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Best Practices for Non-Profits on Twitter

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Twitter has become one of the fastest growing platforms for communications, organizing, and networking. With some twitter users claiming much wider audiences than major media outlets and others raising millions of dollars, it's hard to ignore the potential of this platform.

As a result, Twitter is quickly becoming a crucial tool for listening and monitoring, engaging others in your story, inspiring activity, and building effective campaigns. Here are our recommendations for how your organization can take full advantage of the platform.

I. Strategize

Is Twitter right for your organization?

Short answer: Yes! Longer answer: Twitter is a highly adaptable platform with tremendous potential for engaging your audience, but you shouldn't jump on the bandwagon just because everyone else is. Before you start, you should be able to answer the following questions:

What do you want to get out of it?

Set your goals ahead of time and keep them in mind as you build up your Twitter presence. There are many ways Twitter can add value to your organization, but to use it effectively you need to know what you want to accomplish.

Who's your audience?

Social media isn't powered by technology, it's powered by people. Your Twitter strategy must be based on the people you're trying to reach. Before you determine how you will use Twitter, figure out how your target audience is using Twitter and plan accordingly. If you aren't sure, spend some time listening: search for key terms and look for patterns in the behavior of those who use them.

What's your plan?

Twitter is not a strategy, it is a tool. Based on your goals and your audience, develop a strategy and a plan of action for your organization's Twitter presence. At the very least, you must determine:

  • Who will be tweeting from your organization? Will there be one voice or many?
  • Who is responsible for monitoring your presence and engaging in conversation as it happens?
  • Do new tweets need to be approved? What is the process?
  • How will you build up your base of followers?
  • How will you respond to positive attention to maximize the benefit? How will you respond to negative attention to mitigate or minimize the damage?
  • How does Twitter fit into your overall organizational strategy?
  • Can you put in the effort?

With Twitter, the value you get out is proportional to the effort you put in. Make sure your organization has the time and resources necessary to make your Twitter efforts a success. Though there is no hard and fast rule, anticipate spending at least 4-6 hours per week managing your Twitter presence. This time can be split between multiple staff members and can be streamlined with your other social media efforts, but if you can't make this commitment you will likely have trouble engaging with your audience in a meaningful way.

II. Connect

Don't be intimidated by part 1. It's important to have a strategy, but once you have nailed down the basics, don't be afraid to jump in and get your hands dirty. There is no "right" way to use Twitter. One of the values of a simple platform is the flexibility to meet many different needs. You will probably make some mistakes and your strategy will likely shift over time, so go ahead and join the conversation.

Start tweeting.

If you're not talking, no one is going to listen. Even if you don't have many followers at first, tweet away. It will show your potential audience that you have something to say, and will get you in the habit of regular engagement.

Promote your feed.

Make sure your current stakeholders know about this new way to engage with your organization. Announce your Twitter presence on your blog, your newsletter, and any other social media platforms you are already using. Link to your Twitter profile from your website, or even better, display your recent tweets on your homepage.

Follow others in your field.

Twitter is all about conversation. The best way to build up your base of followers is to jump into the discussion already going on around the topics you know the most about. By engaging with others in your field, you can take advantage of the list of followers they've already built up to help grow your own. Some good resources for finding your peers on Twitter:

Follow back.

Not everyone agrees on this point, but remember that Twitter is about conversation. If you are only talking and not listening, that's not a conversation. When someone follows you or your organization, follow him or her back.

Listen and learn.

Don't just follow others to keep up appearances. Actively listen to what they have to say. You can get a huge amount of value from Twitter by simply paying attention to what's being said about your organization and the issues you work on. This isn't easy. Once you are following a lot of users, it will be almost impossible to read every word in your stream. That's ok, skim for the gist of what's being said and read and respond to what's important.

Other good strategies are to create a second account and only follow the key influencers in your field. Perhaps most helpful to tracking the issues you find most important on Twitter will be to use search.twitter.com to create RSS feeds of key terms you want to follow. Finally, TweetBeep is another good tool here — it is essentially Twitter's equivalent to Google Alerts.

III. Engage

It's already been said, but it bears repeating: at its best, Twitter is not a broadcast medium, it's a forum for discussion. Treated as such, it is a powerful tool that allows your organization to engage with its audience in new and exciting ways. Done successfully, this engagement will expand your reach, and build support for your organization in other ways.

Be casual.

A unique aspect of Twitter is that it gives your organization an opportunity to interact with your audience on an equal footing. Take advantage of this by adopting a more informal, personal voice than you would in a newsletter or press release. Twitter should be fun!

Tweet regularly.

Despite what some may tell you, there are no hard rules for how often you should tweet. Don't let your Twitter feed turn into a ghost town and don't tweet so much that you alienate your followers, but most of all don't worry about it. If you have something interesting to say, say it!

Create value.

The only way to get and keep followers is to be interesting. Share what your organization is doing, what you're thinking about, what you're reading, and anything else that will increase the value your followers get from your feed. The more value they get from you, the more value you will get from them.

Respond.

It may be obvious, but it's easy to forget: pay close attention to any messages or mentions of your organization, and be sure to respond to them. If someone gives you a shout-out in one of their tweets, at the very least say thank you, but it's even better if you can add something to build up the conversation.

Be generous.

Twitter is not your RSS feed. It is a great way to drive people to your website, blog, action alerts, etc., but it's poor form to only tweet your own content. Link to relevant articles and retweet interesting points made by others. This shows your followers that you are paying attention and makes it easy for them to join in the conversation. Plus, it's good karma. What goes around comes around, and having your own posts passed around is a great way to get new followers.

Use your imagination.

As you gain experience, get creative with your Twitter strategy. It's a simple platform that connects people and demolishes barriers to communication. Beyond that, Twitter is what you make of it. Don't be afraid to try something new.

IV. Improve Your Technique

Make your Tweets short.

Many Twitter experts believe that your Tweets should be 115 characters or less. This leaves 25 characters for your followers to use when they ReTweet your post.

Use a URL shortener.

Adding a link in your Tweet can be powerful as it provides your readers with rich content. Full URLs however, can steal valuable character space. By using a shortener — we recommend bit.ly — you will be able to include a longer message in your Tweet and you will leave space for people to add to your message when they ReTweet your post.

Check your spelling and grammar.

Though you are only allowed 140 characters be sure to include complete words, accurate sentence structure, and punctuation. This has been shown to increase the likelihood of attracting ReTweets.

Use keywords in your Tweets.

According to Social Media Scientist Dan Zarrella the top words that will get you the most ReTweets include the following:

  1. you
  2. twitter
  3. please
  4. retweet
  5. post
  6. blog
  7. social
  8. free
  9. media
  10. help
  11. please retweet
  12. great
  13. social media
  14. 10
  15. follow
  16. how to
  17. top
  18. blog post
  19. check out
  20. new blog post

V. Additional Resources

Further Reading

Lingo and Terms

  • Tweet: just as it sounds, a "tweet" is something a user has posted on Twitter
  • @: a reply. Use this if you want to publicly reply to someone. For example, if someone tweets an article you find interesting and you want to reply, use @username.
  • D: direct message. Use this if you want to reply privately to someone on Twitter. For example, use d username. The difference here is that with a reply (@username) there is no space between @ and the username. Tip: If someone is not following you, you will not be able to direct message them.
  • RT: RT stands for "retweet." If someone posts something you find interesting on Twitter, and you want your followers to see it as well , you will Retweet the original tweet. You would do this by posting "RT @username" and copying in the original tweet.
  • Hash Tags: a hash tag is comparable to a tag you would use on a blog post, or a picture on Flickr. They are "a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets." You create them by adding # inline in your tweets. There is no set list of hashtags, they are all user generated.

Tools

Posted October 2009

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