We’ve all heard of Twitter at this point, and I would be the majority of our readers are already using it. But that doesn’t mean we’re all using it in the most efficient, most productive way. After all, Twitter can be confusing at best, and downright intimidating to many newcomers.
This guide should give you the basics you need to get more out of Twitter, whether you use it for your business or personal life. And follow us on Twitter: @smashingmag!
And be sure to check out our previous articles:
- 25+ Incredibly Useful Twitter Tools and Firefox Plugins
- 99 Essential Twitter Tools and Applications
- 8 Useful Tips to Become Successful with Twitter
- Effective Twitter Backgrounds: Examples and Current Practices
The most basic description of Twitter is that it’s a service that allows users to update what they’re doing in 140-character, bite-size messages that are broadcast to their group of followers. As a Twitter user, you can follow people to get their status updates (“tweets”) and others can follow you to get your updates. It’s really that simple. Sort of. Read on for more details.
A grasp of Twitter terminology is vital to anyone using the service. There are a lot of terms unique to Twitter, and it can get very confusing, very fast if you don’t have some idea of what others are talking about. Here’s a quick guide to the most common terms you’ll likely hear.
- DM or Direct Message: This is a private message sent to another Twitter user. It’s preceeded by a “D” and can only be sent to a user who is following you.
- Hashtag: Hashtags are single-word phrases used to organize different topics, chats, and events on Twitter, and are preceeded by a hash mark “#”.
- Lists: Lists are a fairly new Twitter feature, and are just what they sound like: lists of Twitter users created and categorized by other Twitter users. You can follow entire lists rather than having to follow each individual user.
- Reply or @reply: To reply to another Twitter user, or include them in a tweet, you put an @ symbol before their username. If the @symbol is the first character in the tweet, the reply will be shown to them and anyone following both of you. If the @ symbol is not the first character, then the tweet will be shown to all of your followers, plus the person whose username follows the @.
- RT or Retweet: Retweets are re-broadcasts of another user’s tweet. This is traditionally done by including an “RT” before the original poster’s @username. This has long been an unofficial feature of Twitter, though Twitter has recently added official support for it. Some users use other characters (such as a full stop “.”) for brevity’s sake.
- Trending Topics: These are the most popular terms appearing on Twitter at any given time and may include hashtags.
There is no official etiquette for Twitter, though there are some guidelines and rules within their terms of service. Most of the official rules regard spam and inappropriate content.
A few don’ts in the world of Twitter:
- Don’t crash hashtags. If what you’re saying isn’t directly related to the hashtag, don’t include it.
- Don’t ignore those trying to have a conversation with you. Reply to people who take the time to converse with you whenever possible.
- Don’t update too often. Of course, what constitutes “too often” is completely subjective.
- Don’t send out nothing but self-promotional messages to your followers.
- Don’t indiscriminately follow others in the hope of gaining more followers.
- Don’t post fifteen tweets in a row to tell a story that can’t be conveyed in one or two tweets. The point of Twitter is brevity. If you need more space, post it on a blog and link to it from Twitter.
- Don’t send promotional tweets directly to other users, or you’ll risk being tagged as a spammer.
Other things to keep in mind are often dependent on how you’re using Twitter. For example, if you use it to participate in chats, be sure to follow the guidelines, rules, and accepted etiquette of those chats (each one will likely be different).
One question often asked by those new to Twitter is whether to follow back everyone who follows you. Some people feel it’s the polite thing to do. Others feel it’s unnecessary. I fall squarely in the second camp. If you follow everyone who follows you, Twitter becomes nothing more than noise. There’s too much information coming at you, and that makes it impossible to discern what’s important. I think most Twitter power users would agree that following back everyone who follows you isn’t necessary.
Many Twitter newcomers don’t realize the sheer volume of tools out there that revolve around Twitter. These tools can be divided into two basic categories: Twitter clients that let you view your Twitter feeds and send updates; and Twitter-based services, which can let you do anything from manage your productivity apps to follow the latest trends.
The Twitter web interface lacks a lot of the functionality Twitter is capable of. A number of developers have created client programs that use the Twitter API to create a better interface for using Twitter. Some of the most popular clients are:
- TweetDeck is a free app that runs on Adobe Air. It’s also available as an iPhone app.
- Twhilr is another Adobe Air client for both Twitter and other social media services like identi.ca or seesmic.
- Tweetie is a Twitter app for iPhone.
- TwitterFox is a simple Firefox extension for using Twitter.
- Twittelator is another iPhone app for Twitter.
- Twidroid is an Android Twitter app.
- Swift is another Android Twitter app.
There are plenty of other Twitter clients out there, including mobile apps.
Twitter services enable a wide range of different uses for Twitter. There are too many services to go into in a single post, but here are some of the ones designers and developers might find most useful:
- Remember the Milk – If you use Remember the Milk to track your tasks and to-dos, you can set up a service that lets you add things to your list directly from Twitter. All you have to do is set up your Twitter username in your account and then tweet an @reply to Remember the Milk.
- TwitterFeed – TwitterFeed lets you automatically update Twitter and other social media sites whenever new content is posted on your blog.
- TwitterCal – TwitterCal integrates your Google Calendar with Twitter, letting you add events directly from Twitter.
- TweetCube – TweetCube lets you share files through Twitter.
- TwitPic – TwitPic hosts your photos and posts them to your Twitter account.
- YFrog – YFrog is another photo hosting service for Twitter that automatically posts links to your images to your Twitter feed.
- Tweetree – Tweetree shows you your Twitter feed in tree format, so you can see who’s replying to your tweets in a more user-friendly format.
- Monitter – Monitter lets you track up to three keywords in real-time across Twitter. It can be used to track hashtags, find who’s talking about your brand, and more.
- Grader – This tool from HubSpot grades you Twitter profile, based on your rank among Twitter users, how many followers you have, how many people you follow, and how many updates you’ve published.
- StrawPoll – StrawPoll lets you conduct a poll among your Twitter followers on any topic you want.
- Qwitter – Qwitter emails you whenever someone unfollows you on Twitter.
There are other services out there that are in development, and there’s even been talk of creating a project management app that uses Twitter. New Twitter services are cropping up all the time, some better than others. Because of the sometimes-rapid development of these apps, it’s usually a good idea to thoroughly test them before you start relying on any one in particular.
Finding People to Follow
There are a lot of ways to find people to follow on Twitter. The most obvious of these is to look for people you already know. These could be bloggers you read regularly, sites you frequently visit, or people you know in real life.
Once you’ve found the people you already know, it’s time to look for some you don’t. One way to find people is to search for those who are tweeting about things you’re interested in. Try this with terms with and without hashtags for the widest results.
Directories can sometimes prove fruitful for finding new people to follow, but realize that many allow Twitter users to add themselves to whatever categories or tags they choose, which can mean a large number of low-quality accounts being included.
Another option is to join Twitter chats related to your interests and follow others who are involved.
As mentioned before, it’s best not to indiscriminately follow a ton of users who may or may not have anything to do with your interests. While there is a good chance some of them will follow you back out of a sense of politeness, they’re probably not going to care much about what you have to say, and are never really going to be engaged with what you’re doing on Twitter. It’s better to find people you’re actually interested in following, and then hope they’ll also find you interesting enough to follow back.
Lists are another great way to find users you might want to follow. There are lists out there for just about every topic, as well as some that seem completely random. Because lists are compiled by individual users, there are thousands out there. So find some users you’re interested in, and then check out the lists they’ve compiled and the lists they’re on, and go from there.
In addition to official Twitter lists, there have been numerous lists compiled by various blogs and websites among different categories. These lists are generally hand-edited, and can be a wealth of high-quality accounts to follow. To find these lists, the best method is to simply search the web for them with a phrase like “the best x on Twitter” (with “x” replaced with whatever the category is you’re looking for).
Twitter for Communication
Using Twitter as a tool for communicating with colleagues, clients, and other like-minded individuals is a good idea. Twitter can be a great way to make new connections, to reach out to others in your field or who share the same hobbies or other interests with you.
If you want to use Twitter to communicate with other users, you’ll want to make sure you use a Twitter client that fosters conversation. Look for an app that lets you see full conversations (such a TweetConvo, TweetDeck or Tweetree).
Join in conversations and participate in organized chats. Spend a bit of time each day conversing with those you follow and those who follow you.
If you’re using Twitter for your business, make sure you follow any conversations happening around your company. Respond to comments, both negative and positive. Follow people who are talking about you and your business and thank them for their support. Just avoid being spammy or sending out promotional tweets directly to these users.
Twitter for Promotion
There are a lot of great ways to use Twitter for promoting yourself or your business. Sending out tons of promotional tweets that do nothing but tout how amazing your business is isn’t one of those ways.
One of the greatest ways for promoting yourself is to tweet great content that your potential customers or clients will be interested in. An occasional tweet thrown in about one of your own projects, in a conversational rather than a promotional format, will hold a lot more weight if your followers are used to only seeing great content from you.
Promoting your most recent blog posts, though, is considered par for the course on Twitter. It’s the one kind of self-promotion that’s rarely frowned upon and is often looked forward to by your followers.
Other ways to promote yourself include lending your expertise to those who are looking for answers. Services like TweetQA can let you see who’s asking questions on Twitter (you can see a live feed or use the search box) so you can answer questions relevant to your expertise. This can be a great way to pick up new followers, too.
For designers, customizing your Twitter background can be an excellent way to promote yourself. This is one area where you can really go all out and design whatever you want. There are tons of awesome background designs on Twitter already, from designers all over the world.
Twitter on Your Blog
Including a retweet button directly on your blog is a great way to get your readers to promote your content for you. Making it easy for your regular readers to share your content is considered a valuable service and is a big help. There are plugins for most of the major blogging platforms, and embed code available from sites like TweetMeme if you have a custom setup.
Ask for Retweets
When you tweet something you want to promote, sometimes simply asking people to retweet it can make a big difference in the number of people who actually do so. Just realize that if you ask people to retweet everything you post, it won’t have the same effect. Reserve this request for your best content.
Other Twitter Uses
There are tons of other uses for Twitter, if you’re willing to think outside the box a little bit. Here are a few of them:
Twitter for Problem-Solving
Above we already mentioned using sites like TweetQA for finding users you can share your expertise with. You can also use sites like this and Twitter in general to find information you’re looking for. Simply tweeting a request for suggestions or information can result in plenty of answers. Just be sure to verify the information you get.
Using Twitter Instead of a Feed Reader
Designers and developers tend to follow a lot of blogs. But keeping up with all those feeds in an RSS aggregator can get daunting, especially if you fall behind. Plus, sometimes there are a lot of posts in those feeds that might not be of interest to you.
Instead of following a bunch of different blogs’ RSS feeds, why not follow their writers on Twitter instead? In many cases, you’ll be exposed not just to the content on their respective blogs, but also the interesting content on the other blogs they read. This can save you a lot of time; it’s sort of like a pre-filtering service for your blog-reading needs.
Twitter for Productivity
Using some of the services mentioned before, like Remember the Milk and TweetCal, you can increase your productivity with Twitter. Rather than having to open your Google Calendar or Remember the Milk, just tweet them and have your event or to-do added automatically. It can save you valuable time during your day.
Twitter for News
If you’re following enough people (or certain news sites), you’re bound to hear about breaking news on Twitter. Rather than checking Google News or your favorite news site throughout the day, just follow them on Twitter. Most of the major news outlets have accounts. There are also sites like Breaking Tweets that show you news breaking on Twitter throughout the day.
Twitter for Entertainment
Twitter shouldn’t be overlooked as a possible form of entertainment, either. It can be a great place to unwind, to find great content, and to get reviews of books, movies, and other cultural activities and events. Movie reviews are particularly popular on Twitter, and tons of opinions abound after the opening weekend of most major films.
While Twitter can be a fantastic tool for everything from staying abreast of your industry and niche to figuring out what book to read next, it can also be a huge waste of time if you let it. It’s easy enough to find a dozen interesting links to check out every time you look at your Twitter feed, each of which can eat up a good chunk of your time.
And Twitter has a tendency to be addictive. It can really cut into your work time and productivity if you don’t rein it in. Use the tools mentioned here in moderation, and be wary of how much time Twitter is taking up.
If you need to, close your Twitter client while you’re working, only opening it up when you take breaks or when you’re done work for the day. Alternatively, set the interval at which your Twitter client pulls updates to a longer period of time (the default on many is every 5 minutes or even less; I reset mine to every 20 minutes). This means fewer interruptions and longer blocks of time for your work.
In all, Twitter is a very valuable social media tool with the potential to make your life much simpler, as long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort to set it up in away that works best for you.
- Twitter Guide Book – Mashable’s guide to using Twitter contains a lot of basic information very useful to new Twitter users.
- The Ultimate Guide for Everything Twitter – An excellent post from Webdesigner Depot that covers a ton of different tips for getting the most out of Twitter.
- Twitter: Why It’s So Great And How To Effectively Use It – A guide from Lost Art of Blogging that covers why you should use Twitter and how to get the most from it.
- Twitter 101 for Business – A special guide from Twitter to help businesses get the most out of their Twitter usage.
- Twitter Guide: How To Do Interesting Things With Twitter – This guide offers tons of great tips and hacks for getting the most from Twitter, including things like having your Flickr images automatically post to Twitter and how to report Twitter spam.
Cameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with many years of experience. She writes for a number of blogs, including her own, Cameron Chapman On Writing. She’s also the author of Internet Famous: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Online Celebrity.