Last month at fall SBMU here in Columbus, I was trying to explain Twitter to some folks in my social media session who weren't familiar with it. Since I'm a big fan of analogies, I spent the week before the show trying to come up with a quick and easy way to explain Twitter. The thing that kept popping into my head was the idea of a wall of Post-it notes. If you're still having a hard time understanding Twitter, hear me out for one more explanation.

Tracking the Conversation

There are millions of people in the world with thoughts, opinions and questions. Some of them say things you'll want to hear, others don't. Some will occasionally talk about you, others won't. Some will occasionally ask you questions or tell you things, and others won't.

The question is, how do you keep track of all these conversations?

If you want to track it on web pages, you do it with a search engine. If you're trying to track blogs you use Google or Technorati alerts. Either way, you've got a lot of information to sort through.

Twitter makes things a tad bit simpler.

A Wall of Messages

Think of Twitter as a wall of messages just for you. Imagine a wall absolutely covered with messages written on different color post-it notes. Your wall might look something like this:

Shot of post it notes on the wall

Now, assuming this wall of Post it notes is your Twitter account, it might work a little something like this.

The Blue Notes

You'll notice the majority of post it notes on the wall are blue. In our analogy, those blue notes represent the Twitter users you've decided to "follow." This means you've singled out a specific person and told Twitter you'd like to hear everything they have to say.

This is sort of like adding a blog to your RSS reader. You either know the person, or you've read enough of their works to decide you're probably interested in most everything they have to say.

Twitter will compile the list of people you are following and will gather up every message they send to the world. These messages are the blue notes on your wall.

The Yellow Notes

twitterreplies.jpgAnother nice thing about Twitter is that it keeps track of the messages people write to or about you. Twitter users can address a specific person in their message by including that person's username in the message. They also might include someone's username because they are talking about that person and want everyone else to know the individual is also on Twitter.

All you need to do to see these messages is go to your Twitter home page and look for the @ replies link. It's highlighted in red in the picture over there to the right. When you click on the @ replies link (or use the @ replies feature in most Twitter applications) you'll be taken to a view that shows ONLY the messages that have your username in them.

For instance, this past weekend I was out with Search Engine Guide's Business Development Manager, Rachel Phillips and her sister for her birthday. I sent out a tweet out that wasn't for Rachel, but was about Rachel. I included her Twitter name so she'd see the note and so anyone else who wanted to know who she was could follow the link to see her posts.

screen shot of tweet about Rachel

Picture the yellow notes on the board above as being the messages that are to or about you. Twitter's @ replies link gives you one click access to "clear the wall" of all post it notes but the yellow one by letting you change your view from ALL the tweets you're following to only the tweets that contain your user name.

The Pink Notes

The last set of post it notes on the wall is the pink notes. These are the ones you go looking for. As with the yellow notes (messages to or about you) you can easily use Twitter's tool to wipe all but the pink notes off the board.

Why would you go looking for the pink notes? Because they are tweets about a word or topic you want to read about. You might be trying to find out what people are twittering about the bail out or the upcoming James Bond film, or you might be looking to see what people are saying about you or your company.

Twitter's search option allows you to type in any word or phrase and then generate a list of tweets that contain them. For instance, back during our SBMU conference, I could keep track of what people were posting about the show by running a search for the tag "SBMU."

If I did, I'd get a list like this:

Shot of sbmu searches on Twitter

These types of searches make up the pink post it notes on the board. You have to go looking for them amidst all the talk and chatter, but if you want to see them, they're pretty easy to pick out of the crowd.

All Those Colors!

Now you might be thinking to yourself that's a lot of post it notes. You'd be right. I follow about 900 people on Twitter and there's always conversation taking place. While I've chosen to receive every single one of those messages, there's no way I could ever read them all. Take another look at that wall of post it notes.

Would you really read all the blue ones?

You might, if you had some free time and were feeling curious.

What's more likely to happen is you'll scan through the blue notes to see if any stand out and then you'll focus in on the less common, but more relevant pink and yellow notes. You'll take the time to see what is being said to and about you and you might run a search every now and then for your product names, your competitors or any other word or phrase that helps you see what the chatter is in your vertical.

The wall may seem overwhelming at first, but once you start to realize you have complete control over what appears and you can easily pick out the posts that mean the most to you, Twitter becomes a lot easier to digest. If you'd like to learn more about getting started with Twitter, you might try the first part series I wrote earlier this year called "From Twits to Tweeple: Why I Embraced Twitter and You Should Too.

October 13, 2008

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.


So, Twitter is like Post it Notes? Well I can only imagine the amount of Post it notes Scoble or Obama would go through with all their Twitter followers Tweets! I think this concept of trying to explain Twitter is becoming harder and harder, to often I hear people tell me "I don't want to know what someone had for breakfast", or "Why Should I care".

Will this microblogging phoemenon ever hit the mainstream?. Will my grandparents understand this EVER, probaly not?

These should just be compromises to the audience Twitter is trying to access, the main focus should be at showing companies and new startups how the site can be used to hugely change their business model, and help them to broadcast to millions of people at once.

Nice analogy. Trying to explain this to some of my clients (not to mention my family) has been a challenge.

I found your article from a twitter-pal's (@GrantGriffiths) tweet and agree with him that it's a great explain it to those who don't twitter (and probably never will).


I agree with Angela - good analogy!

The question is not how do you keep track of all these conversations? The question is WHY would keep track of all these conversations.

I just signed up with Twitter a few days ago for personal and work at - and this post cleared a few things about Twitter; thanks very helpful ;-)

Twitter yes a confusing one. The question is how can twitter help businesses get targeted traffic?

Or maybe that not the point! Understand it or not maybe it's just one of those things that just has to be done.

Great post and analogy!

I love this analogy, and refer my confused and befuddled clients to this post regularly. Thanks for the clear thinking, as usual!

Twitter won't necessarily drive huge numbers in terms of traffic but it builds and reinforces brand identity online. It's a great way of developing conversations between business and customers in way that removes the corporate face.

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