8 Twitter Tips for the Savvy Social Media Practitioner

As Twitter and the lightning-fast adoption of Google+ demonstrate, social media are an easy, cost-effective, timely way to put targeted content in front of your audience.

Here are eight strategies to help your Twitter content get the attention it deserves – while dodging common Twitfalls:

10 tweets aren’t better than 1
Maybe you’ve seen this guy or gal on Twitter: They’ve written a list-blog offering 10 pieces of advice about something and then they tweet each item on the list separately. With only 140 characters (or fewer, if you want a retweet), Twitter is supposed to encourage pithiness and creativity. It’s not supposed to feel like a run-on sentence or a skipping record.

See when your audience is sleeping, know when they’re awake
Now that the infographic on best times to tweet has come out, beware crowding the Twitterverse during these times, especially if your key audience is in a time zone that doesn’t correspond with daylight hours on the east coast of the United States. Wise communicators find the best times for their followers, so have fun and experiment to discover which time of day brings you more replies, retweets, click-throughs, audience engagement, and “favorite” designations.

Unless you are actually in a Witch House band, use hashtags and symbols sparingly
You know these folks: Their tweets look like Witch House* set lists. There are more # and @ symbols than actual words. Yes, you want to engage people. You want your content to reach its intended audience. You wouldn’t be a good communicator or social media practitioner if you didn’t want these things. But, most important of all, you’re going for meaning when you communicate. Write something clear and concise first, then identify the most appropriate audience for your content. Figure out the one hashtag that will reach your audience (two at the very most). Remember, your peeps are already following you. They’ll do the work of getting the word out when your tweets contain content that’s valuable and coherent enough to retweet.

Avoid rerunning old tweets or linking to ancient content
A social media expert I follow, who shall remain nameless, spews out automated (AKA scheduled) tweets all day and night. In order to feed this constant flow with what looks like new content, he resorts to rerunning links to blog posts from several years ago. Nothing sillier and more credibility-crushing than having your latest tweet promote “The Top 5 Twitter Trends of 2008.”

Source your content when retweeting
It can be disconcerting – and reflects on credibility – when someone on Twitter links to a blog post or breaking news, and you discover that they didn’t author the content they’re so actively promoting. If you want to share valuable content from others, take the time, and the extra step, to look up the author on Twitter so you can give them credit. What to do about the person who clued you in to this content? If there’s room, include them in your tweet this way: via @NoBad Language. Or DM (Direct Message) them with a “thank you” for providing a valuable link. It’s only fair and not only will you build credibility for yourself as a content provider, you may find yourself with some grateful new friends.

Don’t run your Twitter stream on LinkedIn
Especially if your Twitter channel goes beyond your professional life to include personal contacts and musings. LinkedIn is for your professional brand. Linking it to a channel that functions as your personal stream of consciousness is risky. The headhunters and HR folks who search LinkedIn for potential job candidates may rule you out if they see Twitter posts about what you did for entertainment over the weekend, your political views, your use of salty language, or rants against your cell phone provider. Know your channels and present your best self – to friends, to recruiters, to fellow alums, to colleagues – in each one.

Resist being drawn in
It’s hard not to chime in when the entire Twitterverse seems to be sharing witty reflections on the topic du jour. As with the previous piece of advice, if you’re tweeting under your real name or can be identified by your Twitter handle – or tweeting on your company’s account – remember that HR is always watching. Social media background checks for job candidates are the norm today, and something you tweeted two years ago can come back to bite you – hard – and you’ll never even know why you didn’t get a second interview for that job you really, really wanted.

“Scoring” is for wild-and-crazy bachelors
Checking your score is the social media version of Googling yourself. We all do it; we all get a little thrill from it. But, you move away from being a truly effective and reliable content provider the more tricks you use to bump up your score.

Here is another reason: Have you ever noticed a true correlation between your activity on social media, like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and your score? Most people I know have the same concern – they’ve been highly active and their score plummets or, like me, they’ve gone on vacation and not touched their social media accounts for two weeks, only to see their score jump 10 points. Whatever algorithms they’re using to calculate your social media status, these scoring services are not yet reliable and they take your eye off the real reasons for engaging on social media.

Focus on content, reliability and engagement within a valued community of professionals or friends, and you’ll be a top-notch Twitterer.

For additional tips on Twitter, check out Larner Caleb’s “10 Ways to Send Out the Wrong Twitter Message.” Helpful and a fun read.

* What’s Witch House? It’s like that time when Prince decided to go by an unpronounceable symbol instead of his name, and everyone was stuck referring to him as TAFKAP (The Artist Formerly Known as Prince). Prince is also known for penning songs with titles like “I Would Die 4 U,” predicting texting- and Twitter-speak by several decades. Witch House bands use symbols for names and song titles, making it ultra-difficult for people to pronounce them or follow them (try typing a Witch House band name into a search engine and see what you get).

All it Takes Is a Little Imagination

Lots of news about Twitter this week, including several stories about using the social media channel to target print media outlets.

One battle is Ashton Kutcher v. Village Voice. A more disturbing story that broke in U.K. newspapers – about the News of the World (NOTW) hacking the phone account of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler – has turned into an all-out war against the tabloid, using Twitter to encourage advertisers to boycott this Fleet Street staple.

The background is thisNOTW is accused of hacking into the mobile phone account of the young teen, who went missing in 2002; listening to voicemail messages left by distraught family and friends; then deleting voicemails when the mailbox was full so that more messages could be left on the system. When relatives of the missing girl discovered that voicemails had been deleted, they thought they had reason to believe she might still be alive and gave hopeful interviews to NOTW.

News of the phone hackings ultimately got out – there are further allegations, involving hacked accounts of other victims of tragedies – and writer Melissa Harrison at the Guardian newspaper began a campaign to make NOTW’s advertisers uncomfortable enough to withdraw their support for a tabloid that might endorse this kind of unprofessional conduct. You can read her description of the response that followed here.

Harrison’s article frankly discusses the importance and some of the difficulties of a free press in a democratic society – the downside being the risk of immoral behavior creeping in to the newsgathering process.

Social media hasn’t been free of some of these downsides (and it could be argued that the technological acumen that gave us cell phones and hacking also conjured up innovations like Twitter). But, Harrison adds, “it’s times like this when Twitter really comes into its own.”

“As a truly democratic forum, everyone can get involved and have their say, and it’s easy to share information and ideas,” Harrison writes. “And because it’s all so public, it’s very hard for companies to ignore public pressure or hide behind rhetoric. For every 5,000 tweets with a funny cat photo there’s a moment like this, when Twitter remembers what it can really do.”

Tabloids are an easy target for disapprobation. So is Twitter. People buy and read tabloids and use social media for all sorts of reasons. As Harrison notes in her article, it’s easy to dismiss some of the awful things that appear in tabloids with the statement that “they only print it because people want to read it.”

While that may be true of celebrity gossip, I think it’s more nuanced when it comes to stories of missing children. This is just my opinion, but I think it may be that most readers seek out stories like this because of fear, not titillation. They are looking for clues, differently from the official investigators, but just as diligently, about the level of danger in their neighborhoods and that their children might be exposed to. They are weighing the information available to them to decide what to do, how to protect their families, and how to talk to their children about some of the terrible things that happen in this world.

Instead of helping, the tabloid failed its readers, misjudging what they were capable of. From the evidence of Melissa Harrison’s Twitter campaign, all it might have taken was a little imagination on the part of NOTW editors and writers to figure out how to channel the concern for a missing child into something far more valuable and lasting, perhaps a campaign that stirred readers to form neighborhood watch groups or reach out to and support the families of victims or find new ways to protect children when they walk home from school.

Making Your Social Media Accounts More Secure

This holiday weekend saw the latest in a string of Twitter hacks, when one of Fox News’s many accounts was broken into and tweets were published implying that U.S. President Barack Obama had been assassinated.

These hacks mainly target popular or celebrity Twitter accounts. According to The New York Times story, representatives from Twitter are claiming it was not the company’s servers that were compromised, while Fox News appears to be investigating where the security breach came from.

While Twitter has had ongoing issues with its servers, especially during periods of heavy traffic, there are steps individuals and companies can take to make accounts more secure:

Use complicated passwords – and protect them
The NYT article suggests that it was a Fox News email account hack that led to the Twitter takeover. Whether you are working remotely, via mobile technology, or in the office, I’m sure your IT department will remind you that you need passwords for all of your personal and social media accounts that are longer than six letters and include numbers and symbols. Change your passwords regularly. And don’t share them with others or let anyone shoulder-surf when you’re typing them on your mobile or tablet devices.

Consolidate your company’s Twitter accounts
The hacked @foxnewspolitics Twitter account was apparently one of many accounts belonging to Fox News. While the news organization is presumably trying to offer more targeted information to its audiences, the most effective way to target and curate is by offering a variety of custom feeds from your website and blogs, rather than on a microblog. One Fox News Twitter handle can promote new content on the various blogs and on the website and audience members can subscribe to the content they’re interested in and ignore the rest. Same thing goes for other companies. Twitter has become a helpful way to reach customer service and receive direct responses from companies, but it’s increasingly unhelpful to users to type in a company name and come up with literally hundreds of options that need to be sorted through to determine which one is correct.

Figure out what’s manageable
To use the @foxnewspolitics example again, the NYT report notes that this particular account was dormant, possibly because of the long holiday weekend. It took 10 hours to notice the break-in, regain control of the account, and remove the phony tweets. This is a manageability issue: there are too many Twitter accounts at this company and not enough people overseeing them, especially on a holiday. Back in the day, when I worked in radio, stations would go off the air overnight when there wasn’t enough sponsor interest to keep a graveyard-shift DJ employed. They did not remain on-air during this time, risking that someone might enter the studio and commandeer the airwaves for their own personal messages. Leaving a Twitter or other social media account unmanaged over a holiday is the equivalent of leaving a radio station transmitter on and a microphone wide open. If your company has social media accounts, it needs to have a plan detailing not just content, but who manages them and when and who covers over holidays.

Have an emergency plan
In addition to a regular editorial and management schedule for your social media accounts, you need a crisis plan. You need to know who to contact at companies like Twitter and Facebook (including how to reach these folks after hours and on holidays) and how you will prove that you indeed are you if someone else has locked you out of your account.

Twitter: The Movie? You Bet Your Hashtag

Tan Siok Siok discusses “Twittamentary” after the June 28 screening in Los Angeles.

When I heard someone was making a documentary about Twitter, I had the same sort of reaction that folks did when they first learned there was going to be a film about Facebook: Were the filmmakers simply going to point the camera at a computer screen and let it all happen real-time?

What could possibly be so fascinating about Twitter beyond the Twitterverse?

I found out tonight when director Tan Siok Siok, a filmmaker from Singapore who tweets at @sioksiok, held a beta screening of “Twittamentary,” hosted by the Social Media Club of Los Angeles (@smc_la).

One of the fascinating things about this documentary is that Siok and her team relied on the same crowdsourcing approach that Twitter does to get the film made: she tweeted the whole time she was making it, people responded and shared their stories, Siok filmed them, and now that the piece is almost finished (she’s still making final adjustments to sound and color), she’s getting the word out and creating interest through these beta screenings via Twitter.

“I experienced a lot of generosity from people who wanted to help get the film made,” Siok said after the screening.

The structure of the doc – which takes the form of a road trip across the United States – is a smart choice; it stays out of the way and showcases the poignancy of the people who share what they’ve become because of their experiences on Twitter.

Yes, some of it’s silly and downright funny (as one interviewee gripes, she gets tired of trying to explain Twitter to people who’ve never been on it and who think it’s all about sharing what you had for lunch), but as the filmmakers travel to social media hubs like New York City, Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, the audience meets a growing, connected community of Twitter users whose humanity is unquestionably moving.

As Siok says, “The documentary explores the work of the human heart.”

There’s the homeless woman whose Twitter followers help her cope with loneliness and post-traumatic stress disorder, and make sure she has warm clothes in wintertime; there’s a female trucker tweeting to raise awareness of troublesome issues around sexual assault for people in the trucking industry; there’s the trucker’s dog, who has more followers than the trucker (which, she admits, is kind of depressing when a dog has more followers than you do); and there are writers and musicians, artists and advocates, rich and homeless, and a host of humankind all dealing with the quiet flow of daily life, the enormity of death and everything else in between, all contributing their personal and collective wisdom about this crazy channel that brings them together. You’ll want to follow all of them by the time the credits roll. I sure did!

There’s an interview with Siok on the Social Media Club of LA website. For more information on the documentary, visit the “Twittamentary” website.

Whether You Engage with Social Media Followers Is Just As Important as Why and How

Some fascinating developments in last week’s big Twitter miscommunication stories.

On Thursday, I published this post about Rep. Anthony Weiner’s Twitter fallout and the gaffe by a PR pro, who was defending his client. Since then, The New York Times has done some digging (reported in this excellent article, “Fake Identities Were Used on Twitter in Effort to Get Information on Weiner”) and discovered that Weiner’s Twitter account appears to have been monitored by political opponents, that people using fake Twitter handles (i.e. not their real names) were trying to engage him in online conversations, and they were contacting young women Followers of the congressman to try to learn more.

In an effort to provide deeper insight into the Redner Group’s upset Tweet about reviews of its client’s game that went “too far,” Jim Redner has written a lengthy guest column for Wired dissecting what happened, why he wrote the Tweet and how he goes about selecting the media outlets that receive a few hundred free review copies provided by the gaming company.

I don’t know of anyone worth their salt in the PR, corporate communications, marketing or news business who hasn’t had something blow up in their face at some point in their career, especially early on. Whether it happened on camera, in print or in a client’s office, these are the moments that we learned from, generous peers forgave us for, and, after incorporating this new knowledge into how we practiced our craft, made us better, wiser professionals.

After these stories hit the presses last week, the two pieces of advice I offered to individuals, communications folks and brands were: Never assume you know your Followers (mainly related to Rep. Weiner’s concerns) and Never confuse your professional Twitter account with your personal account (relating to the Redner Group story).

To these I’d like to add: Be careful how you choose to engage.

The reason most of us – as individuals or companies – are using social media is to engage audiences large and small. Often that means an auto-Follow back when people Follow or Friend us. On Twitter accounts belonging to public figures, you frequently see Followers request ReTweets. Sometimes these have to do with asking support for charities or help finding a missing person, other times they’re like reading ancient Greek. Companies are often lauded for responding with the same empathy as humans, so it is understandable that some might want to ReTweet about a missing person or promote a good cause. However, some of these requests may not be about genuine nonprofits or real missing people. Do you or your company have the time and resources to investigate every one of these requests to ensure that the information on your Twitter account is reliable and accurate? And doesn’t your reputation, or your company’s, depend in part on the quality and accuracy of the information it shares?

Note that social media influence, as tallied by tools like Klout, is based on the frequency of your online engagements, and being ReTweeted by someone with a large Klout score – someone like a celebrity – will boost your score even higher. So Twitter users aren’t always engaging with your or your brand to be friendly; in some cases, there’s a self-serving interest.

Then there are the Direct Messages that some choose to reply to and others clearly have a policy of not responding. While I would never encourage a company to ignore a DM that related to a customer service issue, responding to DMs can get you in trouble if you don’t know the person making the request.

Remember that the concern is not only this individual (who may not be who they say they are), but everyone else who can view one or both sides of the conversation, and it doesn’t even depend on who they Follow, rather it’s determined by how much reading of your Twitter stream and your correspondents’ they want to do.

For companies and brands, establishing guidelines around conversations with Followers and Friends is a must. Thinking through why you might or might not want to engage in DMs or RTs with Followers you may or may not know – and what one RT might invite in terms of requests for others, and whether you can handle the volume – will go a long way to maintaining a consistent and positive online presence and help protect brand reputation.

In the world of online forums, people who don’t contribute comments, but regularly read all of the threads of discussions are known as “lurkers.”

So, be extra careful with your online and social media presence and engagement practices because you never know who you’re talking with and you really never know who may be lurking out there.

Of Bloomsday, June Gloom and Twitter Fallout

Bloomsday dawned gloomy here in Hollywood, where we are “suffering” through the annual fogbound weather pattern known as June Gloom. It’s the one month on the calendar when we Angelenos are socked in like San Franscisco is the rest of the year.

The day also brought two news items about the repercussions of misusing Twitter:

  1. the resignation of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner in what’s being called a “sexting scandal,” but really was caused by a misunderstanding of the nature of Twitter “relationships;” and
  2. the loss of an account by PR agency Redner Group following Tweets that suggested the flacks would blacklist some media outlets that chose to give their client, gamer 2K, and its latest offering “Duke Nukem Forever,” less than favorable reviews.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Twitter?

Both of these events have left commentators scratching their heads. In an Ad Age Digital article about the 2K firing of Redner, the writer asks, “How does this keep happening?”

It’s a good question because it seems like two highly keen advocates of microblogging as a means to promote clients and causes and generate grassroots endorsements – those would be the PR industry and politicians – truly do not understand how the channel Twitter actually works.

A couple of key lessons here:

Never assume you know your followers
Have no fear, I’m not going to add to the commentary on the Weiner affair. I only want to explore what I and you and anyone supporting Twitter accounts for ourselves or a company or client can learn from this mess. It seems to me that one key lesson is something our mothers tried to teach us years ago: Don’t talk to strangers.

On Twitter this means we may all need to let go of the little ego rush (hey, I get it, too; doesn’t mean it’s right) that comes with adding new Followers. Face it, if you don’t know these folks and their profiles indicate they aren’t even in the same industry, what’s the point? What benefit do you or your clients really get from having random Followers? As with using impressions to measure success for media hits, measuring Followers does not give you an accurate reading of your influence.

Ordinary people do not have confirmed Twitter accounts. Confirmed accounts are the ones with the blue badge next to them featuring a white check mark; you’ll often see these on the Twitter accounts of celebrities, companies or public figures. Former Rep. Weiner has noted that he was using Twitter to communicate with women he’d never met and didn’t know.

Here’s the thing: You can never assume that someone is who they say they are on Twitter. Some accounts – that go a long way to make it look like there are real people behind them, including using a photo of a pretty girl, cleverly written profiles and Tweets copied from other accounts to appear friendly and real – aren’t even run by people: they’re spammers. And some accounts may even be ruses by people who don’t have your best interests at heart, people like competitors, who try to draw you in to compromising conversations.

I’m not, if you’re wondering, suggesting that Rep. Weiner was blindsided deliberately. I’m positing the idea that it is to our advantage (and our clients’) if we know whom we’re engaging or enraging on a public forum like Twitter and, if we don’t know who a Follower is, that acting, as crisis consultants often do, on a worst-case scenario basis might be a better approach than giving an unknown an all-access pass to our personal thoughts, opinions and photographs and, with them, the ability to damage reputations.

Never confuse your professional Twitter account with your personal account
The Redner group Twitter incident appears to be one of those cases where personal reaction to bad reviews was vented on the same Twitter account used by the company. Presumably this company Twitter handle also was used to promote clients, which is a standard practice in PR, and done in the hopes that Followers who are journalists might be further enticed into doing stories. In this instance, they certainly were.

James Redner told Ad Age: “I used a public forum to voice my complaints and I know better.” He also said he made personal calls to media outlets to apologize and explain, which was the right thing to do. Still, the situation reflected on the client, which ended its relationship with the company.

It’s important to mention that emails between PR people/spokespeople and reporters have wound up everywhere from Twitter to blogs to TV news, which is to say that mistakes in one channel (email, which some might think is a more private channel) can find their way to other, far more public channels with many, many more viewers and readers.

If you’re writing in a highly personable style on your company Twitter account or on a client’s – or if your personal Twitter account uses a handle that’s easily recognizable as you (because reporters can find and read and make use of your personal account whether you think that’s fair or not, and Human Resources departments are doing across-the-board social media searches on prospective candidates) – never confuse being casual with saying anything that’s on your mind. A friendly writing voice is a stylistic choice made on behalf of you, your company or your client(s), it’s not real (and therefore at the service of anything you feel like saying). Your friendly writing style is all about branding and ultimately about maintaining a good reputation.

If you want to share highly charged feelings or opinions, it is perhaps wiser to use a journal or…I was going to say take them on a Bloomsday pub crawl, but in this era of Twitter and video cameras on cell phones, even that isn’t a safe bet anymore. It’s probably best to take your anger home with you and vent it there in private.

Craft Clever Headlines, Lure Huge Audiences, Earn Millions of Dollars & Love of Nation

The subject, as you’ve surely guessed, is practice writing for headlines. The crafting of great press release- and news article-toppers was a long, lost art until Twitter showed up and everyone started thinking like a headline-writer.

Since headlines are supposed to be short, sweet and to-the-point, I won’t belabor the discussion here, especially when this wonderful article by Jessica Levco, “5 tips for writing the sexiest, most stimulating headlines EVER!,” is available here.

The only thing I’ll add to Ms. Levco’s piece is that the best headlines aren’t necessarily the funniest or most clever – what’s key is capturing the essence of the content (news story, press release, tweet) that follows. In an oversaturated world of information, this is the best service you’ll provide your potential audiences. Help them, and refrain from annoying them by wasting their time, and even your headlines can define you as a valuable resource.

Around my office, we’re in awe of The Economist’s headers and captions. Smart, observant, funny, brief-but-encapsulating, they rarely put a foot wrong. Between pages 58 and 83 of one issue, I found a half-dozen great headlines and captions, including “Guttbye Guttenberg” over a story on the resignation of Germany’s defense minister because of allegations of plagiarism – the photo caption read “Copy, alt, delete.”

In the meantime, those of us who suffer from headline-writer’s-block (yes, that’s me), can practice on our Twitter accounts.

Of April Fools and Twitter Rogues

Looks like most pundits are filing this lapse on the Marc Jacobs fashion house’s Twitter account under bad publicity = good publicity. PR Daily suggests that the Twitter intern’s meltdown “will probably help Marc Jacobs in that it boosts exposure to its Twitter feed.”

It reminded me of the error that cost journalist Linda Ellerbee her first job at a wire service: she used the computer at work to write a personal letter that ranted against her employer and, instead of hitting Print, managed to send out the letter to said wire service’s subscribers – promptly landing herself a better job with one of the subscribers.

It happened with old media, it happens with the new. One update: there’s a line of thinking that goes It’s Better to Hire Young People to Manage Our Twitter Accounts Because They “Get” Social Media. It’s why interns are overseeing a lot of temptingly open channels to your key audiences.

Truly, I’m not trying to start a Seasoned Professional vs. Callow Youth or With-it Social Media Guru vs. Old Fuddy-duddy flame war – this is not about that kind of dynamic – only to suggest that Twitter and Facebook are newer versions of the same old channels.

Good communications people of every age need to learn how to use these new tools to serve our clients and audiences and, while that includes a bit of personal-technical-upgrading (which I’m guilty of avoiding myself sometimes), it’s our adherence to guiding principles (such as communicating on behalf of our clients and audiences, rather than putting ourselves first) that makes us professionals – whether we’ve been at this work for days or decades,

Likewise the role of intern isn’t the problem here. I’ve seen plenty of interns do remarkable work – and come into a department with their own strong set of professional tenets and work habits. It’s the choice being made to assign an entire channel to someone with short-term skin in the game. The amount of time an intern spends in an organization is often barely enough to absorb an understanding of a communications department’s regular work flow, much less to adopt and implement the principles that guide why and how a company communicates.

Handing over the keys to a social media channel to the person who understands how to use it most effectively isn’t a bad instinct. But, these channels are where a good percentage of the conversation about your organization and your brands are happening, and they deserve as much oversight and guidance as your websites, newsletters and employee meetings.