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Using Twitter for promotion and community

Twitter, the leading service for microblogging, was quickly adopted by dozens - then hundreds - of news outlets in 2008.

It took months, sometimes years, for journalists to engage in the practice of blogging their news. It took some journalists even longer to come around to the concept of publishing partial versions of their news stories online, then following them up with fuller versions.

If blogging started as an online journal, think of microblogging as an instant messaging journal. A microblogging service allows users to publish brief text messages, usually no more than 140 characters, with links to other websites, photos or videos. Messages can be submitted in a variety of ways, including text messaging, instant messaging, email, digital audio or the web.

The messages can also be consumed in many ways, including on a mobile device, via email or by visiting a website such as Twitter.com. The services make it simple to subscribe to an individual and receive his or her updates however you want, or to secure your own messages and restrict access only to those individuals you want reading your updates.

The ease of publishing, combined with the ease of consuming, has contributed to micro-blogging's rapid growth. Whereas blogging could intimidate a writer who didn't feel like they consistently write anything of interest, anybody can contribute something with a 140-character limit. And, when you find someone worth reading, you can easily "follow" that person and automatically receive his or her updates on a website or on your mobile device.

Twitter is the most popular microblogging service. In fact, the platform is so popular that more people have probably heard of Twitter than the term "microblogging." The company launched its service in July 2006 and, as of Feb. 2009, had raised $55 million in venture capital funding. With rapid growth and millions of users, investors are confident that Twitter can find a sustainable business model, but that is yet to be seen.

Another form of microblogging is using a feature in a social network like Facebook or LinkedIn to post "status updates." Yet another service, FriendFeed, takes all of these updates for an individual and publishes them in one stream.

These features, like Twitter, invite users to post a quick update on what they might be doing, thinking or planning at any given point in time. The more updates that people post for one another, the more connected friends and colleagues become, 140 characters at a time.

In the end, a microblogging platform like Twitter is really a social network disguised as a short-message publishing platform.

There is power in finding new people to follow, thereby extending your network. There is social capital to be earned by actively participating in that network, where you give information and ask questions and expect your followers to do the same.

The great thing about microblogging, especially on Twitter, is how easy it is to get going. It take a few minutes to register for a new account, upload a profile picture and post your first Tweet.

Before you get "on" Twitter, though, you need a sense of what you're going to do with it. Not everyone has the same goal, of course. And while you don't have to rigidly stick to one approach with your microblogging, it's helpful to know what you are hoping to accomplish as you get started.

     
  • Are you a reporter hoping to build community with readers?
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  • Are you an editor aiming to build a network of readers around a specific topic?
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  • Are you a journalist hoping to network with other journalists?Are you an aspiring (insert dream job here) looking to build your personal brand?
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  • Identifying what you hope to accomplish with it will help determine your Twitter ID (or username). If you are a news site, the username should be consistent with the site's brand. If you are hoping to build a personal brand, then use your full name. If you want to network with others around a shared interest, you can have a little fun with your Twitter ID (and your profile picture) but you should still add your real name to your profile.

 

Twitter basics

To participate in any community, first you need to know the language. Thankfully, there are only a handful of "insider" terms you need to know in order to be a functioning member of the Twitter community.

     
  • DM: Direct Message
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  • @: Used to reply, it precedes a Twitter ID in a reply (eg. @johndoe)
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  • RT: Retweet, meaning copying someone else's Tweet and posting it so your followers can see it, too.
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  • Tweet: As a verb it means sending a message on Twitter. As a noun, it means the message sent or received.
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  • Hashtag: A common label for any Tweet that should be tied together with others' tweets, preceded by a # symbol. Especially effective for a news event or a conference (eg. #sxsw for the South By Southwest conference).
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  • "Tw" as a prefix for any other word: A practice on Twitter is to develop a new twist on old words. For example, "Tworld" means Twitter world, "Tweeples" are those who use Twitter, and a "Tweetup" is a meetup by people using Twitter.

There are four main things you can do on Twitter: post a message, read other people's messages, read reply messages that other people direct to you and send/receive Direct Messages which are private. (We'll cover searching on Twitter separately.) Here's a look at each activity:

     
  • Post: It's easy, just don't exceed the 140-character limit.
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  •   Read: It's easy, too, since the messages of the people you follow automatically display on your Twitter homepage (after you sign in).
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  • Replies: Reading reply messages is easy, too: just click "@Replies." If you want to reply to someone simply add the "@" sign before their Twitter username (or click the arrow on the person's tweet you wish to reply to).
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  • Direct messages: Sending a direct message is easy, too. Just click "Direct Messages" and select the person you wish to communicate with from the drop-down menu. That person will receive an email notification regarding their direct message (or "DM") and the message is not public.

Build your Twitter network

When you start on Twitter, you don't have a network or a community. But you can build one rather quickly with a little time and effort.

The first step is to find people to follow. Go to search.twitter.com and search for terms you are interested in, like "journalism" or "newspapers" or "iphone." Once you find a tweet that looks interesting, click on the person's profile who posted it. Then click on "following" to see who that person is following and when you find someone whose interests seems aligned with yours, and whose posts are somewhat interesting, click "Follow" on their profile.

Now that person's tweets will appear on your Twitter homepage. When someone retweets (with an RT) another post, follow it and you'll probably find someone else new to follow. Following just a few new people every day will quickly grow the depth and breadth of tweets flowing into your homepage.

This also helps in the next step, which is to get people to follow you. Each time you click the "Follow" button on someone's profile, that person receives an email notification about your decision to follow their tweets. Most people then click the link to your profile and if your tweets seem interesting enough, they will click the "Follow" button on your profile.