I joined Twitter (@jonworth) just over five years ago. Now with 40659 tweets, 9665 followers, and following 4641, I have accumulated a fair amount of experience using the network – and that’s just with my own personal account, let alone the dozens of accounts I have for other purposes. I’ve never bought any followers, and think I have managed to build a following through being fair, responsive to questions sent my way, and hopefully somehow useful to the people that follow me.
But yesterday at an event in Odense in Denmark I was asked for ideas about how to make the first steps on Twitter, and to build a useful network. How, I then wondered, would I do it were I, as an individual, to be starting from scratch? This is my best effort to answer that question.
1) What do you care about, and know about?
This is the important point to start with, because this is going to serve as the basis for your tweets. It does not matter whether you care about a multitude of things – that’s you, and Twitter will help you find an audience, or audiences for each of those things that matter to you. I care a lot about EU politics, UK and German politics, about the impact of tech on politics, and I travel a lot by train. Those are my themes. I am interested, but have nothing unique to contribute, when it comes to – for example – US politics, or football – so I very seldom tweet about those things. Think “I want to tweet about…” and not “I should tweet about…”
2) Learn the basics of who sees what on Twitter
In short: it is not as simple as it initially seems. And there is a super guide to who sees what on Twitter, entitled “Mom [sic] This Is How Twitter Works” – it’s worth reading. I only learned a few of the things in it years after starting on Twitter.
3) Present yourself clearly and simply
How you present yourself on Twitter matters. It can determine who follows you back (see below), and sets the tone for your use of the network. A user that has just a picture, and no biography or link, is much harder to gauge than one that does. Make other Twitter users’ job easier – say what you are about, and more people will follow you. I’ve written a guide to how to design a Twitter profile for a politician here, but the same could apply to any account.
4) Follow a load of people, and use Twitter lists from the start
Twitter allows you to follow up to 2000 accounts initially*. When you yourself get 2000 followers, this limit is lifted. But initially you will need to live within the limit. But be liberal with the people that you follow – anyone interesting and relevant to your fields of interest is worth following, and also try to aim to mix high profile and ‘normal’ people – the latter are more likely to follow you back and engage with you (but will use your Twitter biography to work this out – see 3) above). If you follow more than 1000 accounts Twitter soon becomes complicated to manage, so break down your followers into Twitter lists. Here’s Twitter’s page about lists, and a more detailed explanation from me. You can use Lists to establish a kind of two-stage filter – follow anyone that might be interesting, and add all the really interesting ones to lists. Remember that Twitter is not reciprocal – if you follow someone, that person does not have to follow you. But most Twitter users will cast an eye over their new followers and consider whether to reciprocate.
5) Think about now. Not 5 minutes ago, or 5 hours ago.
You are going to miss things on Twitter. The network is about the here and now. If you worry about this you will get bogged down. So think about what’s happening on Twitter right now, not what you might theoretically have missed a while ago. If it’s still important people will still be talking about it. And if they think it might have been important to you, someone will probably have told you – which also underlines the only exception to this rule: always pay attention to your Twitter Mentions (otherwise known as @replies) – these are the way people are trying to attract your attention, and most of the time this is welcome.
6) Get a third-party Twitter app
You should rarely return to Twitter.com, as the functions there are limited. Twitter itself offers applications for mobile devices, and TweetDeck for advanced users of Mac and Windows, but even that – because it is owned by Twitter – prioritises what Twitter wants you to see, and may want you to see in future, rather than what you want to find. So use a Twitter app from a third party, even if you have to pay something for it. I am personally a devotee of Tweetbot for both Mac OS and iOS, and the two synchronise. On Windows try Janetter or MetroTwit. Janetter is good on Android too. All of these apps restrict or eliminate ads from Twitter, and also give you list management direct within the app. You might also consider Hootsuite, but for personal use its extra features do not make up for the clunky interface.
7) Get some basic analytics
How far do your messages go on Twitter, and how often are you retweeted? Basic link tracking and statistical analysis can help you work this out, and hence start to refine what works and does not work on Twitter. I personally use bit.ly link tracking (that can be built into Tweetbot), and use SumAll and Klout to see how far my messages go. I use the free version of SocialBro to analyse my followers. Having said that, all of that is secondary to actually getting online and engaging with people on Twitter.
So what are you waiting for?
* – it is possible to add people to Twitter lists without actually following them. But do this only for news accounts, as if you follow a person that person may be inclined to reciprocate. That is less important for organisational or news accounts.