Twitter Civics 101: What It Is & Why You Should Care

The most common question we hear from clients these days is, “How can we maximize Twitter?” Many giant companies went the route of letting the kids (literally) handle arguably their most visible and direct public face this summer, some with disastrous results. But that’s just not the way. The lesson is simple: Twitter is a communication vehicle. It is relatively new, but it is not a flash in the pan. It’s not just for the kids and Lady Gaga or Yoko Ono. And it isn’t just about what you had for breakfast. Just as one would never staff engineering or sales departments with interns alone, treating social media (more on Facebook in future but same rule applies) as a quantitative proposition alone is a sure path to disaster. To understand a communication vehicle, we need to come to grips with what it is and how it works—then figure out how to use it to support business objectives. We’ll address the first one here.

Twitter is Public

The single most important element everyone in your organization needs to know about Twitter is that almost everything on it is available to everyone in the wide world. What your brand—and that means your management—say on Twitter therefore affects your whole company. Some folks—journalists and those working in politics are perfect examples—try to get around this by having employees put in their profiles that their posts are personal rather than professional. This can work for some, but not for the people listed on the Management page of your website. Make no mistake: As a communications professional, it is your responsibility to understand Twitter and (take a seat for this revelation) make sure everyone in your organization does, too. If you don’t get how this works, for the love of whatever you believe in, ask for some advice!

Twitter is Mainstream

With social media, numbers are always tricky. Number of registered users? Active users? Visitors? Impressions? Twinkies? Twitter’s numbers don’t matter. Let me repeat that: Twitter’s numbers don’t matter. By any measure, there are a few more than millions of people on Twitter. Name a media outlet with a reach of more than a million that’s not important to your brand. (Crickets) Exactly.

Twitter is Two-Way…if you want it to be

The best way to understand the interactions on Twitter is to think of it like walking into your family doctor’s waiting room. By definition, you have something in common with everyone there and yet the specifics are likely entirely different. You might be there for a regular physical while the person next to you is suffering from acute appendicitis. But you’re both there for a reason related to health. Just because you’re in the same waiting room, though, doesn’t mean you necessarily want to talk with anyone—or everyone. You can read that fascinating article about Bennifer from the August, 2003 issue of People or you can choose to strike up a conversation either in response to something you overhear or because you like someone’s shoes. If you do start chatting, just about everything you say will be audible to all your co-waiters. If you start that conversation and the guy across the room over-listens and wants to participate, he’ll jump right in. Just like Twitter.

Twitter has its Own Language

Sure there’s Twitter jargon—hashtag, stream, @ reply, DM, auto-DM, feed—but keep in mind that specific communities within Twitter have their own language as well, necessitated by its 140-character format. For example, I read a lot of crime fiction, and I interact with lots of others who do. We talk about our TBR pile and #fridayreads.

Twitter is All Free

This is not a duh. Its nature is such that it is tempting to put Twitter in advertising terms, but this is as problematic as reading The Communist Manifesto to comprehend democracy. Or trying to understand American government without reading the U.S. Constitution. Have you noticed I still haven’t told you how to get more followers? Yeah, and I’m not going to—not today. I want you to keep anticipating what I say next…just like on Twitter. Oh and for the record, anyone who tells you there’s a formula for Twitter success is a fake guru and is just as misguided as those who suggest that pay-for-play is a viable model for effective media relations. On that, I step down from my box. Questions? Email or tweet @erinfaye.

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