Tutorial: Twitter for Journalists
Twitter is many things to many people. For consumers it’s a way to connect to friends, interesting people and large brands. For presidential candidates it’s a way to make campaign promises or embarrass themselves. For journalists, it’s a way to keep a pulse on and engage with communities, locate sources, and to report on the world new and unique ways. Twitter has emerged as a powerful news tool, alerting the world about natural disasters, hostage standoffs and even revolutionary uprisings.
At its most basic level, Twitter is a social network focused on interests rather than on friends, where users create brief posts of 140 characters or less. Twitter users can follow and view updates from other users (similar to subscribing to a site’s RSS feed), send public or semi-private replies or have private conversations with other users. Users can also search the entire network in real-time for interesting topics or breaking news, organize their streams with “hash tags” and lists, and even add photos or video to their posts.
This tutorial provides both a basic introduction to Twitter and highlights the features that makes it a must-have tool for journalists. We’ll discuss general concepts, then take a look at specific techniques for increasing engagement, building a quality network of followees, best practices, and share a ton of tips for effective community building.
Why Twitter matters
Some people look at Facebook and Twitter, conclude that Facebook has the larger audience, and decide to focus their efforts there. Yes, Facebook is really important, but there are good reasons to make sure you’re engaging on both platforms.
First, the audiences are very different. Facebook is organized across “the social graph,” which means most people follow people they’ve met. In contrast, Twitter is organized across “the interest graph,” which means people follow accounts that provide valuable information, whether they’ve met or not.
Facebook is mostly about interlocking rings of privacy – walled gardens in which information gets trapped (i.e. Google can’t see the vast majority of content on Facebook). But Twitter is fully public, just like the rest of the web. By definition, content on Twitter has a much wider reach – everything you post can potentially be seen by the whole world.
While Facebook has a “share” function that lets people repeat things others have said, it’s not used nearly as often as Twitter’s “retweet” function. One of Twitter’s key functions is as a news and information amplifier, which is why news spreads so much more quickly on Twitter than on Facebook.
Will Twitter traffic cannibalize traditional web site content? Take a look at this data produced by Twitter the evening the death of Osama Bin Laden was announced:
Twitter was tracking 12.4 million tweets per hour (4,000 per second) on this topic. A very large portion of these tweets were pointing back to traditional media sources. Twitter alone wasn’t enough for these readers – they were still going to traditional news sites to get the full story. Twitter was amplifying the spread of news, not replacing it.
Because of this amplification effect, Twitter has an immediacy that Facebook doesn’t have. Many big news stories have broken first on Twitter. For events and crises, nothing can top Twitter’s real-time effectiveness.
Because it’s aligned on the interest graph, Twitter users spend a lot of energy fine-tuning and curating their information streams (Facebook users are often reluctant to unfollow people for fear of being rude). Twitter is an information fire hose in a way that Facebook is not.
As a result, many news junkies greatly prefer Twitter over Facebook. They’re two very different parties – one consisting of friends and one consisting of information sources. As a journalist, you really want to be at both parties.
Since people don’t have to follow you just so you can see the content they post, journalists find Twitter a much better way to track down sources, dig up more information on stories, crowdsource content, get questions answered, push out quick news blasts, and to take the pulse of a community or topic.
Most sites that have both Tweet This and Facebook Like buttons show more Facebook likes for their stories, but this isn’t always true:
In most cases, these numbers have more to do with how much energy the journalist or organization puts into the respective platforms. Ignore Twitter and the numbers will skew toward Facebook. And vice versa.
If you’re primarily a Facebook user and need a hand understanding how and why the Twitter ecosystem can be as rich or richer than Facebook’s, see A Guide to Twitter for Facebook Users.
Fastest Way Into Search Engines
Finally, note that Twitter is likely the fastest way to get links to your site’s content into Google and other search engines. Because search engines “license” the Twitter stream for their real-time results, links posted via Twitter show up on Google seconds later.
Try posting a tweet with a highly unique string, then go immediately to Google and search for that same string. After the results appear, click on More, then Real-Time in the left margin.
Social media is transforming the newsroom. It has the power to connect reporters and sources, as well as readers, like never before. That level of connection also has implications.
Jeff Jarvis, the interactive journalism program director at the City University of New York, has evangelized this transformation. “Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc. also provide the opportunity for reporters and editors to come out from behind the institutional voice of the paper — a voice that is less and less trusted — and to become human. Of course, they should mix business and pleasure.”
As the blurring of professional and personal lines occur, many organizations have instituted social media policies to determine what is and is not out of bounds for their employees. The AP, for example, requires that employees identify themselves and their affiliation when engaging in any work-related interactions.
The Wall Street Journal demands that its staffers consult editors before “connecting” or “friending” potential confidential sources; discourages the explanation of how stories were reported, written, or edited; and prohibits workers from giving away scoops before they’re published.”
Other organizations advocate the exact opposite, arguing that talking about how reporting occurred establishes a level of trust, authority, and intimacy that is otherwise unachievable. Social media advocates also argue that promoting content that has yet to run is a great way to build buzz around stories or packages.
Ultimately, it’s up to you and/or your publication to decide what the boundaries are. Realize that every post/friend/like counts, and there are compelling arguments for and against varying degrees of transparency on social media.
For a comprehensive list of social media policies, SocialMediaGovernance.com has put together a list of nearly 175 different organizations that have defined codes of conduct regarding Twitter and other social networks.
If you’re new to Twitter, sign up for an account at twitter.com. If you want to keep your work life and personal observations separate, create two separate accounts. When choosing a username, keep it short, memorable and relevant – your username will be part of your personal “brand,” so avoid picking names like “SoccerFan1″ or “MultimediaJournalist,” since those won’t help distinguish you from hundreds of similar Twitter of users. Avoid very long names, since they’ll cut into the 140-character limit in replies.
After signing up, Twitter will prompt you to start following people. Following people simply means those users’ updates will show up in a feed on your home page. To help you follow people, Twitter offers suggestions broken down over interest categories.
If you type “journalism” into the search field at the top of the screen, you’ll get a pretty good starting point of results. That list will include users all the way from the Wall Street Journal’s main account (@WSJ) to Andrew DeVigal (@drewvigal), the multimedia editor of The New York Times, to the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard (@NiemanLab). Simply click the “Follow” button to the right of each user’s name to have their posts added to your stream.
Keep in mind that, unlike Facebook, Twitter is not primarily about following friends — it’s about finding interesting people and interesting streams (either to you personally or relevant to your beat). The real power of Twitter may not become apparent until you’ve started following at least 100 interesting people, so spend some time searching for keywords and evaluating streams, adding only the best ones to your feed. If you follow people who aren’t interesting, your stream will fill with noise and the appeal of the network will be lost.
Curate your list of folowees carefully!
Once you’re finished finding users through the interest search, you can then find friends and contacts who use Twitter.
Click on the “Friends” link at the top of the current page. That will take you to a new page that will allow you to search your Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, LinkedIn and/or AOL accounts for contacts registered with Twitter.
Don’t worry — Twitter won’t share your contact information without your consent (or send you spam).
Once you’ve finished following users, click on the “Finish” button at the bottom of the screen.
Depending on whether you use Twitter’s website or a third-party Twitter client (see the Clients section for more info on this), you’ll initiate a post in different ways. On Twitter.com, you’ll see a big text field labeled “What’s happening?”
As you probably know, you only have 140 characters* to work with. That includes spaces, punctuation and numbers, so learn to be direct in what you say. While the character constraint may seem frustrating at first, you’ll quickly discover that this weakness is also one of Twitter’s great strengths, since it forces everyone to get straight to the point, and makes your information streams easy to scan.
The reason for the 140 character limit goes back to Twitter’s origins as a text-message-based service. While few people use Twitter via text message anymore, Twitter has maintained the 140 character limit, which has become one of the service’s defining features.
Updates are great ways to share thoughts, insights, analyses, reactions and links. As you enter text into the field, look for the character counter showing how many characters you have remaining.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter is a public medium. Almost all posts are public, and can be seen by followers and non-followers alike. Google and other search engines aggressively index Twitter content — what you say on Twitter will surface in search results almost immediately – more on that later.
We’ll explore the finer points of mentions, “@” replies, retweets, direct messages, hash tags, lists and more in the following sections. For more, check out Twitter’s official glossary.
The best way to interact with Facebook is through Facebook.com. The same cannot be said of Twitter! Because Twitter has maintained an open API, dozens of software developers have created their own interfaces onto the service in the form of desktop software, external web sites, or applications written in Adobe Air or Microsoft Silverlight. There are dozens of things you can do with these third-party clients that you can’t do with the Twitter web site. For example:
- Work with multiple Twitter accounts simultaneously
- View multiple streams of Twitter information simultaneously
- Schedule tweets for posting when you’re away
- Add photos to tweets
- Faster/smoother/more keyboardable performance
- Tracking and analytics
- Better URL shortening
- Integration with other social networks
Everyone has their favorite Twitter client – see the KDMC blog post In Search of the Perfect Twitter Client for more on this. But virtually anyone who spends a lot of time on Twitter will soon adopt one to use in place of the Twitter web site.
It’s not important which client you choose – the important thing is to be able to use social networks effectively, so try a few and use what you like. For KDMC training purposes, we use Hootsuite because it includes certain features of interest to journalists (such as scheduled posting).
However, some users feel that multi-column clients like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck create on-screen clutter which affects readability and usability. This author much prefers the uncluttered, highly keyboardable, super-fast official native Mac client. Your mileage may vary.
For a more streamlined, faster, more keyboardable, uncluttered reading experience, try the official Twitter client for Mac (available in the Mac app store).
Need more options? Do a Google search for twitter clients to get a taste for the huge range of options out there. But note that the field is actually going to narrow soon, as Twitter have controversially recommended that third-party developers not get into this business (ostensibly because they want more control over the user experience). And they’ve been on a purchasing spree: The native client for Mac was formerly known as Tweetie – Twitter purchased it and enhanced it. They also purchased one of the top pro apps Tweetdeck, and we can expect to see it revamped and improved by Twitter before long.
Mentions, replies, and DMs
When a tweet includes another person’s username prefaced with the “@” symbol, that person will be notified that they’ve been mentioned. Unlike on Facebook, you do not need to have a follower/followee relatonship to mention another user – it’s all public. However, it’s important to understand that mentions take two forms.
1) When a tweet starts with the @ symbol, it’s called a reply, and will not show up in the streams of other people following you. However, if someone looks directly at your feed, they will see the replies you’ve made to others. In other words, this form of reply is semi-private. Twitter works this way to increase the quality of everyone’s streams – if it didn’t, your stream would be filled with fragments of one-side conversations people are having with each other.
Example of an “at” reply, which is a semi-private message. The tweet starts with @ symbol, effectively hiding it from other followers unless they view the sender’s stream directly.
2) When an @username appears anywhere else in the body of a tweet, the recipient is still notified, but the tweet will show up in the streams of other people who follow you. This is a way to refer/link to another user on the service, as opposed to communicating with them semi-privately.
In other words, if you want to mention someone and have your followers see the tweet, do not start the tweet with an “@” symbol!
Example of a “mention” – the tweet doesn’t start with an “@” symbol. In this case, PBS will still receive notification that they’ve been referred to, and other users can easily click to view PBS’s Twitter stream.
If you want to ensure your tweet is public but still mention a person at the start of the sentence, you can work around this by prefacing the “@” with a “.”, e.g.
.@kdmcinfo Thanks, I'm loving this tutorial!
An old-style retweet (see next section) is a type of “mention.” Three users are mentioned in this tweet, and all will have received some kind of notification, which may draw them into the conversation.
As you would expect, Twitter also provides a way to send a fully private message to another user. However, you cannot send a direct message to a user who does not follow you. This feature prevents Twitter from becoming a massive spam bucket. To send a direct message to user @kdmcinfo, use this syntax:
To make it even easier, most Twitter clients provide special buttons or links for sending direct messages, so you won’t have to remember to start the tweet with “d”.
Since direct messages are generally important enough to warrant your immediate attention, you can visit your settings on twitter.com and configure the service to push DMs directly to your phone as SMS messages.
One of the things that makes Twitter such a powerful “news amplification” medium is the concept of the “retweet,” which is essentially a way of repeating something someone else said (with or without modification), extending its message out from the originator’s network to your own network.
Twitter’s users – not Twitter itself – invented the retweet and made it part of Twitter culture. A traditional retweet starts with this syntax:
An old-style retweet starts with the syntax
RT @username, which of course cuts into the 140-character limit. The text is modifiable before posting.
In this style of retweet, you have the opportunity to modify the text, either to add additional commentary or to shorten so it fits in the 140-character limit. Note that some users will mark a modified retweet with the letters “MT” rather than “RT.”
Twitter later embraced the concept of the retweet officially, and baked it into the service. In an “official” retweet, the length of the tweet is not affected by giving credit to the originator. Instead, the Twitter client will mark the retweet, either by overlaying the retweeter’s icon on top of the originator’s icon, or by referring to the originator below the tweet.
In a new style retweet, the message cannot be modified. Credit is given with text below the tweet, or by overlaying one icon over the other.
In the example above, we do not follow @ericuman, but we do follow @poynter. This tweet still shows up in our stream because @poynter deemed the message worthy of amplification.
Unfortunately, an official-style retweet cannot be modified, and you cannot change the “from” account (i.e. you can’t retweet a post that came in through one account out through another).
Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages.
A “hash tag” is a word embedded in a tweet that starts with a “#” sign, as in this example:
Virtually all Twitter clients make hash tags clickable automatically. When clicked, an instant search is performed for all tweets that include the same hash tag (not just your followees, but all tweets). In other words, a hash tag is an identifier for a real-time Twitter search that groups tweets according to a certain topic. Hash tags are often agreed upon by a community of people interested in a given topic, providing way for their tweets to hang together.
Couldn’t you simply search Twitter for whatever interests you? Yes, but hash tags have distinct advantages:
- They ensure that tweets are grouped even if a given tweet doesn’t contain the keyword
- They provide a way for readers to discover a larger circle of interest they may not have otherwise searched for
Because a hash tag is essentially a search, it can be saved for quick access just like any other saved search on Twitter. Saved searches and hash tags are very important tools for journalists who cover a community or particular beat regularly.
Hash tags are useful in lots of circumstances, but they really shine at conferences and events, where hundreds or thousands of people who don’t know each other are suddenly able to find one another’s observations and discussions. For example, in KDMC workshops we advise students to use the hash tag #kdmcworkshop. That stream then becomes an instant “back-channel” tracking their notes and key take-aways from our lectures and discussions.
Click a hash tag to view tweets grouped on a given topic. Hash tag results are global, not limited to posts by your followees. Shown: The hash tag for World Press Freedom Day.
Journalists covering public events should make discovering that event’s hash tag a priority – it’s a fantastic way to keep a pulse on the thoughts of the public, giving a very different perspective than what one reporter alone could assemble.
Try not to overuse hash tags – more than two hash tags in a tweet can make it quickly start to look like alphabet soup, and will severely cut into the amount of characters available for real content.
Creating Hash Tags
So what if you arrive at an event (say, a city-wide art festival) and aren’t able to discover a hash tag in use? You’re the journalist – take the lead and create one! You don’t need to do anything special to start using a hash tag – just start including it in posts, and watch to see how quickly it catches on.
When creating a hash tag, you need to find the right balance between brevity and specificity. You don’t want your hash tags to be too general. For example, if you use the hash tag
#art at a community festival, you’ll find that clicking on it leads to thousands of tweets on art in general, not just your local festival. Even
#artinthepark would be too general. However, for the city of Albany, the hash tag
#albanyart might be just right.
#albanyartfestival would work as well, but would be too long. Just remember, your goal is to be specific enough to limit results to your event, and short enough to not cut into tweet length too much. If in doubt, search Twitter for that tag before using the tag!
Clay Shirky is famous for having said “There is no such thing as information overload – there’s only filter failure.” Making sense of an overflowing Twitter stream is an ongoing act of curation – finding ways to follow just the most interesting readers, or to gather tweets that are relevant to your life or job.
While saved searches and hash tags provide a way to gather info from across Twitter by keyword, the Lists feature does the opposite – it gathers tweets from across the service by particular users, regardless the content of their tweets.
Every Twitter user can create lists, add users to those lists, and can even track lists created by other users. As a journalist, you might create custom lists for:
- Other journalists
- Other publications
- Journalists at your own publication
- Community leaders
- School leaders in your community
- Data visualization experts
- Sports reporters covering soccer leagues
You get the idea. Whatever your beat, you want to find people on Twitter with expertise in that area, and add them to a list. When you only have limited time to read and don’t want to wade through noise, go straight to your lists to get a streamlined view. Of course, there’s no guarantee that a journalist in one of your lists won’t also sometimes tweet about their family life – that comes with the territory. It’s up to you to curate your lists so they remain as relevant as possible.
To deal with information overload, create Twitter lists consisting of everything posted by a certain collection of users. Shown: a list of “Publications” in the author’s account. Follow this list here.
Note: You do not need to follow a user to put them on a list!
To add someone to a list on Twitter.com, go to their profile page, click the downward arrow next to the profile icon, and select Add to List. You can even add a person to multiple lists!
Other Twitter clients will show the list management interface in different ways or places, but the concept is always the same.
While surfing another user’s Twitter profile, check out their lists – you can “subscribe” to other people’s lists and track them as if you had made them (though you can’t modify someone else’s list).
Want a good way to find lists relevant to your community or area of coverage? Try the site Listorious, which can be searched by keyword. However, we think you’ll get the most value out of lists you create yourself.
Make it a habit: It’s really hard to go back and organize all of your followees into lists retroactively. When following a new user, make a habit of adding them to a list right then and there!
In addition to hash tags and lists (which are essentially special forms of searches) Twitter provides two different ways of searching by keyword, username, geography, dates and more. Searches can be as complex as you need them to be!
For a journalist covering a community or a beat, you’ll probably want to craft some custom searches that turn up useful sources and observations. You can save these searches and check them daily, either on twitter.com or in your favorite client.
Using Twitter’s simple search, click Save this Search to return to it easily in the future.
To revisit your saved searches later, just click the Searches tab on your Twitter homepage profile. If you’re using a Twitter client, you’ll find you’ll find your saved searches elsewhere in the interface. If you’re using a multi-column client like TweetDeck or Hootsuite, you can set up a saved search to appear in a permanent “column” (caveat for HootSuite users – only searches created from within Hootsuite can be seen – official saved searches are invisible to Hootsuite).
Your basic Twitter search is fine, but not nearly specific enough to meet the needs of journalists. What if you want to show all searches that contain the word “revolution” and that were posted near Tripoli? For that you’ll need Twitter’s strangely hidden Advanced Search. You won’t find a link to it anywhere on their web site, so navigate your browser to search.twitter.com/advanced.
Try this: In the “All these words” field, type “city council” in quotes. In the Places field, near this place, type in your zip code. Click the search button.
If you’re covering community government, the power of having this query at your disposal is clear. This is a query you’ll want to come back to!
Note: As of this writing, the advanced search feature only indexes a few days worth of data – hopefully this limitation will be lifted in the future, but since Twitter is all about real-time, there’s still a lot of usefulness here.
Let’s say you want to find all of the tweets by representative Weiner where he discussed his love of hockey. Type “hockey” into the Words field, and “repweiner” into the From field. Bingo!
Explore the other fields in Advanced Search to see what else it can do.
Unfortunately, there is no way to save advanced searches as of this writing. Hopefully this will change in the future. However, you can save search results as an RSS feed – just click the “Feed for this Query” link near the top right.
URL shorteners compress standard web addresses to reduce character length. Because Twitter limits the character length of tweets, shortened URLs have become a requirement in the age of microblogging. While necessary, be aware that there are potential security issues with shortened URLs. Fortunately, all of the big URL shortening providers are very aware of this potential, and do a lot of filtering and screening to keep users out of trouble. You should be aware, but not overly concerned.
There are many URL shortening services available, including Bit.ly, is.gd, the Hootsuite-owned ow.ly, goo.gl and the original TinyURL. Twitter also runs its own shortener t.co, and forces all URLs posted through services it owns to go through it (this means that if you post a bit.ly URL through an official Twitter client or twitter.com, it will be re-shortened with a t.co link!)
Some services also offer custom URL shortening with your own organization’s domain, which is why you sometimes see shortened URLs like abcn.ws, and nyti.ms.
As you surf Twitter, you’ll come across a wide array of shortners, both generic and custom.
Here at KDMC, we use the bitly Pro service to sometimes shorten URLs with the domain kdmc.us.
URLs can be shortened in advanced by going to a common shortening service, or may be compressed by your Twitter client as you post. Twitter.com also has a built-in URL shortener:
After pasting a URL into the twitter.com post field, a “Shorten” button will appear. Click it and the URL will be shortened with the t.co domain. You’ll see the character counter reflect the change.
Reporting with Twitter
Twitter can be a great place to find breaking news. That ranges from the most global of issues (i.e. Middle East uprisings in Spring 2011) to more hyperlocal (such as structure fires on a particular block). TBD used Twitter and Foursquare in late 2010 to get eye-witness accounts of a hostage situation in Washington, D.C., and then began curating those tweets as part of the reporting process.
As a news startup in its infancy, TBD was widely praised for dominating coverage of the event.
Using Twitter as a source for breaking news and/or leads must be done with caution. The January, 2011 shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is a prime example of that.
In a rush to come out with stories first, several major publications ranging from NPR to CNN to The New York Times all began to rely on Twitter for reports on what occurred. Soon, two narratives emerged — one that stated the Congresswoman was dead, and another that stated she was wounded.
Organizations spent the subsequent days issuing corrections after further reporting revealed the actual facts of the shooting.
Engagement and Best Practices
If you’re a journalist on Twitter, remember that you’re not here just to post headlines and links. Sure, you’ll want to promote your content, but remember that Twitter is a social network. To make it work for your organization, you’ll need to be social, and engage with your readership. That means your presence on Twitter is not all about you – it’s about being part of a community – either a geographical community or one forged across lines of shared interests (e.g. your beat). In this section, we’ll share some tips and best practices for engaging with the Twitter community.
Interact! If a parent in your community asks how the roads are, respond by describing what you see (and make sure you frame it as a mention, not an “at” reply – you want your whole readership to be privvy to that particular discussion). If the local natural grocery is having a food event, retweet their post about it, and ask if anyone’s going. Move beyond just posting headlines. Replying to posts by your readers makes them feel special, makes them realize there is a human face on your organization. Retweeting or replying to posts by local politicians, decision makers and business owners frames you as part of the community, something more than an ivory tower reporter.
You can provide good/useful/interesting content even if it has nothing to do with your publication. In this example, the journalist retweets a community member’s post about something related to the community. Readers win, person being retweeted wins, journalist wins.
First Impressions In order to make your work on Twitter count, you need to build up a sizable audience (and keep building it). When people are deciding whether to follow you, they’ve only got three things to go on:
1) Your headshot/icon – Make sure you should have a nice, clear, friendly looking headshot on your Twitter profile. People are much less likely to follow someone who’s using the default “egg” icon. Official publication Twitter accounts should use the brand logo, individuals should use headshots (not “art” pieces).
2) Your bio/description – Your bio should describe who you are and what you do, with adequate use of keywords so people can find you through search. If you’re covering an area, get that area’s name into your bio. If you’re covering a beat like “Health and Science” than make sure your bio says so! You can also optionally enable your geographical location in your bio. While you might think twice about doing this on your personal account, it’s a great feature for your professional accounts, making you more findable. Finally, whatever you do, don’t “protect” your account. Twitter is a public platform, and few people will bother to follow a protected account. Save the “privacy rings” for Facebook.
3) Your most recent few tweets. If you post “noise” to the Twitter stream, people checking you out for the first time will have little incentive to follow you. Keep the signal high and the noise level low.
Build a following Cultivating a large collection of followers is imperative – eventually, you want to have thousands of followers. Since approximately 70% of people you follow will follow you back, start by following lots of people. But don’t just follow everyone and anyone – follow people if they share your interests or live in your community or can become helpful correspondents. Find someone particularly interesting? Check out who they’re following and follow those people as well.
So how do you find relevant followees? Start with search (we covered search in depth earlier). Search for keywords related to your beat, or the name of your community. Create advanced searches that combine multiple criteria (e.g. posts about “soccer” within 15 miles of your zipcode). You can use sites like followerwonk.com to search through Twitter bios too – bios are excellent sources because people use them to self-describe their interests. Keep those saved searches handy and check them often – building your following is an ongoing process, not a one-time thing. Remember to follow local businesses too!
Followerwonk.com is a great tool for searching through Twitter bios for good people to follow. Remember, 70% of people you follow will follow you back!
Note: You can’t see a list of your followers from within Hootsuite – you’ll need to use Twitter.com or an official Twitter client for that.
Make it a habit! Understand that while Twitter is often called a “microblogging platform,” it’s really more like a stream. The stream goes by quickly and few people read everything posted in their stream. Therefore, it’s important to post regularly – several times per day at least, and hopefully more. You also need to read portions of your stream regularly. Make a habit of checking in several times per day, paying special attention to your saved searches and lists. Think of Twitter like your email – important things are happening there and you need to stay on top of them.
Good grammar You’re a journalist! Just because you’re on Twitter doesn’t mean you can get away with sloppy sentence structure, spelling or grammar. To make sure you’re treated like the pro that you are, uphold your standards of excellence.
Just because you’re on Twitter doesn’t mean you can let your standards slip. Keep an eye on punctuation and grammar, and try to use full sentences.
Tweet on the go! Twitter was born on mobile, and it thrives there. Many excellent Twitter clients for iPhone, Android and Blackberry devices are available. Check your Twitter stream (or participate) while in line at the grocery store or DMV, while in the field reporting, or whenever you have a few minutes to spare. One of the advantages to tweeting with a hand-held device is that you can use the integrated camera to attach images to your tweets, which gives them much more life and presence.
Post immediately If a story is brewing, don’t wait until you’ve written the whole thing and posted it on your site. Instead, Tweet something as soon as you can be accurate and factual. Let your audience know you’ll have full coverage on the site soon.
Ask people you meet if they’re on Twitter Again, it’s critical to develop a large following. But you want to do it organically (don’t fall for offers that claim to be able to get you more followers). One of the most effective things you can do is to ask people you meet if they’re on Twitter. If they are, follow them right then and there – don’t wait to do it later (you might forget). Put your Twitter handle on your business card, and link to it from your email .sig. And if someone mentions you on Twitter, follow that person!
Be valuable People are looking for three things on Twitter: Usefulness, humor, and insight. You don’t have to be the originator of everything you post – Retweet things that are interesting to your community or beat even if it’s not related to your site. See a call for volunteers? Retweet it or pass it along. Come across an interesting observation from community member? Retweet or reply. Take unusual opportunities to either amplify or extend discussions around topics.
In this example, we promote a local event, making sure to include the ending time and a link to directions. We also squeeze in a mention (Albany Subaru now feels like a valued community member), and a hash tag. And we still have 19 characters to spare!
Crowdsourcing Twitter is a fantastic way to let your audience help you do your job. Try asking readers for leads on breaking stories. “Did anyone witness the train crash this afternoon? Would you be willing to talk for a few minutes?” If you only have time to cover either the PTA meeting or the city council meeting, ask your readers which they would find more interesting. Posing questions in tweets (example: “Are you on food stamps because you lost your job? What do you do creatively to get by?”) can elicit very rich material. Questions like this are most effective when users that follow you retweet your question so that many people end up seeing it.
Leverage your audience of followers to find leads and contacts in the community. If you have a lot of followers, you’d be amazed how effective this can be.
In this example, the journalist engages with a member of the public and solicits contributions to her publication at the same time.
Does your site take public contributions (blog posts, photographs)? If so, use Twitter to encourage readers to upload images from an upcoming event. It’s pretty amazing what kind of results you can get when you’ve got a few hundred (or a few thousand) followers.
Don’t auto-pump tweets to Facebook It’s easy to connect your Twitter account to your Facebook account so your Tweets become status updates automatically. Don’t do this! The grammar of Twitter doesn’t work on Facebook. All of those hashtags and @mentions won’t be clickable after being copied to Facebook, and will only confuse readers. Yes, you need to be on both networks, but you’ll either need to post to both places separately, or use a client like Hootsuite that can help you post to both places simultaneously while formatting correctly for each site. Another excellent alternative is to use the Selective Twitter Facebook app. With this enabled, simply place the short #fb hash tag at the end of any tweet to have it copied to your Facebook stream. Any tweets lacking that tag will not appear on Facebook.
Events Twitter is an incredible resource for breaking news and live events. If you’re at a live event, try and learn whether it has a hashtag right away (more on hashtags here). If there isn’t one, be the community leader and create one! If there’s been a crime or disaster, use Twitter to identify eye-witnesses you can speak to for your story. At almost every event with more than a few dozen people, an active Twitter back-channel will form quickly. Find your way into the discussion to mine the event for more material than you’d be able to dig up just by talking to people.
Almost every sizable event will have some Twitter activity happening in the “back channel.” Tune in to see a different side of things than what’s on stage.
Promoting your content Tweeting helps surface your content to search engines faster. Because Google “licenses” Twitter’s entire stream, a tweeted link will appear in search results almost immediately (which is another good reason to use unambiguous, meaningful keywords in your tweets). Of course, promoting your content should not be the only (or even the main) thing you do with Twitter, but it is important of course. When posting story URLs, try using something other than just the headline. You want to avoid coming off as a link-posting robot – be a real human to your readers.
The journalist manages to promote content on her publication’s site without simply posting linked headlines – the reader can “see” that there’s a human on the other end.
You also may want to post about interesting conversations that are happening in story comments sections.
Because Twitter is a stream and not a blog, and few people read everything that gets posted, it’s actually acceptable to post the same link a few times over – chances are, few people will notice! Just be judicious and tasteful about it. If you use Hootsuite or Tweetdeck, consider using their “Scheduled tweets” feature to promote your content in the middle of the night, or on the weekend when you’re away.
U R Doing It Wrong Avoid these practices:
- Just posting headlines (Twitter is so much more than that)
- Talking “at” people (You are a spokesperson, but also a community member)
- Overdoing hashtags (Use them when useful, not just to be clever)
- Barraging readers (Post frequently, but don’t flood readers’ streams)
- Make it all about you (This should go without saying)
Nobody likes an overly self-promotional tweeter. You will be rewarded by more followers, more mentions, and a higher level of influence if you mention other interesting people/stories/facts about your topic rather that solely focus on disseminating your own content.
This NYT journalist is promoting content at another publication. The key is to share interesting/relevant content so the reader sees you as valuable – not just to promote your own content.
Social media gurus say that it’s ideally best to promote your own content about once every 10 tweets. The remainder should be spent giving nods to other cool, interesting, and/or relevant things that you find and want to share.
Above all, be authentic. Readers can spot “marketing” speak a mile away.
There are no hard-and-fast rules — all of these are guidelines!
About this Tutorial
This tutorial was written by Knight Digital Media Center webmaster Scot Hacker, with invaluable contributions from Ashwin Seshagiri, a graduate student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. While it’s optimized for journalists exploring the complex world of Twitter, it’s suitable for anyone wanting to hone their Twitter skills.
This content may not be republished in print or digital form without express written permission from KDMC. Please see our Content Redistribution Policy at kdmc.berkeley.edu/license.