Twitter has become what many of had hoped RSS would be, as well as the most vital forum for sharing links with other writers. Throw in Twitter’s value as the ideal medium for breaking news, and you’re crippling your online publishing effort by not participating.
Many journalists I’ve spoken with don’t “get” Twitter, due, I think, to its absurdly simple interface. You answer the question “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less. That’s it. You cam post an update whenever you’d like and once an update is up, that’s it. No editing after the fact. (Which should be a familiar feeling to any print or broadcast journalist.)
You pick other Twitter users to follow, and see their updates on your Twitter home page. Your updates display on your profile page, as well as on the home pages of whatever Twitter users choose to follow you.
Unlike on Facebook, “friending” someone on Twitter does not have to be mutual. You can follow people without them having to follow you, and vice versa. However, smart decisions about whom to follow can help you greatly expand the network of individuals following you. I’ll write more on that in a few moments.
The next step beyond RSS
Let’s first look at Twitter’s ability as a medium to deliver your content to other readers. This is what RSS was supposed to do, and did reasonably well for the people who downloaded readers to access RSS. But Twitter is the application, not a protocol, so I’m finding many more “average” (i.e. non-tech-head) people using Twitter than ever read RSS.
Twitter’s 140-character limit also impedes publishers’ ability to simply scrape their story database for Twitter updates (“tweets”), the way you could to create an RSS feed. This might seem like a pain from a development perspective, but for usability, it’s a great thing. The short messages force publishers to write for the medium, making tweets far more to-the-point than RSS headlines, scraped from other media, have been. That rewards users with Twitter feeds that typically are much more compact and information-rich than RSS. I suspect that’s why average readers are embracing Twitter more than they did RSS.
And as handy as Twitter can be on the Web, on mobile devices such as iPhones, it is absolute information crack. I have downloaded the TwitterFon and Twitterrific applications on my iPhone (one for each of the feeds I maintain – twitter.com/robertniles for online media stuff and twitter.com/themepark for my theme park website) and check them with more enthusiasm than I check e-mail, Facebook or the Web. I’ve given up on my RSS reader, and haven’t checked it for months. (You can find OJR tweets on KDMC’s Twitter feed.)
One final argument for publishers: There is no “full-text” option in Twitter. Readers interested in your content click through to your website, allowing you to track and earn revenue from them far more effectively than most publishers could do with RSS. To see the power of Twitter as a story distribution medium, go to http://twitter.com/nytimes and start following.
Fishing with linkbait
If you have a large, established audience, you can throw a Twitter feed link on your navigation and quickly build a Twitter following. But the service’s real power lies in the way its social network can help you build an audience among people who are not currently reading your site.
This is where you need to be smart about whom you follow. Find other Twitter users publishing on your beat. (Twellow or Twitter’s search engine are good places to start.) Then click the button on their profile pages to start following them.
Since Twitter notifies you when someone starts following you, some percentage of those users will reciprocate, and start following you.
This is a great way to keep tabs on what others on your beat are doing, and writing. And, conversely, these other writers will now be seeing what you are doing, and writing. Your links become fodder for their blogs, and their links become fodder for yours.
Forget the hassle of e-mailing other webmasters, trying to secure valuable backlinks. That market’s now moved to Twitter.
About that reciprocity thing. For good Twitter karma, follow those people who follow you. Since I got the hang of this, the only folks I don’t reciprocate with a follow are
Consider that your “do not do” list, then.
I recently tweeted the Rose Parade on one of my Twitter feeds, and had a blast. Using nothing more than my iPhone, I used Twitterrific and its photo upload capability to post parade photos and text updates. By using the #roseparade tag in each post, I made them easy to find by readers using Twitter’s search engine. (Though, I must confess, I forgot to add the tag to my first few updates.)
The use of the # sign before a word makes it a tag in Twitter, allowing readers to follow news threads from multiple writers. Granted, the Rose Parade is a lousy subject for breaking news online, as it happens on a holiday when almost everyone interested in it is at home with access to a TV to watch it live. But it was a great training exercise for my first attempt at live Twitter coverage. Armed with an iPhone with a Twitter app, I can cover any breaking news event I happen to be at, with text and photos, and post immediately to the Web. That’s how Twitterers provided many of initial reports about events such as the Mumbai attacks.
Jump in. Try it. As my colleague Steve Buttry wrote, “Try it actively (10 tweets and 10 new follows/day) for a week and your view of communication will change forever.”
I haven’t gotten to 10 tweets a day yet. But even with one or two a day, I’ve found Twitter delivering new readers, new in-bound links and fresh content for my websites. The only frustration I’ve had with it is the number of people, sources and agents I want to follow who are not yet using Twitter.
So here’s my plea to you: Start!
Update: (2009/1/16): This morning’s print LA Times features Janis Krums’ iPhone photo of the US Airways crash on the Hudson River in Manhattan, first posted to Twitter yesterday afternoon. I follow several LAT Twitter feeds and noticed the LAT make contact with Krums by replaying to the original tweet. Twitter is the multimedia breaking news wire now.