By now, six years after its launch, most Internet users are aware that Twitter is not only a sound birds make, but a social network where users share bits of information and commentary in 140 characters or less. Twitter users interact with each other by re-broadcasting tweets to their followers (re-tweeting), calling out the names of other Twitter users in their tweets, using hashtags (the # symbol) to participate in a Twitter chat, or sending private, direct messages.
Twitter claims to host more than 360 million accounts, but some media outlets estimate that only about 21 million of those accounts are active. What seems to often happen is individuals sign up for Twitter with the intention of following people and conversations they find interesting, but soon become bogged down by the sheer amount of accounts and tweets the site generates. Science proves that humans can handle only about 150 meaningful relationships at any given time. So when a person’s Facebook or Twitter network crests that magic number and the daily demands of work, family and face-to-face relationships persist, the time and energy needed to nurture and maintain those online connections overwhelms the individual and forces them to abandon their grand plans for becoming a tweeting sensation.
How associations can use Twitter
The benefits of finding new information and connecting with others via Twitter can still be worth your time and brainpower. As association communicators it’s our job to stay informed about the platforms our members use to exchange ideas–not necessarily become power users or experts, but at least possess a working knowledge of how different platforms function and what purpose they serve.
As an association professional, use Twitter to:
- Expand your professional knowledge by seeing what people with similar (or different!) interests than you tweet about. For example, if you’re a member of a health care-related association, there are plenty of health care professionals and organizations tweeting news and updates related to the industry.
- Skim conversations and news quickly. Having only 140 characters to communicate a thought leads people to creatively and succinctly express themselves. Twitter is also beating “traditional” media at its game of breaking news about major events.
- Show members that your association staff or board is interested in communicating with them one-on-one. The transparent, open nature of Twitter (unless you have your account set to private, anyone can follow anyone else and view their tweets) means members can talk directly with people who, because of physical or bureaucratic distance, they might otherwise not have the regular opportunity to contact.
- Show love to other related associations and organizations. Simply following another association or organization shows them that you and your association are interested in what they have to say, and could pave the way for future offline event or communication collaborations.
How to start
If you’ve been too intimidated to start tweeting, begin slowly. Here’s a short primer about leaving the comfort of your existing communications nest to join the Twitter flock:
1. Sign up for an account
Follow Twitter’s step-by-step guide to set up your account. Have a business-appropriate photo of yourself and a representative website (probably your association’s site) ready. Familiarize yourself with Twitter’s operational language.
2. Listen first
Once you have a Twitter account, follow some other accounts that interest you. Mix some fun, personal interests with professional-related accounts so you can learn about this platform through topics with which you already feel at home. Then sit back and listen to them for awhile. Check your news feed (your home screen) every day or every couple of days. See what people are talking about. Observe how they construct their tweets. Watch how they interact with each other.
3. Tweet something
Pick a news item that you feel comfortable sharing, and tweet about it. Or, retweet something one of your new Twitter friends has posted, with your two cents added, by copying their tweet and adding your message and the letters “RT” right before their username (beginning with the @ symbol). These tactics let others know you’re ready to join the conversation.
4. Keep listening
Watch for replies about your tweets, especially if you’ve replied to someone else’s. Respond as appropriate. Keep in mind that anyone following you can see what you write, even if they are not associated with the topic you are tweeting about.
At this point, it’s easy to:
a) forget you have an account in the midst of your daily offline responsibilities,
b) become fatigued trying to keep up with your news feed and Twitter conversations, or
Take it slow. Limit the number of times you log onto Twitter every day. (Turn off any email or mobile notifications about new followers or mentions to resist the temptation to constantly go online.) Only tweet if what you have to say is a personal reply, a unique observation, or something you know others would find interesting. Follow other accounts gradually so you don’t overwhelm yourself with the resulting size of your news feed.
5. Join a Twitter chat
A Twitter chat happens when people log on to Twitter at an agreed-upon date and time and post Tweets about a common topic using a topic-related hashtag. The #assnchat hashtag is one example that is continuously used by association professionals to exchange news and ideas about association management and publishing. Usually there is a moderator or two posing questions, and participants tweet their answers, including the group hashtag in their tweets. Anyone interested in the conversation enters the hashtag in Twitter’s search to find all conversation-related tweets. (This requires continually refreshing your browser, or using a third-party Twitter app like TweetDeck or Twitterfall that shows new tweets as they are posted.)
Associations often establish hashtags for use in tweets sent during conferences and events so that attendees as well as people unable to attend can follow the event online.
Including a hashtag in your tweet allows others to find your message in searches about that word or phrase, and can facilitate new connections.
Twitter is a tool, not a strategy
If you make it this far on Twitter, you are well on your way to becoming proficient at this medium. Like most social media platforms, Twitter is what you make of it. Some choose to listen and stay mostly quiet while others tweet almost as much as they talk in real life. Remember that Twitter isn’t a strategy, it’s one tool of many that may or may not help your association reach its operational, communication or membership goals. Consider how using this tool might help you progress toward your publishing and communication goals, and chart your activity from there.
Kelly Donovan is an online marketing specialist with Naylor, LLC.