What is Twitter? A beginner’s guide

In the past 30 days, 226 million people asked the Google ‘What is Twitter?’  So, in the interests of giving people what they want, here’s my description of what this social networking tool is all about, and the basics about getting started with it.

Twitter is a real-time information network, allowing people to micro-blog messages, known as ‘Tweets’, of up to 140 characters.  The site has in excess of 500 million users, of which at least 200 million of those are active, and according to the Washington Post¸ over 400 million tweets are posted each day.

Bringing like-minded people together

As with all social media tools, Twitter brings like-minded people together to share information and have conversations that are of mutual interest.  Twitter enables you to follow people and companies that interest you, whether it’s friends and family, celebrities, news outlets, competitors, customers, industry peers, local businesses – whoever interests you.  You simply follow their account, and their tweets will appear in your feed.

You don’t need to tweet yourself in order to get value from Twitter, you can simply follow accounts and consume information.  But, if you want to interact and start your own conversations, then of course you can tweet your own messages.

Are people just talking nonsense?

There are definitely lots of people talking nonsense on Twitter, the celebrities are the worst, but if you don’t like what they’re saying, you can simply ‘unfollow’ them, and they’re gone.  But most people, particularly those using it to network for business, are having useful conversations, helping each other, and sharing useful information.  I personally find that there is a lot more nonsense being discussed on Facebook!

How to get started?

Visit twitter.com and sign up.  The first thing you’ll need is a ‘handle’ AKA your Twitter name, this is unique to you.  Handles are preceded with the ‘@’ character, so for example my handle is @christine_tiger.  You should next add your photo (so important to include your photo), and add a short description about yourself to the bio section – for this you have up to 160 characters.  This tells people what you’re about, what you’re likely to being tweeting about, helps people to find you, and helps Twitter to make recommendations of people that you might like to follow.

Once you have your account, Twitter will prompt you to follow people, and will give you some well-known personalities as suggestions.  You can also upload your own address book to the site, and it will tell you which of those people also have a Twitter account, and you can choose who from that list you’d like to follow.  There is useful tool called Twitter Wonk, which you can use to find people with common interests, eg Photographers.

The best thing to do next, is to watch your feed, and get a feel for the type of information people are tweeting, and how they construct their tweets, until you’re ready to join the conversation yourself.

Twitter basics/terminology

Keep your tweets short and sweet – even though you only have 140 characters, try to keep them shorter if possible.  If your followers ‘retweet’ your post, they may need some extra space to add their own comments.

Retweet – if you like a tweet, you can ‘retweet’ it out to the people that follow you.  They may in turn retweet it to their followers and so the message spreads quickly.  Retweeting is a great way to get noticed by the person who posted the original message, as they’ll be notified that you retweeted for them – handy if it’s someone you’re trying to get to notice you, a potential customer or journalist perhaps.  But, it’s also a great way to support your Twitter community.

Hashtags – I believe hashtags are the most important aspect of Twitter, and when I run social media training sessions, it’s the one area that people always start out being most confused by.

Hashtags (#) appear before a word or phrase, which then makes it a searchable item.  For example, if there are lots of people tweeting about the Budget, the hashtags might be #Budget2013.  Anyone looking for conversations about the Budget, will simply type that hashtag into the search box, and relevant tweets will be shown to you.  You often see them associated with TV programmes, eg #eurovision, which allows you to follow and join in conversations about a show in real-time. If you’re looking to see what hashtags people are using, try hashtags.org.

Replies – you can reply to a tweet by hitting the reply button, and get a conversation started, which will appear as a normal tweet, but attached to the original.

Direct messages – if you are mutually connected to someone, you can Direct Message (DM) them for a private conversation.  Warning, use this with care, there are many instances where people have thought their conversation was Direct, but was in fact Public.

Pictures and video – there are lots of tools such as Twitpic, Twitvid, Instagram and Vine that allow you to post photos and short video clips to Twitter.  I was recently speaking at a conference, and someone in the audience filmed a few seconds of my talk and posted it to Twitter, with a brief comment about it – thankfully kind.

Trending topics – Twitter will show you the top topics that are trending on Twitter at any given time.  Keep an eye on these. If a topic related to your niche comes up, jump in and start tweeting your views, using the appropriate hashtag, and you’ll massively increase your exposure and potentially gain many more followers.

Links – if you’re providing a link to another web page, please please please use an URL shortener, such as bit.ly.  Not only is it best practice to do this, if you were to post the average web page, you’d take up most of your 140 characters with it.  If you sign up for a free account with bit.ly you’ll also get access to rich data on the numbers of people clicking your link, and which social networks they’re clicking from.  This helps you to refine future activity.

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By Christine Jones, Tiger Mouth

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