I frequently get asked how Twitter works. Despite the fact that most people know about it, many don’t understand it and find it intimidating. Twitter posts, or tweets, can include text, photos, videos, or GIFs. It’s easy enough to tweet, but tweeting well is a different story.
This post is the first in a Twitter series I’m doing through the month of April. It will help you understand more about how Twitter works, how to use it and, I hope, demystify it.
I’ll go through how to set up a profile, how to post (tweet), how to start a conversation, and more. We’ll talk about business strategies and how to measure your results.
How Did Twitter Start?
Some context may be helpful here. Twitter began in 2006, when Jack Dorsey had an idea for an SMS- (text messaging) based communications platform that would allow friends to stay in touch with one another.
In October 2006, Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams formed Obvious Corporation with other members from another company. They then bought that company, Odeo, from the investors and other shareholders. In April of 2007, Twitter became its own company.
The name Twitter was inspired by Flickr, the photo sharing service, based on the dictionary definition of the word, a short burst of inconsequential information.
Until 2017, a tweet was limited to 140 characters. This number was chosen because an SMS message was the carrier limit and the creators wanted to leave a little room for the username. In 2017, the character limit was doubled to 280.
Twitter’s popularity grew quickly after the 2007 South by Southwest conference, during which tweets were projected on a large screen. The number of tweets posted on that day jumped from 20,000 to 60,000 and Twitter won an award in the blog category.
In the early days the servers would become overloaded and Twitter would go down. Users would see an illustration of a cute whale, which became known as the fail whale.
Twitter is known for breaking news and timely information. It’s not unusual for major news to be broken first by a tweet, such as the 2009 landing of United Flight 1549 in New York City’s Hudson River. Images of the plane in the river after Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s heroic landing were first posted on Twitter and it was nearly 15 minutes before CNN picked up the news.
To use Twitter, you first need to set up an account. Although Twitter has a great mobile app, it’s much easier to set up your profile from the desktop website. It’s free to use, just go to Twitter.com and choose the username you want. Choose a name, or handle, that’s easy to read and repeat. Use your real name or your business name if it’s available. Mixing up letters, numbers, and symbols in your username may make it difficult and confusing to repeat.
It’s smart to keep your usernames consistent across your social media channels. If you can’t get them to be identical, get as similar as you can. I use @BethGSanders on Twitter, but @BethGSandersOnline on my Facebook and Instagram business accounts, because @BethGSanders is the username on my personal accounts, which I set up before the business ones.
Your Twitter Profile
After your username has been approved, it’s time to fill out your profile. Here’s what you’ll need to set up your profile:
- A header photo • 1500 x 500 pixels, that represents your business. You can find templates for the header photo on Canva.com, which is free to use. Leave room on the left for the avatar.
- A profile photo • 400 x 400 pixels. Also called an avatar, this can be your logo or a good headshot. Don’t use a group photo or other photo that is hard to distinguish. You want your avatar to pop in the timeline. I use my bright blue logo and I like the way it shows up in the stream. I haven’t changed it since I started on Twitter in 2007, so my followers easily recognize it.
- Your name • Use your full, real name, or your business name.
- Bio • You have 160 characters; use them to show users why they should follow you. Use keywords and describe in simple, clear terms what you do.
- Location • This helps local searchers find you in your geographic area. It’s valuable for those who want to know what’s going on around them, or to find accounts in the area to follow and engage with.
- Your website • Link to your website in your bio so those who visit your profile can find you online.
Basic Twitter Terms You Need to Know
Tweet • A 280-character Twitter update.
Stream or Feed or Timeline • The list of tweets you see from your follows or search.
DM • Direct message. A private message sent between two users on Twitter.
Retweet • Sharing of another account’s tweet on your account.
@ Reply • A response to another account’s tweet.
Find Accounts to Follow
Now that your profile is set up, take a look around. On the Twitter website, you’ll see the left column, which is where you’ll navigate through the site. Click on the second link from the top, which is Explore. Enter a search term you’re interested in.
Let’s say you want to find and follow accounts about gardening. As you enter the search term, you’ll see your search term at the top, and under that, accounts with gardening in the name that you can click on and follow.
Click on the search term and you’ll see a page with the term at the top and a stream of related tweets. You can follow these accounts and the ones that are suggested in the search bar.
Read More About Twitter
Along the top of this page, you’ll see links Top, Latest, People, Photos, and Videos. Top tweets are those with the most engagement, which Twitter interprets as most popular and the others are self-explanatory. Click on People to find accounts to follow. Spend some time here to personalize and tailor your Twitter experience to your interests and you’ll enjoy it much more.
Notifications is where you’ll see new followers and any replies or retweets (we’ll get to those, I promise). Messages are private, called direct messages, or DMs, that users send to one another. Bookmarks are tweets you’ve saved to look at later. To bookmark a tweet, hover over the icon with the up arrow under the tweet and a dropdown link will pop up. Your tweet will then show up in the Bookmarks link.
Twitter lists are a powerful way to organize accounts you follow on Twitter. We’ll cover them in a later post. Under the More menu, you’ll see Topics. You can follow a topic you want to see tweets about. Twitter apparently doesn’t have this feature fully built out yet, so there are only a few topics to follow, but it’s an interesting idea and I’m keeping an eye on it. For now you can browse topics and if gardening is your interest, you’re in luck.
Twitter Moments are gathered tweets around a topic or event, which we’ll also discuss in a later post. Go through your Settings and be sure you’ve set them to your liking.
There’s an option to protect your tweets, which means you have to approve each new follower. I strongly advise against this unless you have a compelling reason. It will discourage new followers and it doesn’t really protect you, as any of your approved followers can screenshot your tweet and post it publicly if they like.
Privacy is an illusion on the internet — so understand that you’re putting information out there for the world and post accordingly. Even if you delete it, scandals have been launched by deleted tweets, so there’s no deniability once it’s posted. Be wise and careful.
Now that your account is set up and you’re following some interesting accounts, watch the kinds of content they post. See how the conversations go and take some time to read the room before you’re ready to jump in.
Next week we’ll talking about engaging and conversation on Twitter — replies, retweets and such, so come back.
Watch the video here.