Twitter has become an essential medium for freelancers, journalists and communicators in South Africa, but that doesn’t mean we know how to use it. The following notes and tips are based on the talk veteran newshound Raymond Joseph (@rayjoe) gave to @safrea Gauteng South members this week.
Twitter doesn’t have rules. It has conventions, most are user-generated.
What not to do
Twitter is about sharing and engagement, not lurking. Some common mistakes: to follow lots of people but not post anything yourself (this makes you look like a bot), not to post a picture (again – bot-like behaviour), not to post a biography, not to include correct location details (eg, South Africa rather than Greenland). Search engines can use this information to find you, and it helps your credibility as a source. Also, don’t use a Twitter handle that’s too long, as space is limited.
Don’t lock your tweets or keep your feed private. Protecting your tweets is a big mistake as it can put people off following you because they need to ask permission first. Don’t say anything on Twitter you wouldn’t say to someone’s face or want written on the sky. Avoid bad language on Twitter.
Don’t link your Twitter account to a work email address. The email you give when you register for Twitter is the one to which any “forgot password” reminder is sent if you request it. So if you move on and can no longer access that email, you can lose access to your account.
Get the basics right
Choose a handle, add a pic, and write a biography that describes what you do and what your interests are. If you’ve written a book, you might want to include that, or even set up a separate Twitter account for your book. This helps people (including potential clients) to find you. You should be on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn at the very least.
Check your settings on Twitter.com (click on the cog wheel on the top right of the screen). Make sure your language, time zone, and country settings are correct. You may want to add email alerts for direct messages to make sure you don’t miss any.
Verification is an important part of Twitter, because on Twitter, you can be whoever you want to be. Check where people are tweeting from – does it match what you know of them? Do they have a link to an email address, website, or LinkedIn profile in their bio?
You will be responsible for what you say on social media, even if you put up a disclaimer that retweets are not endorsements. Don’t retweet without checking that the link works and that the story is what it claims to be.
Twitter messages are limited to 140 characters. Try to use 125-130 characters max so that people are able to retweet without editing your content. Use URL shorteners like such as www.bit.ly.comor www.goo.gl.comto shrink long links.
Don’t tweet drunk. Your social media activity is an increasingly important part of the hiring process.
Use lists to curate and keep track of interesting users. Your lists can be public or private. You can subscribe to public lists, but you won’t be able to add anyone to it unless you make your own lists.
It’s okay to unfollow people who don’t add value. It’s not like defriending someone on Facebook.
RT = retweet
PRT = partial retweet
MT = modified tweet
HT = hat tip (where you want to acknowledge the source of an interesting link)
# = hashtag, used to organise information, e.g., #madiba, #ZimElections, #justsaying.
DM= direct message. You can only DM a follower.
@ = denotes Twitter handle.
If you start a tweet with @ your tweet will only be seen by the person you’re addressing and any mutual followers. If you want it to be seen by your entire feed, put something in front, e.g., .@safrea or “@safrea
However, if you put D, followed by space, it becomes a direct message.
Treat all direct messages as if they will become public.
How will you use Twitter?
Decide what you want to use Twitter for. You can use it to talk to your friends, or you can keep it business-focused, but don’t mix the two – that’s what Facebook is for. For most people, Facebook is more social, while Twitter is about work.
Twitter is all about the crowd. Without the crowd, it doesn’t work properly – although getting to 1 000 followers can take a while. Twitter works best when you have at least 1500 to 2 000 followers and the power of the crowd really starts working.
Most tweeting should be done from your phone. You have to be active on Twitter and post regularly, at least a few times a day. Ray suggested UberSocial and Twitter’s own mobile client as good apps for phones. He also uses TweetDeck and HootSuite, which allow you to pre-write Tweets, releasing them at scheduled times during the day, and to mute followers or hashtags if they are too noisy.
Think three times before you tweet once. You can delete a tweet, but once it’s been retweeted, it’s already out there and can be found by anyone who knows what they’re doing. Screenshots can also preserve tweets.
How to handle mistakes
Once you’ve realised you’ve made a mistake, correct it, even if no one’s noticed yet. People will respect you for it.
People who follow you want to see variety in your tweets. You can self-promote, but get the balance right – possibly one tweet in every 10 or 20 can be self-promoting, but don’t push it or you’ll lose followers. Be careful about getting too personal, as it can get boring.
You get what you ask for. Don’t blame Twitter if your timeline is boring.
If someone asks a question, answer it. Engage people. Retweet if it’s of interest to your audience, e.g., job offers. Let people know what you do. Don’t keep taking without giving back. Show your followers you’re a human being with personality, and someone they can engage with.
Think about what your tweet looks like. Too many hashtags can make your tweet look ugly and hard to read, and may be seen as spammy. e.g.: “Went for #picnic #Zoo #Lake #sunnyday.”
When sharing links, always use shortened URLs.
Twitter for journalists
Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool for journalists.
Stories break on Twitter all the time, and usually they’re broken by non-journos – ordinary people who happen to be at the scene. Use hashtags to track stories. Find the hashtag most people are using for the story and search it.
When you find something you want, take a screenshot. For instance, Oscar Pistorius’ Twitter feed was sanitised soon after his arrest. Savvy journalists would have trawled through his account as soon as they heard of his arrest, taking screenshots as they went. You can also search for conversations between users, e.g., Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp, and take screenshots of those too.
To take a screenshot: Hold down blue FN button and PRTSC, then open a new file, such as a Word document, and use Control+V to paste it into that file
If you use UberSocial on your smartphone, you can identify Twitter users tweeting within a defined location after an incident. Ray has been able to find eyewitnesses to breaking news through Twitter. He suggests sending a direct message to the witness, asking them to contact you offline, as soon as you’ve identified them. Twitter isn’t good for context. Rather use phone or email for an interview.
Social media search engines can help you to identify news, photos, or potential sources you need, particularly if you have the right email alerts set up.
Use lists to keep track of sources and commentators. That way you don’t have to scroll through your entire timeline to find the news you want.
If you don’t want someone to know you’re monitoring their feed (for example if you work in tabloid journalism), don’t follow them. Create a private list and add them to it. Only you will be able to access that list, and you won’t show up as a follower.
Using Twitter for work
Twitter is also useful for freelancers who aren’t in hard news – e.g., PR, corporate communications, graphic designers, and photographers.
Follow the kind of people you get work from, e.g., the sort of people who refer work to you, such as web designers, or publishing houses, as well as people you would like to work for. You can create a list of potential clients and monitor it. You can also create a private list for your clients’ opposition to see what they’re talking about and the kinds of campaigns they’re running.
Once you’ve created a great list, you can tweet the URL so other people can follow it too. Most people don’t understand the concept of following a list, but as this change, the more powerful the crowd becomes.
Monitor your own clients’ activity online – not least to ensure that they are not trashing your name on Twitter.
To find Twitter handles, Google the person’s name “+ Twitter”.
Useful tools for Twitter
Google URL Shortener – this allows you to track who clicks on the links you shorten, which countries they’re in, and what platforms they’re using.
Spundge It – a great research tool that helps you discover content and add it to a “notebook”
Twicsy.com – picture search
Storify – turn social media into stories
Topsy.com – search and analyse the social web, and allows you to create email alerts.
Wolfram / Alpha search engine – very powerful search engine that you can ask questions of: e.g. what was the weather on X day/
TweetDeck, HootSuite: to operate Twitter from a desktop
UberSocial and Twitter for smartphones.
How much time should you spend on Twitter?
This is up to you. A quick, non-scientific survey of meeting participants suggested people spend about an hour on Twitter per day.
Jocelyn Newmarch is a communications practitioner and business writer, and is also a member of the Southern African Freelancers’ Association. Follow her on Twitter: @josinjozi