It's no secret I'm skeptical when it comes to social media fads. I've never been a fan of Digg, I STILL don't get the allure of Facebook and I'm more than a little tired of the flood of invites in my email whenever people find "the next big thing." That's probably why I dismissed Twitter as a fairly silly idea that was indicative of our need to now broadcast each and every detail of our lives to the world. (Because really, do you care that personX just got home from the gym?)
That said, a few friends in the industry finally convinced me to log on just after the first of the year. After all, you shouldn't knock it until you try it right? I've been "trying it" for a month now. I have to admit; I was absolutely wrong. Sure, there are folks who flood Twitter with mindless drivel, but Twitter also features a vibrant community leveraging the tool in interesting ways and bringing people together the way only really good technology can. I'd vowed to give Twitter a month to win me over. That month has ended and Twitter wins.
Now that I've had time to really dive into the service, experiement with it and learn some of the finer details; I figured it's about time I wrote a Seach Engine Guide style guide to the service. This multi-part series will cover everything from how to get an account and get people following you to the finer points of twitter marketing and networking. It's not an outlet that will be worth the time to everyone, but it's certainly proven itself to have practical application for me.
What is Twitter?
Twitter has been called a form of "micro-blogging." I get where people are going with this, but I'm really not sure it's the best description. In the month I've been using it, I see it more as an open chat room. The basic idea of Twitter is to allow users to broadcast short messages (known as "tweets") to anyone who opts to receive them. It's a free service that was designed with mobile phones in mind, but allows users to connect via the Twitter website, IM applications and any number of Twitter applications as well.
People use Twitter as a form of communication. Think of it as an instant message that goes out to a ton of people at once. If you want to let your friends know you're headed to your favorite hang-out tonight, you can shoot them all a quick message without having to send a dozen emails. If you want feedback on an idea, you can tap into your network to ask a quick question. If you simply want to learn a little more about people you've heard of online, you can follow their tweets and "eavesdrop" in an acceptable way. In fact, I've found quite a few practical reasons to use Twitter, which I'll outline later in the series.
Getting An Account
It couldn't be simpler to start Twittering. You simply need to head to the Twitter web site and look for the "Get Started - Join" button.
You then follow a pretty standard simple sign-up process to establish your screen name and associated email address.
It's a good idea to give some thought to your screen name when signing up. You may want to go with your full name (for example, I tweet as "JenniferLaycock") or you may want to carry on the branding of your web site. (Robert tweets as "SmallBizAnswers.") Either route makes it a lot easier for people to find and follow you than it would be if you signed up as "randomname1234."
Once you've set up your account, you'll need to get hooked up with some other users. After all, if you're just out there sending messages to yourself, Twitter is going to get pretty boring. Twitter helps you find your friends as part of the registration process. You'll have to hand over temporary access to your email account, but it can be a quick way to find people you know on Twitter.
Once Twitter scans your accounts, they'll return a list of your contacts already using Twitter. You can select some or all and then have Twitter automatically load them into your followers and following lists.
Twitter will also generate a list of your contacts who do not have Twitter accounts and will allow you to select the ones you'd like to invite to the system. If you're the last of your friends to join Twitter, this will be a short list. For most of the world, this is going to be a very long list. (Tip: Don't spam everyone you know with a Twitter invite. Take the time to browse through this list and to invite only the people you have a true interest in following and who you think might have a true interest in following you.)
Personalizing Your Profile
Once you've set up your account and sent emails out to your friends, you'll be taken back to the Twitter home page with an invitation to join the conversation. Before you do this, I'd suggest you look over to the right side of the screen at your Twitter control panel. That box will show your avatar (which starts as a default set of eyes on a brown background) and your screen name. It also tracks how many people you are following and are following you, how many direct messages you've received and how many tweets you've posted.
If you look at the top right spot on the box, you'll notice a link that says "your profile."
Don't be surprised if you see a page that simply says "haven't updated yet!" when you click this link.
The first time I saw it, I wondered if I had to make a post before I could update my profile information, but that isn't the case. Simply click on the "add a photo" box next to your screen name and you'll quickly shift into the full profile area of the site.
Once you're in the profile update area, you'll be asked to upload an image to use as your avatar. You might upload a photo of yourself, or you might want to stick with your company logo. Keep in mind this image will show up next to your posts and will also show up when someone views a list of who a Twitter user is following. (Tip: An avatar that stands out from the crowd can really catch someone's eye when they're looking to see who a particular user follows.)
Next, you'll need to create a brief bio and list your web site URL. On this screen, you also have the option of making your tweets private. This means your tweets will only show up for approved followers. You'll have to take the time to manually approve everyone who wants to follow you, but it does give a nice level of privacy to anyone worried about strangers reading their tweets.
Once you've let people know a little more about who you are, you'll need to let Twitter know how you'd like to receive updates. Sure, you can go to the web site to read them, but believe me, that's going to get old really fast. While there are quite a few third party applications (which I'll cover later in this series), the two default options are via your mobile phone and via an instant messenger program.
Getting and Sending Updates (Tweets)
Keep in mind that if you sign up to receive updates via your mobile phone, and you begin following a lot of people, you're going to get slammed with text messages. (If you don't have unlimited texting, you'll also get slammed with data fees on your next bill.) A better option, if you already use an instant messenger program is to simply funnel your messages through it. (You can update to a twitter app later when you get the hang of things.)
Twitter easily integrates with GoogleTalk, LiveJournal IM, AOLIM and Jabber, so if you use any of these IM programs, you can be up and running in no time.
Once you've registered your mobile phone or instant messenger program, you're setup to send tweets from any of them. On your mobile phone, you simply text your message to 40404. Twitter will use caller ID to match your phone up with your account and to broadcast it to the world. If you're using GoogleTalk or Jabber, you'll need to add firstname.lastname@example.org as a friend. If you're on AOL's instant messenger, you'll add "TwitterIM" to your buddy list.
Finally, you can change the settings on your Twitter page to customize it. That way, whenever someone visits your personal Twitter site, they'll get a taste for your personality, branding, or whatever.
For example, here's the default Twitter page from the Search Engine Guide account I just setup:
And now my personal Twitter page which I've taken to adorable puppy extremes:
Keep it Short
Remember, tweets are limited to 140 characters. That's not much in the way of sharing thoughts, but the whole point of Twitter is to communicate in thought bursts. For wordy folks like me that 140 limit can be tough, but it's a good way to make sure you aren't saying any more than you need to.
That's enough to get you started with an account on Twitter. The article in this series will have me digging a little deeper into the Twitter system. I'll explain more about the idea of "followers" and "following" and how to communicate publicly to specific twitterers. I'll also explain how to send direct (private) messages and how to check for replies from people you aren't following. I'll also dig deeper into expanding your network of followers and the need to find new people to follow. For good measure, I'll throw in a little Twitter lingo primer to help you along the way.
This Twitter series continues with:
Part Two: From Twits to Tweeple, Why I Embraced Twitter and You Should Too
Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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