Twitter recently celebrated its fifth birthday and now has over 200 million accounts. In celebration of its continued growth and ongoing maturation, I thought I’d share my perspective on some of the worst Twitter engagement practices. This post is targeted to social media rookies who are thinking about establishing a Twitter presence and/or expanding their Twitter activity, but more experienced Tweeters – including mavens – may want to consider them as well.
First, a Few Caveats…
I am admittedly not the biggest Twitter fan. I never have been. Actually, in fairness, I think Twitter is a great platform with tremendous potential. But there are many practices that Twitter users engage in that I’ve always found off-putting, and those practices have limited the extent to which I have leveraged it both personally and professionally (see note at the end of this post for a brief description of my Twitter engagement).
And I’m hardly alone. I regularly interact with people who don’t “get” Twitter at all. They think it is a ridiculous waste of energy and that the people who use it are vapid, shallow, silly, immature, narcissistic, unprofessional egomaniacs with too much time on their hands and not enough “real” work to do. And believe it or not, there are still plenty of people who don’t even understand what Twitter is or how it works (if you happen to be one of those people, check out the Twitter Basics section of the Twitter Help Center for a “101” introduction).
It’s easy enough to dismiss “those people” as Digital Era Luddites, but they are much more representative of the general population than the Twitter mavens are. Twitter may have over 200 million accounts, but the number of active users is far lower than that, especially when you consider multiple accounts from a single user. Given the nature of the platform, the potential users of Twitter, could match or even succeed Facebook’s numbers (currently over 600 million globally), but not without significant changes in how it’s used. It has to become less noisy, shallow and unreliable (e.g., one of the trending topics on March 29th – RIP Jackie Chan – was yet another Twitter hoax) if it’s going to appeal to a broader range of people. In other words, it’s going to have to become a little less cool and a lot more square as it evolves from “the next big thing” to a mainstream utility. Fortunately, we’re seeing the pendulum swing back toward the center from the “anything goes” mania we’ve seen over the past few years, and many of Twitter’s earliest adopters and most ardent users are recognizing the need to dial things back to a more manageable level.
It’s also worth noting that Twitter views itself as an information network rather than a social network. Many users, especially early adopters, still consider it a social tool, but the organization’s leaders have increasingly made it clear that emphasizing the information sharing potential of the platform is a key part of their strategic direction and an important element in their ongoing maturation (see this New York Times story, which I included in this S.M.A.R.T. News Digest about the four of the biggest social media platforms, to learn more). Twitter’s status as an information network is reinforced by a recent study by Yahoo Research, and by Time magazine’s list of the 140 best Twitter feeds.
As I was crafting this list, I couldn’t help but think about all the Twitter mavens who would vehemently disagree with my assertions and feverishly attest to all the benefits they’ve received from following what I characterize as worst practices. This post isn’t for them. Though I think my conservative perspective is worth consideration by everyone, I generally exclude the following from my admonishments: news organizations, celebrities, BtoC commercial entities, higher education institutions, non-profit organizations, politicians, established bloggers and thought leaders, and any individual or organization with a large and successful Twitter presence.
This post is targeted to Twitter novices who want to get started using the platform and engage in the most effective ways. It’s designed to help them avoid making mistakes that can hurt their individual professional and/or organizational brands, and to maximize their ability to maintain a high signal/noise ratio. It’s written from the perspective of rookie/casual users, who are likely to have a much more narrow view of acceptable behavior than active/ardent users.
The rules implied by these worst practices are not absolute, and as with most social media there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution. As your experience and sophistication increase, you may decide it’s worth taking a few risks and experimenting with some of these practices, but – especially in the beginning – you won’t go wrong heeding my advice.
Now, The List…
The most obvious “worst practice” is to not “think before you tweet” – a mistake that people make regularly, even those who should know better (did you hear the recent stories about Gilbert Gottfried and AFLAC, or the Chrysler Autos media rep?). I want to focus on those that are less commonly known and/or agreed upon.
1. Assuming All Twitters Must Tweet. As with other social media platforms, there’s an insidious and somewhat tyrannical assumption that “talking” is the only form of engagement. But honestly, if everyone is talking, who’s listening? Listening is a very powerful form of engagement and should not be undervalued. Twitter offers fantastic opportunities to listen efficiently and effectively. It’s perfectly appropriate to open a Twitter account simply for the purpose of gathering news and information. You never have to send a single tweet.
2. Asserting that Twitter Engagement is the Only Way to Measure Success. A related notion is that individuals and organizations who actively tweet should (only) measure their success in terms of click throughs, responses, and RTs, which are measures of engagement. First of all, social media measurement is an inexact science as best, and there are no existing tools that can capture all of the digital activity related to a specific tweet in a reliable fashion (e.g., if someone follows a link to a blog post in a tweet then reshares it via his/her own Twitter account or another channel, that subsequent activity doesn’t get counted). Secondly, the fact that someone doesn’t reshare an item doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable or effective, especially if that person’s main purpose for being on Twitter is to listen.
3. Mistaking Quantity for Quality. You don’t need a gazillion followers to have a successful Twitter presence. Similarly, there’s little point in following a gazillion other Tweeters. And if/when you decide to use Twitter to communicate, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to push a high volume of messages out. Quality should always trump quantity when establishing your Twitter presence.
4. Playing the “Following” Game. For many people, the main (only?) objective in following other Tweeters is to get them to follow back. Not only is that self-serving, automatically unfollowing people who don’t follow back is a waste of time and resources. You should follow Tweeters who provide high-quality content you need to meet your goals and objectives – and allow them to do the same. “Punishing” them by unfollowing them is tacky (which is often done automatically after a short period of time), especially when you don’t give them time to review your profile/activity and make a decision about whether they want to follow you.
A related “rule” that has never made sense to me is that unbalanced following is wrong. More than once I’ve heard people get tongue-tied trying to assert this argument – wait, is it wrong to follow more people than follow you back, or vice versa? – which kind of demonstrates its inherent illogic. There is no hard and fast rule. Like most things, it depends on your goals and objectives. Do what makes the most sense for you and your organization.
Though I wouldn’t consider auto following (i.e., automatically following back anyone who follows you) a worst practice, I’m not sure it’s particularly effective. Again, it depends on the kind of Twitter account you’ve established and what your goals are.
5. Automatically Linking Twitter to LinkedIn and Facebook. The language and normative expectations on platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are very different. As a result of the 140-character limitation, abbreviated terms and acronyms are generally acceptable in Tweets. The @ and # symbols have special meaning, as do RT and D, and in the context of Twitter they’re important. In addition, the tolerance for a high volume of activity in Twitter is also high.
In LinkedIn and Facebook, however, Twitter conventions are clunky at best, and annoying at worst. If you don’t tweet often (e.g., no more than once a day), and you don’t use too much Twitter jargon, it’s probably fine to connect them, but if your engagement in Twitter increases, you should detach it from your other accounts.
6. Poorly Worded Tweets. Twitter conventions come in handy when you only have 140 characters to convey your message. But if you have room, there’s no excuse for bad grammar, sloppy writing, and unnecessary shorthand and text speak. I’d also caution against unnecessary jargon, slang, crude and foul language and inflammatory wording. And, as noted above, always “think before you tweet” – and if possible, get someone else to review a potentially sensitive tweet in advance.
Though they don’t particularly bother me, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the use of automatic tweets (e.g., thank you for following), which many Twitter advocates consider verboten due to their impersonal nature.
7. Cluster Tweeting. With tools like HootSuite and TweetDeck to help people manage their Twitter activity, there’s no reason to have large gaps in a Twitter stream followed by a clump of tweets. I can almost guarantee that none of the undifferentiated tweets in those clumps will be heeded. This is especially likely if a person’s tweets are automatically connected to their LinkedIn/Facebook accounts, where less frequent status updates are the norm.
8. Having Private Conversations in Public Spaces. Although it’s possible to create a secure/private Twitter account, it’s pretty unusual. Most accounts are public, which means most tweets are public. Users can send private messages to their followers by prefacing them with a “D” for “direct message,” but they have to “@” message anyone who does not follow them. The problem arises when people carry on personal exchanges via public messages. This is the Twitter equivalent of “cell yell,” forcing people to listen to conversations they’re not a part of and have no interest in. And if they don’t follow all of the parties in the conversation, they’re subjected to a stream of non-sequiturs and disjointed thoughts.
Occasionally sending an @ message to someone who doesn’t follow you is unavoidable, but when you have a reciprocal relationship you should use the D feature. And if there’s a group of people “chatting,” you should find another, more appropriate platform for your exchange.
9. Sharing Too Much (Personal) Information. In the early days, the whole point of Twitter was to share personal information (e.g., see this Twitter in Plain English video, which is now quaintly anachronistic). But now that there are more platforms for engaging and status updates are an element of virtually all of them, the unique value of Twitter to share “what we’re doing” has diminished. In addition, individuals who are using Twitter as part of their career management efforts need to think about how personal updates may negatively reflect their professional brands (remember, virtually all Twitter activity is public). You can still reveal your personality via your tweets without unnecessarily revealing intimate personal details.
10. Tweeting Drivel. What constitutes drivel? Among other things:
- The banal aspects of your personal and/or professional life
- Aphorisms and other “quotable quotes”
- Unoriginal jokes
- News that’s no longer fresh (think of the old Saturday Night Live “update”: Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead)
- Personal interests that aren’t relevant to most of your followers or related to your professional identity
11. Excessive Selling and Self-Promotion. Individuals and organizations should by all means leverage Twitter to promote their brand, but excessive “look at me” posts alienate people, as do too many “buy our stuff” tweets. Twitter’s value as a marketing channel depends on subtlety and respect.
12. Excessive (Re)tweeting. Although the activity tolerance in Twitter is quite high, even there it’s possible to overtweet. This is especially common with Tweeters who overshare personal information, tweet drivel, and have lots of personal exchanges via public tweets. What else adds to the noise? Ironically, excessive use of some of the things that used to be considered “best practices:”
- Repeat tweets (i.e., sharing the same tweet over several days)
- Follow Friday (#FF) lists
- Thanks for following/retweeting messages
Although retweeting is one of the best ways to share information and spread important news, if retweeting is the only way in which you engage, people will soon stop following you because of the lack of original content. Your tweets should offer unique value to your followers.
13. Live Tweeting. Most experienced Tweeters experimented with this in the early days and soon realized it created too much noise and alienated people who didn’t want to follow a specific event/news that closely. People have also realized it’s distracting and even a bit rude to live tweet at an event. And it creates some risk that speakers’ ideas will be misrepresented and/or that a Tweeter could share something in the heat of the moment he/she would later regret. I’ve seen all of the above happen.
A better practice for creating a focused stream on a specific event/story is live blogging, which allows people to opt in to the conversation and provides a more robust platform for in-depth sharing and discussion. Or, if you want to report/reflect on an event, write a blog post about it after you’ve had time to absorb the experience and can present your thoughts more carefully.
Next, Your Thoughts…
As I stated in the introduction, these practices re not universally bad, and some of them have contributed significantly to the success of many established Twitter users. But for individuals and organizations who want to maximize their appeal, they should think carefully before engaging in some of them when they’re just starting out or trying to expand their presence.
Twitter itself could help address the problems created by some of the practices above by creating technology that would enable people to use Twitter in more sophisticated ways. For example, being able to tag and filter tweets (e.g., send me all of Andrew McAfee’s enterprise 2.0 tweets, but nothing else) could help address the oversharing problem. And having the ability to create groups of fellow Tweeters with whom you could interact privately could help people take group exchanges from a public space to a private one. This kind of functionality might exist someday, but until it’s developed it’s better to proceed with caution.
What would you add to this list? Any other “worst practices” I might have missed? Other suggestions for Twitter rookies? Questions?
As always, I welcome your feedback
My Twitter engagement: I’ve been on Twitter for about two years, and I have three accounts. One is personal and is my main listening channel; though I have a couple dozen followers from when I opened the account, it’s now locked. The other two accounts are professional – one for my consultancy, Renaissance Strategic Solutions (@RSSinbrief) and one for this Community (@SMinOrgs). Due to time constraints, I rarely tweet from the RSS account. Most of my Twitter activity comes through @SMinOrgs, which primarily serves as a channel for sharing information, news, and resources related to the group’s focus. I have made a point of experimenting with almost all of the available Twitter features; however, again due to time constraints, I have severely limited the number of Tweeters I follow and I rarely RT or engage in dialogue.