Five tips on getting started with Twitter

Image courtesy of Flickr user ~Ilse.

I’ve recommended that our Argo-bloggers make Twitter one of their first priorities as they begin conquering their beats. But I’ve gotten a few questions on how to get started there. If you haven’t yet, read my post on why I find Twitter so valuable. Then check out my tips for getting started below, and add your tips in the comments.

1. Make your stream valuable for you.

A lot of reporters start out on Twitter thinking, “Oh great, this is one more mouth I have to feed.” The tendency is to load up Twitter.com and see only that input box, hungry for 140 characters of goodness. But Twitter veterans know that the real value of the site isn’t the input box, but the stream of tweets rolling in beneath it.

The first step towards making Twitter valuable is making it valuable to read. This means finding the best accounts to follow on your topic (Mashable: 10 ways to find people on Twitter), so that every time you load up your Twitter home page, it’s an endless river of insights and links to the best new stuff in your domain. Tend to your needs first; then tweet.

2. Find your favorite Twitter client.

One dirty little secret of Twitter is that power-users tend not to spend much time at Twitter.com. Most of the Twitterati are using a standalone Twitter client. I will warn you ahead of time that the nature of the beast is that you will always be slightly envious of someone else’s Twitter client. The sheer volume of information that flows through Twitter means somebody’s gotta have figured out the perfect way to organize all of it, right?

Nope. Sad, true story: No one’s figured out how to really organize Twitter. No matter which client you use, you’ll end up letting that river of incoming tweets wash over you.

On the plus side, you’ve got options. Twitter clients make it super-easy to keep track of @replies, direct-message conversations, hashtags, and other buzzwords. Some aspects to consider when choosing a Twitter client include how many different OSes you use (e.g. I use a Windows desktop at home, a Mac laptop at work, and I’ve got an Android phone; that’s 3 OSes); whether you prefer Web clients or desktop clients; and whether you need a service just for Twitter, or something that can also handle Facebook and other social networking services.

I’ve personally used and liked Tweetie on my Mac, Tweetdeck on my PC, HootSuite on the Web, and Seesmic on my Android phone.

Lifehacker’s got a terrific roundup of the best Twitter clients.

3. Measure out your days in retweets.

As I said before, watching a post get retweeted is one of the most instant and addictive forms of feedback you’ll find on the Web. And retweets bring followers. So make them a goal.

Even before your site launches, you can spend some time every day looking for great links to post to Twitter (posts with links are retweeted 40% more often than posts without them). Pay attention to what spreads and what fizzles, and consider this knowledge a master class in headline writing for the Web. If you come across a truly great link, sell it! Try to couch it in a way that reveals its importance. Tweet it more than once and make sure your crowd knows how excellent it is.

If you want to get really scientific about it, you can track the spread of particular links using tools such as Bit.ly (which integrates with other Twitter clients) and HootSuite (which has a Web client of its own). And if you want to get extra-double scientific, check out this Mashable story on the science of retweets.

4. Engage with the Twitter community.

When you launch a website, you always face the SETI problem: you’re not sure if there’s intelligent life out there. You can’t really do many call-outs to your community, because you don’t have one yet. The best you’ve got are a few random surfers who’ve found their way to your little corner of the Internet.

One of the beautiful things about Twitter is that you can see the intelligent life (and, of course, the not-so-intelligent life) coursing through it – the flow of tweets and retweets and replies and ideas that’s equal parts conversation, crowded room, graffiti wall and memoir in the making. When you see an interesting tweet, share it, respond to it, comment on it, and @reply the Twitterer that brought it to your attention. If you come across information that would be of interest to one of your followers, send it their way with a directed tweet.

A word of caution: Twitter often isn’t the best place to conduct protracted conversations, especially spirited ones. A lot gets lost in 140 characters. But it can be a wonderful place to start a dialogue.

5. Measure your progress and strive for growth.

Make it your goal to attract new followers every day, and keep tabs on how you’re doing. When I was in charge of the main Twitter account for the Knight Foundation, I made sure to check our follower counts at least once a day. I used Twitterholic to keep track of our progress, aiming for 30-50 new followers every day. I worked on figuring out how many good tweets would get me to that goal (usually 5-8 smart tweets a day would do it), and I made sure to hit that target. And sure enough, a month after I started, we’d increased our followers by 1,000, and I had a much better sense of how to deliver information Knight’s community would value.

I’d highly recommend using a service like Twitterholic or Twittergrader to track your reach on Twitter, if only to remind you to keep striving higher.

Addendum: If all this watching-of-retweets and counting-of-followers starts to feel a bit mercenary, bring it back to rule 1. Strive to create a Twitter stream – and a Twitter community – that’s valuable for you. And keep in mind that your goal is to produce a Twitter feed that’s valuable for many others. There are brute-force ways of gaining more followers on Twitter; follow 30,000 people and you’ll certainly garner something of a crowd.

But what I’m proposing is the hard way – day by day, pay careful attention to what people find valuable, and try to bring them more of it.