Twitter: a guide for busy paranoids

[This is a slightly edited version of the article written for “Stories: from The Local Government Web Network”, issue 3, August 2011, which was distributed at the LGWN’s conference in Sydney on 18 August. Some material in this article also appears in Tweeting your way out of Paranoia, the closing keynote presentation I delivered.]

If you’re not yet at least experimenting with Twitter, the real-time social messaging service, you should be.

Suppress the corporate paranoia. It’s a lot easier than you might think. And while Twitter does get far more attention than its relatively small size might suggest — truly active Twitter users number perhaps 20 million globally compared with Facebook’s 750 million active users and counting — it punches well above its weight in terms of connecting with influential community members.

Twitter may not ever become the core real-time service used by the masses. Or if it does, it may only be for a few years. You only have to look at the last decade to see the then-leading MySpace surpassed by Facebook in 2008, just four years after Facebook was founded. Google’s launch of Google+ in June this year has generated plenty of speculation that the search and advertising giant’s foray into social networking will in turn wipe Facebook off the planet. Who knows?

There will always be some real-time social messaging service, however. Whether that’s Twitter as a stand-alone service, or whether we all end up using a real-time component of Facebook or Google+ or something that has yet to be deployed — none of that matters. The principles and practices of real-time messaging will doubtless end up being much the same.

Anything you might do with Twitter will be easy to migrate to any other real-time messaging system. The lessons you learn will carry across too.

Now some social media expert gurus (SMEGs) make a big deal about how it’s vital you get Twitter right. Silly beginner’s mistakes will destroy your reputation, they say. Well, that’s only partially true.

If you make a mistake on Twitter, sure, you’ll be slammed within minutes. But most of the criticism will come from SMEGs who spend their time worrying about such things wanting to demonstrate their relevance, or whingers with too much time on their hands. Just remember that it’s all a storm in a teacup, and while the storm might have sprung up within minutes, it’ll also be forgotten within minutes.

Take a deep breath, and move on.

Besides, the SMEGs are trying to sell you their consulting services. Of course they’ll make Twitter sound hard.

It’s not.

Twitter is just people talking to other people, where their conversations are visible to the world.

That’s why I prefer to describe Twitter as social messaging rather than micro-blogging. It’s not a one-way street. You need to listen as well as talk. Respond to the people who talk to you and, just as importantly, introduce yourself to people who are talking about you, or about matters that affect you. That’s how you slowly build connections.

But I get ahead of myself.

“You”? That’s the first key question. In the context of a local government, who is the “You” that’s talking with people?

Many organisations imagine that since their Twitter account is another “official” voice it should be run by the marketing department, or corporate relations. I think that’s a mistake. The usual result is that the Twitter stream becomes nothing but links to media releases, and the tone becomes cold and bureaucratic.

The best organisational Twitter accounts seem to be run by customer service. CSOs are already responding to the general public. They know what issues come up. And they’re usually across everything that’s happening.

The question then becomes one of choosing the right person or people to run the Twitter account. In general that won’t be the newcomer 22-year-old who’s got lots of Facebook friends, but the receptionist, office manager or CSO who’s been around for a decade and a half.

They key is finding someone with the broad knowledge of the organisation and its communities. Learning Twitter, as I say, is the easy bit.

That person then needs to be given the authority to tweet themselves, without having to ask for every tweet to be approved. Real-time is important, and natural language is important. Don’t make the mistake of one federal government department of having every tweet approved by a committee and scheduled for transmission. That way lies Twitter death.

Besides, do you get the marketing department to approve every sentence in every telephone conversation? No, you trust in people’s ability to say the right thing.

Make sure you identify the person operating the account publicly.

A human face always helps communication. Add their name to the Twitter profile, and link the Twitter account back to a page on your website that explains who is tweeting, what they will and won’t be tweeting about — for instance, they might mention road closures but not building approvals — and what their hours of operation are.

Of course in a large organisation you might want to have several people operate the account. In that case, tag every tweet with that person’s name or initials. Margaret Jenkins becomes “^MJ” or “-Margaret” or even “-Marg”. They’re the most common methods, but it really doesn’t matter how you tag the tweets as long as you’re consistent about it.

Another method might be to have the Twitter account be the mayor’s, particularly if he or she is a hands-on kind of person. If you do that, again it’s important to distinguish between the mayor’s own tweets and those added by the team. For example, when he was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would sign the tweets he write himself with “KRudd”, while the rest were signed “KevinPM Team”.

I’d have gone for something shorter than “KevinPM Team”. On Twitter, space is always at a premium. We already know it’s about KevinPM since it’s from his twitter account. “KTeam” would work nicely.

You’ll also have to think ahead, and know what you’ll do with the account when the mayoral robes and chains eventually get passed on.

But what would a local government tweet about?

Anything short that people might want in real time, either because it’s live information they need to know now, or it’s of high value and you want to spread the word widely.

Here’s some examples off the top of my head.

Bin collection back to normal after industrial action. Bins still full? Phone NNNN NNNN to book extra pick-up. ^MJ #rubbish

Garbage truck breakdown. Bin collections in Lilyfield running 3 hours late, but we will finish today. ^MJ #rubbish

Jenny Smith Gallery: Photo portraits by Andrew Jones opens 6pm tonight. FREE. #art ^MJ

Council meeting tonight 7pm Bullathinga Town Hall. Agenda at ^MJ

Council agenda item 4 approved: $20k funding for new pet health centre. ^MJ

Flooding closes Perkins Rd at Hangmans Creek. Will not re-open today. Divert via Bullhorn Rd. Next update 7am. ^MJ

Smithfield Library has 200 new romantic fiction titles. Borrowing is free. Full list at ^MJ

Pensioner? Free cholesterol tests at Bullathinga Town Hall this Friday 8am to 12pm. ^MJ

DA received: shop renovations at 127 Smith St. Comments close 17 Aug. ^MJ

Next on stage at Bullathinga Park: Folk Off, Irish comedy folk trio. #bullafair ^MJ

Spraying footpaths for asthma weed today in areas west of Perkins Rd. It’s safe for humans. ^MJ

See the hashtags, the keywords starting with “#”? They serve two purposes. One, they add keywords to a tweet that might not otherwise be present, so they’ll turn up in searches. Two, by categorising your tweets with hashtags, you allow people who aren’t interested in art, say, to filter out those tweets.

Note that I’ve put the critical information at the front of the tweet, making it easier for retweeters to chop off bits at the end if they want to add their own comments. I’ve used a custom URL shortener to create short web addresses. Twitter does URL shortening anyway, but the tools make it easy to set up your own shortener for added branding and a whiff of professionalism.

Note that every tweet must stand alone. Tweet often get retweeted out of context, and in any event people usually only see the most recent tweets. If you opened conversation on an issue then you need to close it again, and use all the key words on the closure.

Flooding subsides. Perkins Rd has re-opened at Hangmans Creek. ^MJ

I haven’t covered how you respond to tweets directed at your account, or how you do customer service via Twitter, striking the balance between answering immediately or directing people elsewhere for more comprehensive answers. They’re whole topics in themselves.

But for some good examples, look no further than Telstra. Despite their once-traditional reputation for poor customer service, Telstra is actually doing really well on Twitter.

So how do you start?

Register an official Twitter account, and also get whoever will be tweeting on your organisation’s behalf to set up a personal account. Fill in all your profile. Don’t stress about getting it 100% right, you can change it at any time.

Install TweetDeck as your Twitter client software, rather than using the Twitter website. It provides a lot more flexibility, and it’s available for Windows, OS X, iPhone and iPads and Android.

Start by listening. Set up search columns in TweetDeck for the names of the towns an suburbs in your area, and note what people are saying. Start to follow the interesting people in your area. Note the regular questions people have, and answer them. Note the misconceptions and correct them.

Follow other local governments, here and overseas. Think about what works for them and might work for you, and what doesn’t. Adopt what seem to be good behaviours. Follow a few high-profile tweeters and learn from them.

Tweet about a small subset of things at first. Choose easy, non-controversial things to start with, like letting people know when and where meeting are and pointing them to the documentation. Then add in new sets of tweets as you become more comfortable with the medium and can persuade staff members to contribute from their area. The fact that you’re adding more to what you’re tweeting about is worth its own tweet.

Don’t panic. Have fun.

[Image: Twitter bird drawing by Hugh McLeod.]

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