Geek tip: Twitter’s best-kept secret

The big news of the day is the fact that Twitter’s unveiling a significant redesign; you should see it on sometime in the next week. But my big Twitter revelation isn’t new at all. It’s Twitter’s awesome search operators.

To demonstrate the power of Twitter’s search operators, check out this search for tweets from Washington, D.C., on September 14 containing links and mentioning “Fenty.” I used four of Twitter’s most powerful search operators to construct that search: Continue reading

Gnoming for followers on Twitter

My co-blogger Tim writes and tweets about the history and future of media. If that sounds broad, I should clarify that Tim is very good. He’s one of the most well-read people I know and he’s got dizzying pattern recognition. The word my also-brilliant other-co-blogger Robin most often uses to describe Tim’s work is “magisterial.”

Tim has a good sense of others in the Webosphere who share some of his particular fascinations and obsessions, and he found that several of those folks weren’t following him. So, to remedy this, he asked them to. And here’s how that played out: Continue reading

A blogger’s morning ritual: 5 points to keep in mind

One of the more dismal feelings any writer can have is that sense of waking up to an empty page that demands to be filled with thoughts. When you write daily and in public, that sensation is particularly acute. Fortunately, you have a wonderfully useful tool to avert that possibility: the precious morning ritual. Continue reading

The Twitter Diet: a simple, three-point plan for Twitter dominance

The @Poynter and @NiemanLab Twitter accounts.

Two accounts, both alike in dignity, on fair Twitter where we lay our scene.

Both of these accounts are successful. 15,000+ followers is nothing to sneeze at. But @NiemanLab on the right is definitely more successful. These accounts are tweeting pretty similar types of information – news and useful information for journalists and media types. Yet @NiemanLab seems to be garnering more influence for its efforts. @Poynter has tweeted more than three times as much as @NiemanLab, but it has 10,000 fewer followers, and it’s on 1,000 fewer lists. Why might this be? Continue reading

Finding folks to follow on Twitter

You may be familiar with this phenomenon: you’re breaking the plastic on your brand new Twitter account, and you start following everyone whose Twitter stream you’ve been eager to read. When the dust settles after your initial flurry of following, you look at your Twitter home page and it turns out you’ve followed exactly 12 people. I’ve been asking the Argo-bloggers to follow at least 100 accounts on Twitter that are highly informative and relevant to their topic. So how do you get from 12 to 100?

To help, here’s a 10-minute screencast walking through the art of traversing Twitter:

And here are some things to consider before you click the “Follow” button:

  • How widely or narrowly are you considering the topic? Start your search with as sharp a lens on your subject as you think makes sense (e.g. folks tweeting about organized labor in Detroit). But if you run into trouble trying to find relevant accounts, widen that lens a bit (e.g. folks tweeting on federal labor and trade policies).
  • How topical is the account? Is the stream filled with links and commentary that have nothing to do with your topic? I’d start out by looking for accounts from whom at least 50% of the tweets are relevant to my subject.
  • How prolific is the account? Many pages on will show you a tweeter’s most recent tweet and when it was posted. That’s usually an easy way to tell how often someone tweets. For example, my last tweets was 7 hours ago, which is a fair indicator of how often I’m on Twitter on an average day.
  • How popular is the account? First, how many followers does the Twitterer have? If it’s a couple thousand or more, that’s worth noting. I also often look for a high follower-friend ratio, to see if the account is providing value to a community of folks far outside its immediate network. (More on that here.)

After you’ve followed an initial set of 100+ accounts on Twitter, you can use a recommendation service like Mr. Tweet to help you find others you might want to follow.

Update: I’d be remiss not to re-link Mashable’s “10 ways to find people on Twitter.”

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 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 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 (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.

More thoughts on Twitter

After thinking about it a bit, I realized the quick bit on Twitter in yesterday’s post didn’t do it justice. Saying that it “has the potential to be a key driver of engagement with the site” undersells its value. Twitter’s not just a place to promote ourselves. It’s also a tremendous place to learn from our community and to discover what makes folks tick. In fact, it might be today’s most effective teacher of what works on the Web. Why?

It offers some quick, transparent measures for gauging influence.

Follower counts on Twitter can be driven by any number of variables. Some Twitterers pursue followers through brute force – following every account they come across and counting on some percentage of those accounts to follow them back. Other folks got boosted into the Twitter A-list after the kingmakers at Twitter HQ handpicked them to be featured users. For all these reasons, follower counts alone are a very crude measure of how much people value a particular Twitterer.

The Twitter stats of my co-blogger at Snarkmarket, Robin Sloan. The high followers-to-following ratio suggests that Robin produces a high-signal feed. And he does!

But. Every metric on the Web is a very crude measure of value. Compare a site’s standing on Quantcast with their Technorati rank with their own internal traffic measurements sometime – you’d walk away with three drastically different pictures of their place in the universe. On Twitter at least, every follower is a distinct, persistent account that opted to subscribe to the followee’s feed. When you see that a person has 3,000 followers on Twitter, you know that every one of that person’s tweets is transmitted to 3,000 accounts (some fraction of which represent people who actually read those tweets). In many ways, that tells you a lot more than a numbering of pageviews or unique visitors.

When I’m evaluating an unfamiliar Twitter account, I often take a look at the followers-to-following ratio: how many others are following that account compared to how many others the account is following. That helps me determine whether folks tend to follow this account because it follows them, or whether folks folks far outside the Twitterer’s immediate network also tend to find it valuable.

It’s a great headline-writing coach.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of a particular tweet’s resonance on Twitter is the retweet. In other words, retweeting is the sincerest form of flattery. In written storytelling, I don’t think there’s any feedback quite as visceral as tweeting something and watching it spread, retweeted again and again.

Spend some time on Twitter, and you’ll quickly start to glean the factors that make a tweet particularly retweet-worthy. Similar information couched in different ways will draw very different results. Cleverness and pith certainly help, and if you’re linking to something, the content of the link itself is paramount. But mere wording affects a lot, and I’ve found that some of the same principles that make for good Web headlines hold true in the Twitter context as well.

Keep in mind that linking to content on Twitter isn’t a one-shot deal. If you’ve tweeted an item you think is important and didn’t see the response you expected, there’s no harm in trying again later with a slightly different approach. Jay Rosen does a stellar job of reiterating or rejiggering his tweets to reach slightly different audiences. I mean, don’t go crazy, but don’t feel crippled by the perception that you only get 140 characters to make an impression.

Which brings me to the next point …

True engagement on Twitter is cumulative.

One of the hardest habits for classic news-people to shed in their approach to the Web is their tendency to care more about individual articles than about the stream of their work. I recently spent a semester working with journalism students, and they seemed to come in two varieties – those obsessed with clips and clip counts, and those watching the Feedburner stats on their journalism blogs. Don’t get me wrong – individual posts are important. Although each post doesn’t have to be a lavishly crafted viral gem, each post should provide some value for your community.

But the stream is more important than the fragment. Kudos to you if you produce the definitive, heartwrenching story on the little girl separated from her parents in an immigration raid. Now can you become the definitive clearinghouse for information on how that story is playing out? The two things reinforce each other, of course. Having a series of terrific posts means you’ve got a terrific stream. But it’s always worth keeping in mind, when our aim is engagement, 1,000 new subscribers to our RSS feed are more valuable than 1,000 extra pageviews on a post.

Twitter constantly reinforces that message. As you engage on Twitter, you’ll find yourself watching your retweets spread through the tweetosphere with delight, but the real payoff comes as those retweets turn into followers.

Twitter as a recruiting tool

Finding it difficult to suss out the right candidates for your specialized reporting endeavor? Consider turning to Twitter.

We’ve got some challenging hires to make, and simply posting our job ads in the typical spots might not get us far enough. In Cape Cod, for example, we’re trying to find a social-media-savvy reporter with a robust ocean science background. How might we use Twitter in this instance to identify promising recruiting territory for candidates?

First, I’d search the site for a relevant key phrase.

To keep it simple, let’s try “ocean science.” There are two ways to search Twitter – (1) use the site’s internal search engine at; and (2) use another search engine, such as Google. The former search returns tweets, ordered chronologically. The latter search returns Twitter accounts and Twitter lists, using information from descriptions and account names as well as from recent tweets. That’s probably what we want.

Right off the bat, the Google search gives us a number of relevant accounts and lists. The top result is @ricksearle’s ocean-science-education list, which follows 57 people. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Media Relations accounts both show up pretty high. And whaddya know? WHOI just happened to tweet recently about its Ocean Science Journalism Fellowship. Perhaps there are some graduates of that program who’d be good leads for the position.

Then, I’d look for the most active or authoritative accounts around the topic.

I’d continue to poke around the various Twitter accounts I come across with several questions in mind. Are they consistently tweeting interesting information and links related to our subject? Do they seem to be following other relevant Twitterers? How many followers do they have, and how many users are they following? (A high follower-to-following ratio is a quick indication that the account has a high signal. In other words, people follow it because it provides valuable and relevant information, not just because it follows them.) Have they created any relevant lists around different aspects of the topic?

I’d definitely keep a list of the names we come across. The folks we encounter might be good contacts to ask about candidates for the job, or they might be good candidates themselves. But as an added bonus, this information will be really useful as our Argo-blogger begins covering her beat.

Last step: follow up!

At a minimum, several of the Twitterers we come across will probably be more than happy to spread the word about the position. To contact folks on Twitter, you can catch their attention with an @message, or look for contact information in their Twitter profile – bio or linked website.