In the technology section of USA Today on Sunday, a lot of new folks learned about Twitter. The micro-blogging social network has grown from 200,000 users to over 2 million users in about a year, and individuals, companies, news outlets, fire departments, and nonprofit organizations have been using the free service to connect, inform, and engage.
If you joined us at the 2008 Nonprofit Technology Conference in New Orleans, chances are you experienced the usefulness of the tool, too. NTC attendees connected with each other, made social plans, got notes from sessions they couldn't attend, knew when free ice cream was being handed out in the conference lobby and when the coffee was running out during breakfast plenaries.
As the article frames it, Twitter is one of those tools that seems to be trivial and a waste of time -- until you try it for yourself.
There are so many social media and network tools out there, it doesn't make sense for an individual -- never mind an organization -- to invest time and resources into trying them all out. But Twitter just might be worth your time.
Here are a few highlights, low-lights, and applications of Twitter to consider for your own purposes:
- It's Free. You don't have to pay for a subscription or invest in the customization of any aspect of the tool.
- It's a simple, accessible communications channel. It can be accessed via web, mobile web, SMS, IM, and third-party desktop applications (also free). All you need to do is type (no design or coding skills required). That means it's relatively easy to introduce to people if they already use any of the above technologies.
- Easily populated. As the article mentions, there are already lots of people in the Twitter network. A major consideration for any communications tool or strategy is your target audience: it's possible your audience uses Twitter. If they aren't there already, it's pretty easy to get them there because sign up and maintenance of the user profile require minimal effort.
- Allows personalization. The real draw of web 2.0 is individuality, personality, and the relationships that can be built between individuals based on personality. Companies have become personalized because people are talking to people, not edited copy. Sure, you can set your organization's Twitter profile to feed from your org's blog, but you can also set up an individual twitter profile to listen to conversations and contribute to them in real-time. You might learn something, and you might share something, neither of which would have materialized on a web page or even a blog.
- Timely Communication. This is why local fire departments and other emergency outfits use Twitter. Important information can be transmitted to mobile phones via SMS or mobile Internet service, which means fast and accessible information when you need it, where you need it.
- Problematic infrastructure. Because the service grew in popularity so rapidly and, according to the creators, unexpectedly, Twitter has become infamous for crashing. This happens especially during peak events, like major conferences that involve audiences using Twitter, or when a major news story breaks; Twitter hasn't been able to handle the traffic. The good news here is that the crashes mostly affect the web users, so those connecting via SMS experience less "down time." The better news is that Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos has recently invested capital in Twitter, which the folks at Twitter say is going to engineers first.
- It's still a network, and an out-lying network at that. People who already use Twitter are likely to be uber-users. Depending on your target audience, Twitter may not be where your constituents are or even want to be. Even though publicly-accessible applications like TweetScan and Summize (now Twitter Search) make it easy to find conversations going on via Twitter, your 'tweets' won't be really effective unless your Twitter profile is being 'followed' by a network. It might take a bit of work to get your audience there, and you'll want to weigh the benefits against that.
- Live Events: I already cited the 2008 NTC, so NTEN has already provided a successful example. It's a free and easy way to provide updates, additional engagement opportunities, and a back channel during an event. Set up a Twitter profile solely for that event and tell your attendees to follow it; this is where you provide updates and announcements. Also, designate a keyword for attendees to include in their event-related tweets, so even if they're not all in the same networks, their tweets can be easily tracked with hashtags and other Twitter search tools and feeds.
- Advocacy Campaigns: For an organization's general mission or for a specific campaign, set up a Twitter profile for it and update your supporters with action items, press updates, legislative progress, etc. Including URLs in a tweet is an effective way to get click-throughs to a survey, petition, or news article. See examples from the National Wildlife Federation and Barack Obama.
- Fundraising: This probably won't be the strongest tool for your fundraising campaign, but it's a viable person-to-person channel to add to a fundraising strategy. There are positive examples of small-dollar donations from Twitter networks from Beth Kanter and Susan Reynolds' Frozen Pea Fund.
- Support Network: Whether you use it for your own professional support and development, or you get your constituents to connect with each other, one of the unique benefits of Twitter is the immediate and personal nature of the communication that happens. I've noticed that my own network of colleagues use it to ask questions and get answers while working on something. It also provides a therapeutic outlet, with the added benefit that folks in your network can immediately "reply" with a "me too" or "congratulations" or "that doesn't sound good, try this . . ." One example of this is weight loss -- for accountability and support.
The USA Today article also gets to the bottom of where the name "Twitter" came from:
"In choosing a name for the service, [Biz] Stone suggested Twitter, and the co-founders jumped for it. 'It's what birds do when they converge,' says Stone. 'The sound they make is technically defined as a trivial chirp. How perfect … hear a trivial chirp on your phone, look down and it's your friend. During events, you can move as one with your friends, just like birds, because you all know what everyone is up to.'"
I love the metaphor: as with birds, communicating with groups or individuals is how we define who we are, learn from each other, and know where others are. Even though newcomers to Twitter may find the chatter annoying and indecipherable at first, they'll eventually understand that they can identify their peers, follow or lead a flock, or just express a thought or emotion in the moment.
If you're using Twitter for your cause and have additional examples or applications, I'd love to hear about them!