Earlier this week, Kevin Rose of Digg and Revision3 (and the #2 most followed Twitter user) wrote a guest post on TechCrunch called 10 Ways To Increase Your Twitter Followers. It’s worth the quick read if you’re interested in understanding (and exploiting) the social dynamics of the Twitter community. Where Kevin’s tips are more directional best practices, I also found an interesting attempt at a more quantitative analysis of the effectiveness of various Twitter best practices on Dan Martell’s blog.
One can (and many do) spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy trying to cultivate the largest Twitter following possible, and those two posts are good starting points for anyone to whom that sounds interesting. But if you’re like me, you don’t have an infinite amount of time to spend pursuing the diminishing marginal returns of incremental followers. This post is for those of us seeking to get the most bang for our proverbial Twitter buck, the 80% of the value for 20% of the effort. Below I’ll lay out some best practices (many lifted from the above referenced posts) and tools I’ve found disproportionately useful.
- Get a good username – Twitter is different from a lot of services in this area for 2 reasons: 1) usernames play a vital role in Twitter’s social interactions (as opposed to most other services where they’re basically just a login ID); and 2) they allow you to change your username at will. For example, my original Twitter username was jonathanhstrauss and when @replies came about my friends used to complain about having to type all those characters to respond to me. In order to take full advantage of the value of retweets (RTs) and @replies, try to keep your username as short and easy to spell as possible (i.e. try to avoid particularly esoteric homonym spellings). Keep in mind that many users will be typing your username into their mobile phones, and you won’t get any benefit from their RT or @reply love if they misspell it. Also, try to make your username as interesting/self-explanatory as possible. Think of it as your billboard to potential followers who may see it in a RT or @reply with no context other than that tweet — try to give them as many reasons as possible to click through and learn more about you.
- Fill in your profile page! – This is a total no-brainer. If your Twitter username is a billboard (or banner ad), think of your profile (http://twitter.com/username) as the landing page for that ad. First of all, make sure that between your username and your real name they can figure out who you are, and put the most informative URL possible in as your website. My opinion on the Bio field is that witty and interesting is more valuable than informative (how informative can you really be in 160 characters). Think of the Bio as a way to convey your personality (or brand identity) in haiku. Upload a profile picture of a decent size, Twitter allows people to click through the thumbnail to see a larger version which is another great (and very powerful) opportunity to express your personality/brand identity. Tweak your design a little bit, even if it’s just choosing one of the pre-made themes. I’m not saying you need to create a custom background (though some are pretty cool), but just spend a few minutes messing around with the colors to get a visual vibe that matches your personality/brand (also, never underestimate the subconscious impact of just having a page that is visually different from everyone else’s — it will help you stand out, literally).
- Check your @replies – Another no-brainer complicated by Twitter’s UI design. A surprising number of people are unaware that you can click the @Replies tab right below Home (or go to http://twitter.com/replies) to see all the public messages written to you (i.e. starting with @your_username) even if you don’t follow their senders. These people are *talking to you*, you should at least listen to what they’re saying and maybe even talk back.
- Find your niche – While the best chance to get “viral” exposure is to have the users with the most followers mention your username in one of their tweets (generally as a RT or @reply), it’s only as good as the probability they’ll actually do so. For example, I could spend an hour trying to get Robert Scoble to mention me to his 52,000+ followers, which isn’t particularly likely to happen, or I could spend that same hour trying to engage people in my area of interest/expertise, and thus much more likely to respond, who have several hundred followers. To find these topical conversations you can use http://search.twitter.com to look for terms related to your interests, or seek out vertical-specific tools and communities (like StockTwits for finance). You can also browse people asking for help on LazyTweet (or by searching for ‘lazyweb’ on Twitter Search), answering questions in your area of expertise is a great way to build a *relevant* follower base.
- Pimp it hard – Advertise that you’re on Twitter on all your other profiles across the web. The people who know you are most likely to follow you, and a lot more people than you’d expect are on Twitter nowadays. Arguably, the value of an engaged Twitter follower is high enough to justify a pretty high theoretical CPM when you’re thinking about how prominently to feature your Twitter badge on your site. There’s also a Twitter Facebook App you can add to your profile or Page (though it currently only supports one Twitter account per Facebook user, so you can’t do both) that will display your latest tweet in a box on your page. It also has an option to post your latest tweet as your Facebook status, this is *not* recommended for people who tweet more than once an hour — it will piss your Facebook friends off something fierce.
- BrightKit – Is a great tool for anyone who has a personal Twitter account and one or more work ones (e.g. in addition to @jhstrauss, I also manage @snowballyeti and @awesm). Not only does BrightKit give you a single login from which you can send tweets and view @replies, but it also allows you to schedule tweets to be sent at a specified time in the future. While they do offer a proprietary URL shortener (ow.ly) integrated in their post UI, I recommend making the extra effort to use bit.ly (see below).
- bit.ly – When you’re limited to 140 characters, each one counts. So, URL shorteners (like TinyURL) are especially valuable to anyone who shares links on Twitter. Bit.ly is a URL shortener with statistics, which enables you to check how many people actually clicked on that link you tweeted yesterday. Make sure to register so you get unique bit.ly URLs (logged-out users all get the same bit.ly URL for a given destination URL, making stats meaningless) and can save all the pages you shorten. And as a bonus, you can integrate with multiple Twitter accounts to tweet straight from bit.ly (though you can only tweet to one account at a time).
- TwitterFeed – I love TwitterFeed because of how simple in purpose and extensible it is. You basically just give it an RSS feed to monitor and a Twitter account to which to tweet new feed items. But, it also offers every option I’ve ever wanted — from which items to tweet (based on filters) to frequency of tweets to what they should say to what URL shortener to use (and it now supports bit.ly login so I can track my TwitterFeed URLs through my bit.ly account ). The one major drawback of this service is its reliance on OpenID — trying to sign-up/in is not for the faint of heart. But once you’re in, it’s totally worth it.
- switchAbit – Like TwitterFeed, but more generalized (and without the pain in the ass of OpenID). SwitchAbit supports 9 services (including Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, and Flickr) as well as RSS feeds as both sources and destinations. It gives you a cool UI for building ‘switches’ to route content between sources and destinations and supports multiple sources and destinations per switch. It also handles keyword based filters (though it’s impossible to find in the UI) and uses bit.ly as the default URL shortener (but you can’t associate it with your bit.ly account for tracking). The main reason I prefer TwitterFeed over switchAbit for Twitter is that switchAbit gives you no ability to configure the content of the resulting tweets. But if you’re trying to route content to several destinations, switchAbit is a solid solution.
- SocialToo – I know this app is supposed to have more features, but all I use it for is to auto-follow Twitter users who follow my work accounts. Other than posting tweets or viewing @replies (both covered by BrightKit above) the only remaining reason I need to login to Twitter is to follow people. While it’s good practice, even for a brand account, to regularly find relevant users to follow (see Find your niche above), you don’t always want to wait that long to follow back people who just followed you. SocialToo solves that issue without me needing to log-in to a different Twitter account every time I get a follow notification email. It also tracks who unfollows you and provides a daily email digest of follow and unfollow actions including your last tweet before that action.
- TwitterCounter – While I’m not a big believer in Twitter follower stats (I’m much more interested in seeing measurement of meaningful actions, like clicks on bit.ly URLs I tweet), TwitterCounter seems like the most straightforward and useful solution for those who want to track such things over time. IMHO, the riot of Twitter rank and influence apps out there are nothing more than viral gimmicks. Knowing how influential I am on Twitter relative to Jeremiah Owyang is worthless to me since no one can quantify the value of my Twitter influence or his.
- Zentact – This last one is kind of an outlier because it’s not a Twitter tool per se, but a networking tool that uses Twitter as a communications channel (the other is email). Ironically, I think it is also the tool with the most potential to create value for you on Twitter. Zentact aims to strengthen your connections by alerting you to content of mutual interest to you and people in your address book. It then allows you to reach out to those contacts by sharing that interesting web page with them via email or Twitter. These are exactly the type of tweets that build a strong base of *relevant* followers (see Find your niche above), which is the most difficult and crucial part of growing your influence on Twitter. Zentact is currently in private beta, but I’ll get you an invite if you ask for one in the comments.
The most important thing to remember is that Twitter (like all social media) is a conversation, and no tools or best practices are going to change that. You must understand (and respect) the fundamental dynamics of the system before any of what we just covered will do you any real good. Deb Schultz has a great quote to help illustrate where the line should be drawn for marketing in social media: “if you are invited to a dinner party and you show up and start selling Tupperware, there is a good chance you will not be invited back.” I couldn’t agree more, but the converse is also true — if you’re a great conversationalist, you’ll not only get invited to the host’s next dinner party but maybe some of the guests’ too. Treat Twitter like a dinner party, and you’ll do just fine (with or without everything else above).
Update: I just wrote a post on my personal blog called A Twitter Marketing Success Story about a great experience I had as the target of marketers on Twitter. I highly recommend it as an example of how to use Twitter as a marketing tool for good