitter profile. Choose this URL carefully. Companies with more than one account might want the URLs in their profiles to link to different places on their web sites.
You get to be creative here, too. Choose a background image and user icons. Make sure your icon isn’t just mud in the tiny 6×6 grid view that display’s a person’s followers on their profile. Don’t be boring with the background image (but don’t make it an eyesore, either). Twitter (and to some extent its users) still have a somewhat quirky quality, a seeming outgrowth of Web 2.0 culture. Play to this; be interesting (simply being interesting will still get you a lot of follows in this medium). If your annual reports are your org in a suit, Twitter should probably be where it puts on its party clothes.
Finally, don’t leave your bio blank. If you’re not a writer, get a copywriter to fill this out for you, or simply wing it. Put something there, even if it’s not poetry or a concise mission statement. It’s baffling how many people and organizations fail to do this, because not filling out your bio is a great way to ensure that no one follows you back.
- Social media is a bazaar, not a cathedral.
3. Follow people in your industry.
Start by following people who are in your industry but aren’t competitors. I work in travel, so the first people I began following were non-competitive travel sites, travel bloggers, vendors, and journalists. Every vertical out there is finding its own way of using Twitter right now, and these initial follows can teach you a lot.
Next, go ahead and follow competitors. Most of my employer’s competitors follow us on Twitter; they want to see what we’re doing. Watch their tweets, and consider how to improve on and/or one up them.
Why follow your competitors? There are a few reasons.
First, if you’re just trying Twitter out, you don’t want to monitor six different accounts. If you can watch their Tweets with minimal effort, you’re ahead.
Second, following other orgs in your vertical causes you to show up on their followers page, meaning followers you want can potentially find you from your competitors’ profiles.
Third, and maybe most importantly, it displays confidence. Anyone with a few dozen functional brain cells can find your competitors on the internet with ease. Following the competition not only shows that you’re plugged into your industry and well-versed in what the competition is up to; it shows that you believe your product or service to be a superior offering.
4. Follow your customers & prospects.
If you have a customer e-mail list from which to work, this step is easy, but it’s also fraught with opportunities to look more like the Blue Jay of Noisiness than the Blue Bird of Happiness. My advice here comes down to one simple idea: keep your following-to-followers ratio low. When I see that someone is following 1,000+ people and only has 49 followers, I ignore them. Following too many people at once can trigger a spam investigation by Twitter and/or account suspension. If you’ve locked down the ideal user name for your company, this is the last thing you want to have happen.
Quick Guide to the Find People Screen
Click on Find People at the top right of your twitter.com screen. This takes you to a screen with the title, “Find People. Follow them.” The first tab, Find on Twitter is only useful for finding individual users. We’ll ignore that for now. Click on the Find on Other Networks tab; this is where we’ll start out.
Twitter doesn’t yet allow you to feed CSV files or common address book formats into this screen, but it will happily gulp down a contacts list from Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL, or MSN. I’ve found Gmail useful here. I’ve been gradually taking 1,000 user slices of our e-mail list, uploading them to a Gmail contact list, then accessing the Gmail account from the Find on Other Networks screen to see how many matches I get.
If I get just a handful, I’ll follow all of them. If the number seems like too many followers to add all at once, I’ll try smaller slices of the list until I end up with a number that won’t throw off my Following:Followers ratio too much.
Stay away from the Invite by E-mail tab… for now.
For a company that doesn’t have a full-fledged Twitter strategy yet, I recommend against inviting people who don’t yet have Twitter accounts to follow you. Sure, you can go out to all of your customers with a mass Twitter invite… but are you ready for them? Remember, inviting people to join a new social network is something of an imposition. You’re asking them to add yet another stream of information that they must then monitor to their lives. Unless you’re ready to use Twitter to deliver value to your customers & prospects today, do yourself a favor, and hit up people who are already Twitter users first. People who have already adopted will be much more forgiving of your org’s testing the waters phase.
If you don’t have a customer e-mail database, you’ll need to take a different approach to finding potential tweeps to follow.* Here are some tacks to try:
- Look to your competitors’ follow lists.
Peruse whom your competition follows. Just as you might, they’ll probably have a bunch of non-competitive industry follows. But mixed in there will be potential customers, too; follow these people.
- Run searches.
Use search.twitter.com to search for keywords of interest to potential clients. Follow people who look like good matches. (Note: this is really inefficient and scattershot in the long run, but it’s fine for a company in evaluation mode. Later, you’ll want to learn about more powerful search tools written using the Twitter API).
- Investigate third party tools to find tweeps.
There are so many third party tools written using the Twitter API that I’m not going to go in depth on any of in this post. I will briefly mention Tweet Grid (tweetgrid.com/) because it’s potentially useful in the early stages of follower buildings, while at the same time giving an idea of the full scope of Twitter. Tweet Grid allows you to set up a grid of Twitter windows, each of which is a realtime stream of tweets filtered by search terms you enter.
Try it. On Tweet Grid, create a 2×2 grid of streams, and enter four search terms relevant to your organization. Watching these streams for a little while may yield some good follows. Not only that, if you choose your search terms well, it may give you some insight into what kind of Twitter activity there is in your vertical.
The messages that get you business are knights, rooks & bishops. But remember, you need the pawns (non-marketing messages) to win the game.
5. Start tweeting.
The key to success in the last three steps is to realize that establishing a company presence on Twitter is fundamentally the same process as establishing a presence as an individual user. Twitter isn’t a billboard, a TV commercial, or even an e-mail blast, and if your organization treats it as such, you’ll hemorrhage followers. Keep this in mind as you begin sending tweets. What you tweet about will depend a lot on your industry and the types of products and services you offer, but I’ll offer the following general advice:
- Try to maintain about a 1:3 ratio of marketing messages to other content.
Here’s the thing: your customers and prospects use social media because they enjoy social media, not because they’re interested in what kind of deal you’re offering that week. If your organization can internalize this notion, you’ll win — not just at Twitter, but at social media in general. There are exceptions. For instance, this rule obviously changes if you end up using Twitter primarily as a customer service channel. But for the most part, the 1:3 rule is pretty key.
- Be neat; re-tweet.
Retweets are a good way to keep that 1:3 ratio mentioned above in balance. If you’ve followed other people in your industry, you should regularly spot tweets that contain info your followers want to see while being non-competitive with your own organization’s goals. Retweeting these builds goodwill among your follows and followers, it diseminates information your audience is interested in, and it prevents the perception that you’re doing nothing but droning on about your own marketing message.
- Search for other non-competitive content to tweet about.
Even better than retweeting is linking to info elsewhere on the net that might interest your tweeps. My industry, travel, is great for this. I can link to photos of destinations our customers visit on Flickr, Wikipedia and other articles about places we go, and travel bloggers who have good advice or insights. The internet is full of free content. Finding and linking to it is a way of showing your expertise within your industry.
- Don’t fight the format; 140 characters is plenty!
Don’t abbreviate, take out spaces, or otherwise try to cram a 300 character message into a tweet. Trim the message down. If what you have to say is worth reading, there’s a way to fit it into 140 characters without mangling it horribly. Good general netiquette pays here, too. Posting in ALL CAPS is another good way to get yourself unfollowed.
- If you provide other value added content online, link to it.
My company has a blog. Every time we post, an article summary and a link goes onto Twitter. Look at what you offer that isn’t purely marketing-oriented, and find ways to include it in your tweets.
- Don’t be repetetive.
There’s a strong temptation to repeat marketing messages. This should be a no-brainer, too, but don’t do it. If you must repeat a message, make sure you change it substantially.
- Figure out when “prime time” for your followers is, and tweet during that window.
For most companies, this is during the day on week days. Dropping tweets very early in the morning or late at night makes them less likely to be seen. However, your industry might be different. My audience of septuagenarian travel enthusiasts is more likely to see tweets during daylight, but if you’re trying to reach energy drink-swilling gamer nrrds while they’re waiting for their adventuring party to gather for the next dungeon crawl, you might want to be tweeting by night.
There is a great deal more to be said about how to use Twitter, but this post should provide a good start for most organizations. Try to maximize what you learn from this phase. Watch your analytics to see whether Twitter works its way into becoming a prominent referring site. Try to engage with tweeps who send @ replies or direct messages your way; you can learn from them, while making your org look good. If possible, track response to your marketing messages. Including a tracking code in the query string of incoming URLs posted to Twitter or creating Twitter-specific landing pages on your site can tell you whether your tweets are generating real interest.
Finally, while I think I’ve given good advice in this post, don’t be afraid to break it. This is a medium for which the book on best practices isn’t even a first draft yet; we’re all still learning.
*When I mention tweeps above, I mean followers who will continue to follow because they gain value from your tweets. If you’re a business, they might or might not also be customers/prospects.
Photo credits for this post: Blue Jay (Kenn Kiser), Night Market (Damian Searles), Chess Game (Fran Priestly) — all via stock.xchng.