By now, we’re all at least somewhat familiar with Twitter, the micro-blogging phenomenon that everyone seems to be joining in on. It’s on the nightly news, in commercials, on late night TV and talk shows – everyone’s “tweeting”. You’re probably wondering if you should jump on the Twitter bandwagon, or maybe you already have, and it’s still not making sense.
There are plenty of articles, tip sheets, and tutorials about how to use Twitter, and more specifically, how to use it for business. However, let’s back up a bit. I think there’s still a lot of confusion about what exactly Twitter is, and how to use it effectively and enjoyably. This confusion results from thinking that Twitter is something it’s not.
Some people say that Twitter is “just like Facebook’s status updates.” It’s true that Twitter is similar to Facebook, but it’s also different in very crucial ways.
- You have a profile
- You can upload a photo and some information about yourself
- You post “updates” answering the question “what are you doing right now?” or “what’s on your mind?”
Your Facebook profile serves as an online poster that tells your friends “all about you”. It’s a hub where you can summarize what’s going on in your world, and other people can look at your page and see a snapshot of your life. You could conceivably complete your profile, and then do little or nothing with it, and it still serves its purpose – to stay in touch with friends. You can log in only once a week and still get a lot out of Facebook.
Twitter is not like this at all. Your profile is much simpler – it shows (at most) your photo, your location, a website link, a brief bio, and your most recent tweets. If you set up your Twitter account and do little or nothing to it, it doesn’t work at all. The heart and soul of Twitter is interacting with other people. If you only log in once a week, you may get something out of it, but you’ll be missing the true wealth of Twitter, which is constantly streaming information and connectivity, and real-time interaction.
Twitter doesn’t make much sense unless you’re actively using it. The foundation of your Facebook experience is your profile – you post updates, photos, etc. – and other people's profiles, and the interaction that takes place between friends. On Twitter, your profile is not the foundation. Most probably, the only time anyone will ever look at your Twitter profile is when they are deciding whether to follow you or not. They’ll spend about ten seconds on your profile and then move on.
The point of Twitter is to listen, talk, and engage in conversation with other people who are also using Twitter. This all starts to make a lot more sense as you follow more people who tweet on a regular basis. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are setting up Twitter profiles with the idea that it's something like Facebook - you create a profile that other people will look at, and then something will happen. But Twitter doesn't work that way! It requires you to be more proactive and more involved than many other social networking sites.
I like to picture Twitter as a river. All the people using Twitter all over the world are contributing to this giant river of tweets. When you join in, you’re adding your tiny stream of tweets into the river, and when you follow people, you’re taking in another tiny part of the river. No one could possibly consume the whole river, so don't even try! And if you just set up a profile, follow a couple people, and tweet once, it’s like sitting by the river in a lawn chair, sticking your toe in the water, and complaining that “this river is no good for swimming!” You have to dive in!
Once you’re following some people, and other people are following you, the conversation can begin. It takes time and effort to establish your own little “Twitter stream” and to get comfortable swimming in it. As you follow people, they will follow you back, and as you reply to people, they’ll reply back, or comment on your tweets. That’s when the fun really starts.
If this still seems confusing, let’s compare Twitter to something we’re all familiar with: email.
Interaction on Twitter is a lot like email:
Email wouldn't be very useful if we couldn't reply. On Twitter, replying is really important too. You can reply to anyone publicly, or reference them, by typing @ followed by their username (no space). If you’re talking about someone else, refer to them by their @username.
@harmonymatters I really enjoyed your class! (reply)
I attended a great class by @harmonymatters today. (reference)
Referencing other people is kind of like a cc in email. It includes them in the conversation without talking to them directly. On your Twitter homepage, there’s an @replies tab. This will show you any tweet with your @username in it. @replies that you send are visible to anyone and will show up in your public Twitter stream.
Talk to someone privately via direct message, or “DM”. You do this by typing “d username” (this time WITH a space!)
Example: d harmonymatters I really enjoyed your class!
These messages are private and go to your DM “inbox”. You can only send DM’s to people who follow you (and conversely, you can only receive DM's from people you're following).
The re-tweet, or “RT” is like an email forward. When someone else tweets something interesting or useful that you want to share with all your followers, you can re-tweet it. Be sure to reference the person you got it from by including their @username. Re-tweets are either preceded with RT, or are noted by including “via @username” somewhere in the tweet.
RT @harmonymatters Free organizing class! http://www...
Free organizing class! http://www... (via @harmonymatters)
Hashtags are a huge part of the functionality of Twitter, and are (loosely) akin to an email's subject line. (However, not every tweet needs to have a hashtag.) Hashtags are basically a way to “tag” a tweet in order to make it easier for people to find by searching. You add a hashtag by typing the # symbol, followed by your tag word or term of choice (no space).
@harmonymatters I really enjoyed your class about #organizing today.
Want to get #organized? Check out this free class by @harmonymatters http://www...
Hashtags are commonly used to organize around events or popular topics. For example, people tweeting about American Idol might tag their tweets #americanidol. Or, people attending a business conference could arrange a “tweet-up” (yes, that’s a Twitter meet-up) or share info about the conference by using a hashtag.
If this all still seems confusing, follow some people who tweet regularly and just observe. You'll see them using all these interacting tools, and it will start to make more sense.
Twitter is what you make of it. By understanding what Twitter is (and what it’s not) and by using @replies, DM’s, RT’s, and #hashtags to connect with others, you’ll be able to get more out of Twitter, give more value to your followers, and use Twitter effectively for your business.