Twitter is a micro-blogging tool, and it’s about disseminating information to start a conversation. In the context of a nonprofit, particularly one with an focus on education like many museum/learning settings, building conversation is critical. For some, I believe, Twitter became a followers contest – success was gauged based on the number of followers. Software programs were built to find people who might be interested in your content, follow them and hope for a follow-back and on a large scale. For example, you could set a search filter to add anyone who tweeted the word “lemur” because if they’re talking about lemurs they might be interested in the content of a lemur conservation organization. Problem is, in the Twitter-sphere “lemur” is also used as a slightly derogatory term to call someone with big eyes or call someone stupid. I found this out by actually reading the tweets over several weeks from a search for “lemur.” In the context of their tweets, they would not be interested in what a lemur conservation organization is doing. This builds numbers, but not conversation about lemurs.
I like to think of Twitter as very organic. It takes time and energy to grow a following, and it’s not something that I think you should fast track. As you are getting your message out to the public, individuals with similar interests will search and follow you, slowly growing your number of followers. If you are putting good content on the Twitter-sphere others will take notice, growing your following more. Don’t think that this method will give you thousands of followers right out of the gate; however, these followers, in more cases, will be more engaged in your conversation and take a greater interest in your content. Rather than having big numbers, you actually have interaction. The mark of a successful Twitter user is one that gets involvement when they tweet, not necessarily from high numbers.
Of course, we all want the message to hit as many people as possible. Twitter helps get your message into the public sphere, but the real power of Twitter comes into play when others spread your message for you – the retweet. You can hit your 2,000 followers’ streams but if they’re not engaged with you, the content stops there. You can hit 500 followers streams, and with an engaged population, you get more retweets and replies, sending the message to all of their followers in addition to yours.
When I first started using Twitter, I read that a great way to gain followers was to follow as many people as you find and get as many follow-backs as possible. Later, you can weed out people from your list of following that aren’t relevant to you so that you have a large number of followers but don’t cloud your news feed with irrelevant messages. Or, you could join conversations that look interesting, follow tweeters you find interesting and produce good content yourself and not worry with those whose information is not important to you. Odds are they may follow you back as a sort of courtesy, but they won’t be involved in your content. Who you follow should be a representation of people whose opinions you want to see. Use Twitter for your benefit and to stay informed about what’s going on in your world. On the same line, join conversations that you did not start. Don’t just start conversations about your content. Once you’ve found tweeters with similar, or even different, messages, engage with them (politely of course!).
This may sound like a lot of work for 140 characters, and it is. Social media must be managed like any other aspect of an organization. Two quick stories from the Duke Lemur Center to wrap up:
1. I was the Twitterbug for the lemur center while working in education, and we were followed by the US embassy in Madagascar (lemurs’ wild home). One day they asked, if you could talk to the embassy via teleconference what would you discuss? I joined the conversation with a reply of deforestation, wildlife conservation, research and education. A couple of days later they contacted us through Twitter and by email to set up a conference! The lemur center’s conservation coordinator was given audience with a group of embassy officials to talk about conservation and programs in Madagascar. All from Twitter.
2. The lemur center’s twitter account sat dormant for a few months (besides being connected to Facebook, there wasn’t much interaction on Twitter). When I started tweeting for the center again, the conversation picked back up and discovered an individual living nearby that adored the center and its work. The back-and-forth that started built on that interest, leading the individual to write articles about the center for magazines and connect the center to powerful people excited about collaborating in areas of technology and information. It started with content and turned into a conversation.
Join the conversation and start your own conversations. Museums and places of learning have lots of content that people find interesting, otherwise they wouldn’t visit the place. Don’t worry about the number of people following you on Twitter. Think about new ways to engage.
This blog is certainly a work in progress and represents my own thoughts, no one else’s. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Catch me on Twitter as @EnvEdChris, or leave a comment here at the blog.