Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Tweet

Dr.StrangeloveAnd it wasn’t even that hard!

Confession time. Twitter used to intimidate me.  140 characters is quite brief for my sheer verbosity and what if I did something wrong? I mean, don’t these things take planning? And why do all of these people keep tweeting food porn?

Then Google announced that they were retiring their Reader platform. With no immediate replacement to be found, Twitter threw open a window to the blogs that I followed, plus the added bonus off-the-cuff personality. So I focused on my own neglected Twitter account.  After 6 months of focusing on producing content, joining Tweetchats (more on that later), and attending my first higher ed social media conference, I can practically do an interpretive dance of sincerity. It’s not just a place to humblebrag dinner or your poolside cabana (though there is no lack of either in the Twitterverse), but the real value is Twitter’s direct connection with nationwide colleagues (and Ashton Kutcher), industry news, and a (often frustratingly) brief platform for personal branding.

Ever think about Tweeting but don’t know how to start or why you should?

Dr. Strangelove1. Listen. Times infinity. Then listen some more. 

TWITTER IS NOT ABOUT BROADCASTING. NO. STOP THAT. NO MORE.  If you work or volunteer for a brand or cause (or want to!), you probably understand your audience a fair degree. But you might not understand your audience in a virtual space. If you’re trying to develop a virtual brand for yourself, you need to figure out who your audience is going to be, what they are talking about, how they are talking about it, and why.

Which brings me to number 2…

2. Find people that you want to listen to.

Follow people who inspire you, challenge you, and get your juices flowing. Read a cool article or blog? Follow the author.  Awesome conference or TEDTalk speaker? Boom! Their brain on your smartphone. Connect with a new LinkedIn contact? Their Twitter is often listed right on their profile. And don’t forget institutions (like your friendly alma mater.. nudge nudge), news, and even city governments. My city’s Twitter feed has saved my butt quite a few hefty street-cleaning or snow emergency parking tickets.

The superstar conference presenter, CEO of the startup you admire, and celebrity you love to hate are real people, behind real keyboards, just like you and me. Twitter has the nifty effect of humanizing them.

3. Don’t be shy.

My first day of managing social media for my alma mater’s alumni office, I sent a Tweet to Hugh Hefner. His daughter is a fellow alumna and he made a public comment about remembering driving around our little city helping his daughter move in.  When I was bummed that a local cupcake truck made it’s closest stop to me while I was on chemo, I sent them a Tweet asking to swing by my hospital. I ended up with 2 dozen cupcakes to share with my nurses and the whole infusion lounge, cementing my place as both the most favorite patient and a complete Pavlov’s aversion to the miniature treats.

Moral of the story – Twitter is an equalizer. Talk to the people that you listen to. Ashton Kutcher might not respond, but your favorite local coffee shop might respond with a customer service question or you might get to meet your favorite New York Times columnist.

Interaction. It’s a beautiful thing.

4.  Hashtags, hashtags, hashtags!

Use them. Love them. Tinker around and figure out how to make them work for you. Each hashtag links back to a feed of all tweets that share the same tag. #fuckcancer is not only tied to the Fuck Cancer charity, but it also connects you to the very active cancer world. Hashtags not only connect you to others talking about the same topics, but they also drive people back to your feed.  And when they get there, you can quirk it up with a superfluous tag, #amirite?

5. Conference backchannels and tweetchats are gold mines.dr-strangelove-warroom

A meeting of the minds. You might not be able to go to that incredibly interesting but very far away conference, but you can jump into the back channel for free. Most (if not all) conferences today offer a hashtag to connect attendees to each other, the presenters, and those that cannot be there together.  Most recently, I followed the Edu Web Conference at #eduwebconf13 to check in with what my colleagues at other schools are doing, following along with shared slides (the best invention ever… or close to it), quotes, and conversations.

Tweetchats work similarly, though there is no in-person component. Participants gather online (I use Twubs) over a shared hashtag at a given time, generally moderated by either a formal organization (or nonprofit) or volunteers. Sessions typically have a theme with questions and answers. Meet people with similar interests and suddenly you have a team of new, interesting people to follow.

Have I mentioned how awesome this is?

I’m used to being the only one dealing with something – either in the curiouser and curiouser world of young adult cancer or as a solo social media guru. And yet! There are a LOT of us out there. And we like to talk and have much to learn from each other. Two of my favorite chats are the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) Social Media Conference bimonthly higher ed social media chats & yearly conference backchannel at #casesmc  and WEGO Health’s health activist chat at #hachat.

Dr. Strangelove6. Make friends.

You’re unlikely to meet your new best friend on Twitter, and please for the love of all things holy do not enter into a romantic relationship with someone you’ve never met (catfishing is real, and real sad too), but do connect with people. I know that if I need an editor, prompt, recipe, or gut check, there are several people who I have only “met” on Twitter that will throw me a hand. That kind of camaraderie comes in handy when you don’t know anyone at a conference, or you’re in a tight knit professional community and need an “in”. I’ve traded essays for a fresh pair of eyes after the team can’t edit the web launch any more.

Twitter does not replace networking. Nothing beats the in-person connection, but no one ever said you can’t meet your followers one day. Online collaboration can turn into phone calls which turn into business relationships.

The typical Twitter user is a 37 year old woman. If that surprises you as much as it initially surprised me, you are in for a real treat. It’s a brave new virtual world – take it head on!

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