Three Tips For Twitter

by Mike Shea on 25 April 2009

Sly Flourish, my new web project, is doing well. I have a defined topic. I have clearly established rules for the site. I'm getting visitors. I'm happy with it. As well as the site has been going, however, it's my Sly Flourish Twitter feed that seems to get the attention. I decided early on how I'd use Twitter to augment the website and, after the past few weeks, I've learned far more about finding the usefulness of Twitter than I have in years writing to my personal Twitter account.

Today I'll discuss what I found and offer two large tips for greatly improving the use of Twitter.

Two articles really caught my attention when I was researching the best way to handle Twitter. Tim Ferriss has an excellent article on How to Use Twitter Without Twitter Owning You. His tips are very practical including not reading and writing at the same time, and not posting unless you add more value than the time you consume. I love these two tips and imagine how much better the service, and other services like Facebook, would be if everyone followed them.

The second article was by Wil Wheaton entitled What to Expect if you Follow Me On Twitter. He builds some very good ground rules for how he plans to handle having nearly half a million Twitter followers.

Both of these articles have a little bit of hypocrisy in them that comes down to this:

Speak to everyone, hear from no one.

When you have half a million followers, you can't truly socialize with them. You're just talking to a mass of people. You'll never hear any one voice through the storm and there's no good way to add any priority to any one voice other than making a determination based on whose voice it is.

And now, the tips.

Tip 1: Follow the topic

Like blogs, generic tweets about a person are relatively useless. Posting on a specific topic, however, can be very useful. It will help define yourself and define your audience. People will follow you for the right reason and will know what they're going to get. Likewise, follow the people who focus on a specific topic. They're more rare than the people who talk about everything in their lives, but they are out there and will provide far more valuable tweets than the folks who talk about everything.

Picking and tweeting on a specific topic helps differentiate you from the rest of the Twitter masses. Let's face it, most people don't give a damn who you are, but if you're talking about a topic they're interested in, they'll follow you. Define your topic and you'll differentiate yourself.

An easy way to watch your topic is to use and search upon a standard tag for your topic. The #dnd tag has become the standard tag for all matters of Dungeons and Dragons. It was made more popular when Felicia Day started talking about it. Now it has become a very easy way for me to follow the topic and ensure others can find me when they're interested in that topic. Find the standard tag for your topic and use it all the time.

Tip 2: Establish Your Twitter Output Policy

When using twitter, it helps to establish two policies. The first is your agreement with your followers. What can they expect from following you? What will you give them to make their lives better? How often will you post? What sorts of posts will you avoid? An established policy will help your followers know what they're going to get.

For Sly Flourish, this was straight forward. Followers of Sly Flourish will get D&D 4e DM tips twice daily. Granted, I stray from this with a few limited replies, but I try to ensure that even those replies have a context and a focus on making D&D 4e better. Overall I keep outgoing tweets down to no more than four or five a day.

Write as you'd like to read. Just because writing 140 characters can be quick and easy doesn't mean it should be. Really think about what you're posting. Is this helping people? Is this useful to them? Will it make their lives better for the time they're investing? Birdhouse, an iphone Twitter content management system that seems totally over-engineered until you realize how totally awesome it is, supports this very well. Type out and save your tweets for later. Read them again, spellcheck them, make sure they're tagged correctly, make sure they're context independent. Think of each 140 characters as a haiku of beautiful information. And, for the love of the Gods, people, don't post a series of tweets because you couldn't pack it all in. I un-follow people the minute I see that.

Tip 3: Establish Your Twitter Reading Policy

The second is a policy for your protection or else Twitter can quickly become a new huge inbox you have to handle every day. How will you decide who to follow? How will you read the incoming stream? How will you harness the value of Twitter without Twitter sucking away every minute you should be making something? What will you do with @replies? What about direct messages?

Tim Ferriss's rule that one should never read and write at the same time is a good personal policy. Applications like Birdhouse help by ensuring your output time is different than your reading time. Used alongside Tweetie, you have a good tool for writing and a good tool for reading.

Tim's rules in 4 Hour Work Week for email also help. Don't check it more than twice a day. I violate this all the time, checking three times a day during the day and nearly constantly at night. Of course, this Twitter feed is a big part of my current creative work so I don't mind spending that sort of attention on it.

You should also establish your policy for determining who you will follow. Here were my own rules for following others:

First, I only followed people who talked about D&D most of the time. If they spent a lot of time talking about other parts of their lives, I don't follow them.

Second, I don't follow anyone with more than a thousand followers. First, they usually are "personalities" that talk about every aspect of their lives, not just D&D. Second, being on their followers list doesn't help me if they have so many that no one bothers to check them all. Maybe it's egotistical, but one of the few ways people will find you is by seeing who is following someone else. If they have thousands of followers, they aren't likely to follow you back. If they're not following you, others won't either. You're better off networking with people with 60 followers than those with 6,000.

Third, I follow Tim Ferriss's 80 / 20 rule. After a couple of weeks I cut out the top five people I followed who produced the highest number of off-topic tweets a day. This immediately cut my twitter stream down to one I could manage to read in about 15 minutes a day broken up over the day. Watch your stream, figure out who is posting the highest number of useless tweets, and un-follow them.

These tips have helped me harness Twitter into something useful to my objectives with Sly Flourish and entertaining to me. Establish your topic, establish your posting policies, and establish your reading policies and you'll greatly improve the usefulness of Twitter.