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Leveraging Twitter - My Thoughts on How To Make the Most of Every Situation

Image by Amy Burvall http://tmblr.co/Zb8aBo19NdENy

I recently got involved in a conversation about the best use of social media, in particular Twitter, to engage and gain traction with a wider audience. Often people are simply told to collectively tweet at a certain time and that will be enough to get something to trend, but really is that enough? For it is one thing to sign up to Twitter and put out a few tweets, but it is another thing to gain interest in your cause online. Fine you could simply write the same tweet hundreds of times and you might get something literally trending, however traction in my view is much more complicated than simply getting something trending. For who is watching? How are they actually responding? And most importantly, how will they respond if you use the same strategy again and again?

The reality is that there is a fine line between engaging and disengaging someone online (and offline for that matter too). Many people seem to think that traction is simply a numbers game, but this is naive and far too simplistic. For example, if your strategy is to repetitively send out the same tweet and simply tag different people in each post, you need to be mindful that those people may not feel significant if they discover this. Instead of spreading your message, those who you include may consider you as spamming, as +Alec Couros did when he was tagged in a tweet by Biosgraphy. So instead of spreading your message by retweeting it or engaging in some sort of dialogue, such actions often risk developing a negative view. Even worse than this is actually asking people to retweet, as pointed out by +Dan Donahoo recently. To me this is saying that your message isn't strong enough to gain interest and attention, are a few retweets going to solve this? 

Maybe I have misunderstood the medium, but to me Twitter is heavily based on branding and association. Whether it be personal or associated with a topic embodied within a hashtag. This notion of 'branding' is difficult to develop and is unique to each situation. What needs to be considered is how would you respond if you were on the other side? Would you follow? Would you connect? Or would you be put off? Disconnect or even worse, unfollow if you were following in the first place?

The first step in my view when it comes to branding revolves around what +Anne Mirtschin describes as our 'digital badge'. This includes:
  1. consistent image
  2. clear username
  3. detailed profile. 
Mirtschin argues that unless we create some sort of identity then often people will be unwilling to connect with us and subsequently our ideas. Using the example of Ning's, she explains that moderators of such sites will not allow people in if they don't give anything of themselves. The same though can be said about all forms of connections. Unless you provide some sort of background, then people don't really know who they are connecting with and are often unwilling to engage.

After addressing identity, the next area of concern is the content which you share with the communities you connect with. Some feel comfortable using social media to simply lurk, while others feel it is enough to simply retweet. I would argue though to get the most out of any social media platform you have to get involved and give back. However, this is easier said than done. 

The task associated with what to 'give back' and what to post is often twofold. Firstly, I would argue, giving back and adding to the conversation is about constantly evolving the story as to who you are, whilst at the same time inadvertently connecting with others with similar concerns and beliefs. For the real challenge online is getting others to join the cause. It is easy enough for a person to compose one hundred posts. However, it is a much harder to coordinate an effort where one post is shared by one hundred different people. (That is unless you are ISIS and take over the accounts of all your followers, listen to the Guardian Tech Weekly Podcast.) In this respect, sharing with who you are helps to identify your tribe of believers.

The next step is what we post when it comes to trying to gain traction and airspace. Some get straight the point. Stating the message in a simple fashion with little scope left for continuing the conversation. Sadly, this misses the point of the medium. In my view, there are many ways to carry a conversation, they include providing clear statements, pose questions, using #hashtags, connecting with other users, link to information, using images not just words and responding to others.

Take for example the ongoing campaign around the Gonski Education Reforms. One could compose the tweet:
This is a fine sentiment and there is nothing actually wrong with the statement. The problem is that the actual message lacks clarity. Some of the issues include clarifying what the actual 'change' is and why is it needed for all. An alternate statement could be:
Although most ideas and argument cannot be deduced to 140 very well, such a statement still needs to have some semblance of clarity. Where possible, it needs to capture not only the what, but more importantly the why.

Another way of getting a message out is by posing a question. So instead of making a statement, you turn the problem into a question:
Although using the same ingredients as the statement, by putting it as a rhetorical question encourages the reader to consider their own perspective on the matter.

Associated with producing a message or question is linking in other users and/or ideas. This is done by making reference to various handles (the name given to an identity on Twitter) and hashtags (a form of digital categorisation that aggregates across platforms). In the case of Gonski, an obvious handle to attach would be @igiveagonski, while in regards to hashtags, some possibilities include #gonski, #auspol and #springst. An example then might be:
It needs to be noted that handles do not always read well, as they are about branding more than readability, while words are often abbreviated or substituted in order to fit more information.

In addition to content and connections, the other thing to consider is linking to other details and information. The most obvious example is quoting a source. For example:
The purpose of this is to use evidence and statistics to bring credability to the argument. 

The problem with quotes though is the problem with Twitter, sometimes 140 characters just isn't enough. In this case, the alternative is to capture the quote in an image. @igiveagonski have been producing a series of graphics linking quotes from key academics with the call to sign up to the campaign:
The only issue is that not everyone has the time and nous to create such slick graphics (although, as +Bill Ferriter points out, with programs like Canva, it can actually be quite easy). A simple alternative is using a program like Quozio to quickly turn a quote into an image:
This allows you to fit more in and then provide other details in the actual tweet.

Moving away from quotes, the other alternative to adding your own ideas is adding various links, images and videos. Coupled with quotes, it can be good to add links to other sources in order to provide people with more information or a space to continue to engage with topics in question. The obvious link associated with the Gonski campaign is the www.igiveagonski.com.au site. However, the other option is the multitude of commentary out there attached to the topic. Take for example tweet referencing a piece from Pasi Sahlberg:
Not only does this add some substance to the discussion, but it also brings others into the fray. 

In regards to images, the other common alternative to quotes or photographs are creative responses. This can come in any shape and form, but the most common is through the use of various meme generator websites and applications:
It needs to be noted that a 'meme' is not in itself an image, but rather a an artefact shared within a culture. The term was actually coined by Richard Dawkins to refer to the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena, including melodies, fashion and technology. In this sense, this blog post is actually a meme itself.

The other option is to create an image by hand, either digitally or by taking a photograph of a sketchbook.
It is often stated that sketching ideas engages both sides if the brain, I would also argue that the originality inherent in a sketch often increases the engagement with the idea. A great proponent of sketching is +Amy Burvall. See for example her magnificent collection at her my-conography site.

The other option is to link to a video from a site such as YouTube. One that did the rounds a few months ago was this short video explaining the Gonski model:
Like quotes and images, videos can allow you to include a range of ideas in the one tweet.

These then are some of the possibilities for getting an idea across. Whether it be connecting to others or linking to additional material, the most important thing to consider is your purpose and which means is going to best communicate this. So if your purpose is to engage the media, then quotes and links to evidence and research would probably make sense, while if your purpose is to engage the wider community then humour that does not exclude anyone is probably your best bet.

Coming up with a clear message is often the easy bit when it comes to Twitter, it is how we make sense of such an over abundance of information that is the real challenge. For some Twitter can simply be a whole lot of noise and lack much meaning at all. There are however some tricks that can help.

Clearly, I don't want to replicate what has already been discussed elsewhere in regards to understanding how to actually use Twitter (see for example +David Truss' excellent introduction). My interest is in the additional applications and add-ons that can make things easier.

The biggest challenge that many face is how to keep track of all the different followers. For some, the answer is to limit the people who they follow to 150 in the belief that 150 is the maximum number who we can meaningfully engage with. However, the other option is to use lists to organise people into different categories. Like the idea of circles in Google+, lists allows you to add different users so that instead of scrawling through the endless stream, you can then isolate the conversation more easily. Another good feature of lists is that if you make them public then others can simply subscribe to them, rather than go through all the rigmarole of creating their own.

One of the other challenges is consistently posting. You see some people who tweet sporadically because they don't know what to post. Not only does this say something about how they see the medium, but coming back to Mirtchen's point about digital badge, it does not really provide much of a feel as to who you are and what you believe in. If you are to gain any sort of traction on Twitter then you need followers, but to get followers you really need to be someone worth following. One answer to this is the the use of such services as IFTTT to post on your behalf. There are a range of 'recipes' which once setup automatically run in the background. In regards to Twitter, the most obvious use of IFTTT is the cross-posting from sites such as Google+, Facebook, Instagram and Flickr. However, you can also use it to automatically post any new RSS news feed items or send a tweet to new followers.

Another great program that allows you to manage the abundance of information is Tweetdeck+Sue Waters has created a fantastic resource which is a must for anyone trying to get there head around it. However, in summary some of the benefits include the ability to schedule tweets, important if you are trying to engage with people all around the world, as well as add different columns. Clearly this is useful for monitoring both your own feed, but also any notifications without changing screens. (Hootsuite also offers much of the same functionality.) What is awesome is that you can add custom columns. These can be hashtags, lists or even handles. This can be useful in monitoring a particular hashtag and engaging in a particular conversation.

There are also some other programs which can be useful for monitoring a hashtag. The best is Tagboard, a site that will collect all the different posts associated with a particular hashtag from sites such as Google+, Instagram, Twitter, Vine and Tumblr. Another useful site is Storify. This site allows you to curate information surrounding a hashtag and add a narrative to it in order to fill in all the gaps. While the last site is Trendsmap. This site aggregates what is trending. If the goal is leverage, this can be a useful barometer. Although it must be noted that just because something is trending, it does not allows guarantee traction. That is forever left to a certain degree to chance.

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So there are my thoughts on Twitter and how to make the most of it. What are your thoughts? Do you agree? Have I missed something? I would love to know. Feel free to leave a comment below.


POSTSCRIPT


Here is a presentation that I created associated with the post:


Advocating with Social Media - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

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