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What I learned about Twitter and journalism in 2010 – tips and advice from a compulsive tweeter

I was very pleased and grateful to be included – for the second year running – in’s top five tweeters of the year. It’s a always good to be recognised like that but the real buzz from Twitter is having and keeping more than 3,000 followers and carrying on the conversation, link-sharing and jokes that make my day worthwhile.

There are no shortage of tips on using Twitter, in fact there’s an ever-growing sub-industry of armchair experts telling the world how best to “maximise the ROI of your social media presence”, usually in 5 or 10 “easy” steps.

I realise I’m only adding to this crowded market, but in the talks I’ve done and the work I’ve carried out with different media companies in the past year – this is one of the things I get asked about the most. And this isn’t bloodsucking social media bullshit: understanding how your personal network reacts to what you publish and how it can help you market your stories and ultimately your business is something very much worth thinking about.

Also check out guides and tips from Paul Bradshaw and Richard Kendall.

What to tweet?

One thing people new to Twitter often say is: “why would anyone be interested in my tweets?” It is hard at first to see why anyone would be interested. But the thing is, if you tweet about what you’re interested in and what you’re working on there are people out there who are also interested.

So if you cover a geographic patch or an industry, if you’re following some important and interesting people in that area, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll make some meaningful and useful connections.

As for what to say, there’s nothing wrong with tweeting on things such as:

– What you’re working on and the problems you face (someone may be interested are able to help)
– Where you are (someone may be nearby, plus your location is key to putting you in a context followers can understand)
– What you think about something (e.g. news story, personal experience and so)
– How you feel (the personal touch is what elevates an account from boring to interesting)

I have one main account (@psmith), two other personal accounts (@psmithgamer and @psmithfoodie) and am responsible for one professional account (@MediaBrief) and I try to update them all as much as possible. It should go without saying that you will need to tweet every day, or at least every working day, to build up an audience and to get the most out of Twitter. I think a good guide for a journalist is 10 a day – but that depends on what’s going on. If there are live events to report on, such as a breaking story or a conference speech, then more is fine.

Broadcasters such as Channel 4 Newsdo a great job of curating their own programmes, adding a human, behind-the-scenes element to the 7pm broadcasts by live-tweeting what’s happening and what the audience is saying. ITV Sport also does this well for its marquee sporting broadcasts.

Second chance

One of the most important points here, as Danny Sullivan has pointed out, when it comes to shouting about content from your site, there’s nothing wrong with tweeting something more than once. So if it’s the talking point, the most-read and discussed blog post or news story, why not tweet it at 8am, 1pm and 5pm. Ideally it will be different each time the same users come back – even if it’s simply some interesting user comments – so flag that up and convince people to click again, as well as enticing clicks from people that are seeing it for the first time.

Don’t over-do it

Ask yourself: is each message justified? When someone recently told me they have a specific Tweetdeck column set up just for people who tweet too much, and that I was a chief offender, that was a wake-up call.

If you are at a conference, it’s polite to warn people in the morning that you’re going to be tweeting more than usual. Don’t take it personally if lots of folk unfollow you – if they see you being informative, relevant and witty via their own extended network, they’ll should come back on board.

Know where it’s @

Tweeting a standard message is visible to all your followers. But with @ replies, putting the @ sign at the start of a tweet means your message will only be visible to everyone that follows both you and the recipient. Sometimes it much better to send a direct message anyway, such as when arranging a meeting.

If you want to reply to something someone has said and you think it’s going to be of interest to all your followers, just put a full stop at the start of the tweet and then the @username (eg: “.@psmith I agree entirely with your sensible twitter advice”

Credit where it’s due

I don’t think you need to thank every single person who ever retweets you. It’s polite and nice to acknowledge the generosity of a RT – and you should do everything you can to encourage them – but “Thanks for the RT” is becoming cliche and somewhat meaningless. The inhuman nature of that robot-like phrase does look a little spammy, though the intention is good.

So think of different ways to say thanks: Why not just return the favour and RT them on something else? Perhaps come back with another point or something relevant to the RTer. Some people like to wait until they have had a few RTs and then bulk thank everyone at once, like a round robin Christmas letter, which is more efficient if still a little impersonal.

Since the launch of TheMediaBriefing, I’ve commissioned quite a few senior, C-level media executives just through DMing them after they mentioned the site and said “hey thanks for the mention, how about you write us 600 words on what your company is up to?” I never fail to be surprised by the amount of people who say “yes”.

Who are you anyway?

This is very basic, but lots of people get their Twitter biog wrong. You need a straight-forward one-line job description, including the name of your employer, your location and a link. If you’re too shy to have a picture that looks like you, don’t be. People can’t connect with a picture of your hand or a cartoon character – and you’re significantly less likely to get real-life chance meetings with followers at real life events, which is one of the real objectives of Twitter for me.

Whether you say your views are not those of your employer or not is up to you – but as I’ve said before, to do so is utterly pointless.

Hashtags keep conversations together

The evolution of hashtags is fascinating as it’s the best example of Twitter’s users adapting their language to make the most of the service, instead of Twitter inventing new functionality.

For me, these should be used to follow a specific conversation tied to a specific thing, whether it’s an event (#paywalls11), a place (#hackney), an occurrence (#uksnow), a viral conversation (#thingsIdidaged16) or something else. If you want to follow what people are saying, put these hashtags into or create a tab on Hootsuite or Tweetdeck and see all the tweets at a glance. This should be standard procedure for reporters, I feel.

I’m always slightly puzzled by the use of hashtags on nouns, such as “I’m going to walk the #dog”, but hey, if it works for you…

Spam fritters

On a serious note, in 2011 serious tweeters will be beset by the increasing problem of Twitter spam, whether in their own personal feeds or polluting popular hastags. I only have to mention iPhone games as @psmithgamer to receive four or five spam replies – all potentially containing debilitating bugs and malware.

Strange-sounding tweets from people that sound like “I’m checking out my Twitter analytics from this great new site” are almost always automated messages from dodgy sites. Don’t click on the link or you too will unknowingly tweet the same bollocks message to all your followers.

So be warned: if it looks dodgy it probably is so don’t click on it.

Over to you

What are your twitter tips? What annoys you and what delights you about the people you follow? Please let us know in the comments below or (of course) by tweeting me at I’ll update this with the best responses later on.

Update 05/01/2011

Something else to add to this on the subject of retweeting in the first week back to school after Christmas: Don’t feel that you have to RT anything. There is an increasing number of tweets swirling around from people either asking for charity donations, for help to find a missing person, or something far more mundane. They often have the look and feel of chain letters, so beware the “Plz RT” request and be sure you know exactly what it is you’re retweeting first.

I entirely endorse Kate Bevan’s post on this from November. She puts it very well:

I tweet a lot of links – stuff that catches my eye, things that make me laugh, stories that make me go WTF. I often RT links from people I follow. What all those links have in common is that I’ve been engaged by them and I think they’re worth passing on. I don’t want to spam the kind people who follow me with a load of links to stuff that doesn’t

Picture from daniloramosweb on Flickr, some rights reserved.

  • anon

    Fair play, this makes sense. It’s important to put social
    media in perspective. It’s not going to generate traffic for
    worthless content, and it’s not going to save the world. It is what
    it is. And sensible, measured posts like this do a lot to insulate
    us from the social douches who’d have businesses believe that a
    twitter account and a facebook fan page will turn dust to

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  • Patrick Smith

    Thanks Anon. That’s the main point isn’t it: while it’s important to optimise your content and take social media seriously, it is still about the story, the video, the goodness of what you’re doing.

    As I told a room of journalism students recently, no matter what you do, ‘if it is crap no one will read it!’

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  • Elisabeth Winkler

    Hi Patrick You make such good points I have added a link to
    rel="nofollow">my post about social media. It is also
    interesting to get the low-down from a fellow journalist. Twitter
    is a must for compulsive communicators – which surely includes most
    journalists? All the best for the holidays Elisabeth

    • Anonymous

      Many thanks Elisabeth

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  • guille

    I don´t know a lot about twitter, cause I´m new on it.

    Why do you use “RT”, instead of pushing “retweet” button? What is the advantage?

    Thank you and merry christmass

    • Anonymous

      The key thing here Guille is the difference between the new and the “classic” retweet.

      If you are using (I would advise against doing this for many reasons, some outlined above) then you are using the new retweet facility. That means that you automatically repost the message into the timelines of all your followers.

      If you use Tweetdeck on desktop and mobile (as I do) you have the choice between the new and old RT styles on your dashboard each time you RT and you can change the default to classic in the options. Hootsuite offers something similar and I’m sure the others do.

      But there are 2 problems:

      1. It misses out your user name, therefore denying you the chance to meet new people.

      2. You can’t edit RTs in the new style. Very often I add a one or two word comment, sometimes another link or I just shorten ppl’s tweets and leave in the most important bit.

      I quite literally sub-edit people’s tweets and leave in the bits I’m interested in. This has got me in trouble at least once, when I was accused of changing the meaning of what someone was saying, so you have to be careful and I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.

      Another issue is that you want to give credit to whoever made the original tweet and the person that alerted you to it. It’s impossible to do that all the time without shortening the tweet. As any sub knows, many words in the average sentence are utterly redundant anyway (‘that’ and ‘which’ for example) and this is even more the case with Twitter when characters are at a premium – so don’t be frightened of cutting down within reason.

      Someone who is very good at this is @IanBissell who instead of RTing people summarises the main points as he sees it and adds a link. RTing isn’t always the best solution.

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