How To Use Twitter: A Primer For New Users

Posted on May 21, 2009


In a previous post, I explained why Twitter works. Essentially, Twitter is a tool that can be used to create new and unexpected community and to share valuable content with that community. In this post, I want to provide a few nuts and bolts suggestions on how to use Twitter to accomplish these aims.

Like many tools, there are many ways to use Twitter and these suggestions are only intended to help new users get started. They are not intended to be definitive. If anyone feels like adding some suggestions or additions in the comments section, please do. I’m always keen to learn more. Follow-up questions? Always encouraged!

First, and crucially, it is very important to have a specific goal in mind and, given the nature of Twitter, the goal should be to connect with a specific group of persons who share some common interest. When thinking about who you want to connect with, be specific and focus on a community-defining activity or interest (e.g. theatre, wine, fashion), rather than a specific demographic. There’s nothing wrong with having more than one interest in mind but try to remain focussed on only a few.

Also, don’t worry about pigeon-holing yourself. Such is the nature of the Twitter universe that you will end up following and being followed by all kinds of people outside your core community. This is half the fun! The notion of a target community is intended to help you get started and stay focussed as you network.

For example, in my case, I want to connect with people working in the theatre industry specifically and the performing arts more generally. I also keep up-to-date on trends in marketing and social media. In addition to that, I’ve got lots of folks with different and even alien interests that I follow because they tweet well. 

Second, once you have a shared interest in mind, create a profile that highlights who you are in relation to your target community. Remember, with first impressions, you can’t be all things to all people, so the more focussed you are the better.

Although the bio on the Twitter profile is short, with a bit of creativity, it can provide a snapshot of who you are and your interests. For example mine says, “playwright / director / producer / actor / poet / singer-songwriter / philosopher: wears cap with suspicion.” Not particularly creative but efficient and pretty representative of who I am and the kind of folks with whom I’d like to connect. Most importantly, arty-types can figure out in a glance we probably share common interests and non-arty types might find me exotic enough to take an interest.

Be sure to include a link to a site where people can learn more about you, if they so choose. A blog, for example, is ideal.

A photo is also necessary. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a photo of you but it should be something distinctive and an image with which you are comfortable being associated. Don’t forget, it will also help define your role / place in the community.

Third, try a tweet or two. Say hello, and mention with whom you are trying to connect and include a relevant #hashtag. 

Hashtags are how users self-identify the content of their tweets. So, if someone puts “#theatre” in their tweet, we can be sure it will be theatre focussed. Different communities often create unique hashtags to ensure they can communicate with each other on some given topic and not get lost in the noise. Check out for more details. Surprisingly, #sex is not a high-ranking hashtag.

If you already have valuable content to share with your target community, post a link. Provide some basic information about the link and post it with a relevant hashtag. There are a number of URL shorteners available on line, use them to save space in the tweet.

If your ultimate goal is to promote a particular product or service to a particular community, now is NOT the time time to do it. You’d be much better off providing other resources related to your good or service, making contacts, and figuring out how Twitter works before launching into a specific campaign. Add value to the community first, before trying to profit off it. 

Now, do a hashtag search. For example, #theatre, #wine, #porsche, #jcrew. Scan the tweets, and look for something interesting. An interesting tweet may count as a good reason to follow but check their profile first. Is there a photo? What does the bio say? Is this a person with whom you’d like to connect? Do a quick scan of their tweets. Are the tweets consistently useful or interesting? If so, follow. If not, don’t. 

It may be tempting to follow anyone and everyone but, I think, in the early going it is useful to be selective. Until you really have a sense of how Twitter works, following a ton of folks might be a bit overwhelming. Eventually, you will likely follow any and everyone but in the early stages take your time to get used to how things work. 

Fifth, participate. Ultimately, Twitter involves giving positive attention to people who warrant it in your eyes and creating tweets that warrant positive attention. The best way to create and contribute to a Twitter community: reward good tweets, publish good tweets, and encourage rewarding interactions.

The easiest way to give positive attention is to follow someone who seems interesting. Most people will respond to any follow with a follow. If they don’t return your follow, don’t take it personally. Soon enough, you will not be returning all follows. Because everyone knows that follows are almost always returned, lots of folks and bots (Twitter accounts operated by computers) will follow you for no good reason at all. 

The next best means to show positive attention is to reply to tweets. If someone asks a question, answer it. If someone makes a neat comment, let them know. It doesn’t need to be elaborate and probably shouldn’t be in the early-goings. In time, the interactions can become more in-depth. Also, don’t be afraid to encourage interactions yourself. Get an idea of the kind of tweets to which you like to respond and start posting tweets like that. If you have a positive interaction, follow that person. 

A very powerful mechanism for showing positive attention is to re-publish or “re-tweet” something. If you find a post that you genuinely think is valuable, copy and paste the original tweet (including the original tweeter’s @name), add an RT at the beginning, and then post it yourself.  For example: “RT @SterlingLynch Why Twitter Works: A Primer For New Users:” Essentially, an RT says, hey this tweet is valuable enough that I want to share it with my community. It’s also a great way to build a following. If you consistently RT good stuff, people will follow you. Remember, if someone RTs one of your tweets, it is good idea to say thanks. If a tweet is worth an RT, than the tweeter is probably worth a follow.

The ultimate instance of positive attention is a follow recommendation. By convention, Friday is the day when these recommendations are made. Include a person’s “@name” and “#ff” or “#followfriday.” Different communities may also have specific days to do this as well. For example, there is a burgeoning #theatrethursday where people specifically post theatre-related follows. If someone recommends you, always say thanks and if you are not following them, they deserve a follow.

Sixth, be sure to nurture the relationships. There are a lot of different ways to do this and the only real rule is be positive and genuine: give positive attention, add good resources, create rewarding interactions. What counts as “positive”, “good”, or ” rewarding” will ultimately be determined by the community with which you interact.  

Sixth, don’t be afraid to prune the bush. People have different strategies for following and not following. Personally, at this stage, I will follow anyone who follows me if they appear to be human and don’t “twast” (i.e. consistently post many tweets in short explosive intervals). So long as a person doesn’t clog up my stream with tweets I am not interested in, I will keep following. Twasters are cut pretty quickly.

One shortcoming in this method is that I miss out on some of the back and forth that can happen between my core community. The advantage is that I am mining more nuggets from the stream to share with them. Try to find a balance that works best for you.

Also, on my view, the number of followers a person accumulates is irrelevant and and a total red herring. I would much rather have fifty followers with whom I regularly and genuinely interact than 50,000 that never read my tweets. A large number of followers means nothing and can even count as a reason not to follow a person. After all, how will I interact with someone who is “interacting” with thousands of people already? 

Once you’ve mastered the basics, think about downloading one of the many third party applications that help a user manage their tweets. I use Tweetdeck but I haven’t done a lot of research on the other options available. Most importantly, it allows me to monitor more than one search at a time which is great for a bunch of reasons but especially relevant for my community because of the different spellings for #theatre / #theater. 

Remember, Twitter is user driven. Therefore, show initiative, be positive, and be prepared to adapt. At the end of the day, what you get from Twitter will ultimately depend on what you put into it. The good news is that there are probably people on Twitter right now adding value to your community and looking to connect. Go make an effort and it may very well be rewarded.

Thought? Additions? Etc?


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Posted in: Social Media