Testing the Microblogging Promise

I’m a bit late to the Twitter game. I’ve known about the service for a good long time. In fact, I’m fairly sure I was briefed about Twitter in its absolute infancy. Like most things I hear about, I was a bit skeptical, but reserved judgment. Although I couldn’t picture myself using the service, it was innovative and simple. Clearly, I thought, there is the chance that someone, somewhere will figure out a way to make this interesting, relevant, and exciting. It didn’t seem to be for me, but I didn’t dismiss it as not for anyone.

Now, a few years later, I have dived into the Twitter Pool. But I didn’t do it as an individual. I did it as an experimenter and an explorer. I am curious not so much about the social phenomenon of Twitter, but rather its ability to live up to its promise as a “microblog.”

In my mind, a blog is a personal publishing space, where an individual (and sometimes a group) shares a link to a bit of content and a comment on that content. That is, the purpose of the blog is to give directions, but subjectively and with opinions. Blogs are all about pointing people to things. A microblog, therefore, should do the same thing, only smaller. That is, we should be able to use Twitter to point people to interesting content online, along with a bit of our own thoughts about that content. You just have to do it in 140 characters.

So, I started an actual microblog. The following are the steps I took to get it going. In the process, I think I discovered a few things about Twitter in general that should be helpful in getting a presence — be it a microblog, a personal presence, or a corporate initiative — up and running.

Step 1: Make Them Care

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but no one really cares. No one cares what you had for lunch, that you just got to work, or you’re boarding a plane for Newark NJ.

Unless, that is, you give people a reason to care. Certainly there will be some people who will be inherently interested in the fact that you are boarding a plane for Newark, and those people are called your “loved ones”. For everyone else who may be tuned in to your updates, you need to tell them something else:

  • Boarding a plane for Newark to finally meet my mom

  • Boarding a plane for Newark flown by a 15 year old kid

The challenge, of course, is that you need to do this inside of 140 characters. But, remember, this limit is only for an individual post (tweet) and you can put up as many tweets as you like. If you put up a post about boarding a plane, there’s a good chance that people will want to hear from you again, once you land.

Step 2: Introduce by Connecting

Using Twitter means getting followers and to do that, you have to get yourself out there. Since what I am doing is an experiment in publishing, I naturally want to gather as many followers as possible. The single most effective way that I’ve found to get followers is to follow other people.

Visit the site wefollow.com. It’s a remarkably rich directory of people and companies using Twitter, and each person is tagged and categorized. If you intend to tweet about Xbox, you can visit the list of people on Twitter also writing about Xbox. Choose a few that you genuinely find interesting and follow them. This gets you two things: 1) involved in the community and 2) followers. The unwritten rules of Twitter say that you should follow anyone who follows you. Plus, when you follow someone, that person’s followers see you. This visibility is enormously effective at not only gaining followers, but gaining followers tin your interest area.

Step 3: Use Tools

Twitter has a remarkably rich and pretty straightforward API (define), which it made public early on in its life. This means that there are scores of applications and sites that tap directly into Twitter and add more value. I use a tool called bit.ly for posts, for example. This tool allows me to shorten URLs and track the clicks that I receive from a given tweet. Again, since I have a publishing experiment, I need to know how effective my efforts are. Using bit.ly I can actually create a reasonable measure of my success, which is followers-to-clicks. For every post I put up, I get about a 10 percent followers-to-clicks score.

There are other tools that are helpful as well. HootSuite allows you to manage multiple Twitter accounts and a lot of people absolutely swear by TweetDeck.

Step 4: If You Want Followers, Be a Leader

Lastly, and most importantly, what I’ve learned is that Twitter is a great big open environment and thriving community. The people most successful at making an impact in this space demonstrate some real leadership. That is, they are not just on the service to broadcast bits of trivia all day long, but rather are using the media to achieve a goal that many people see as worthwhile. They are leaders in their space, so naturally they attract followers.

For me, I believe my experiment is working. I suppose this is the other step: integrate your Twitter activity with the other ways you communicate with people. You can follow my work at @SocialMediaFact.

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