Open Society Institute: Twitter training

View more presentations from Deanna Zandt.


Notes on the talk — unedited/etc.


– Basics
– Why, what it’s like
– Some theory of social web
– What to say and tone
– Some fears
– Structuring twitter life
– Measurements/metrics

Let’s start with a brief overview of Twitter. How many people have a Twitter account, either personal or organizational? And do you use it weekly? Couple times a week? Daily? Who’s an addict in the room?

For the uninitiated: Twitter is a service that functions like a giant bulletin board where anyone can stick a short note  140 characters or less. These posts are called “tweets.” You can choose to read other people’s tweets (called “following” them), and other people can choose to read yours (these are your “followers”). Some people choose to keep their tweets private, and approve each request to be “followed.”

If you don’t have an account already, there’s a handout that walks you through setting one up.

Let’s run through some basic vocabularly on Twitter. Probably the number one thing I hear when people say they don’t use Twitter is that they can’t decipher all the symbols and abbreviations.

# Following. These are the people whose tweets you’ve selected to read; their tweets appear in your “feed” or “stream.”

# Follower. This is someone who is reading your tweets.

# The @ symbol. Put this before any other Twitterer’s username to refer to them. Why? It creates a link to their profile automatically, which is handy for your followers to track conversations or look at people you’re referring to. @Replies will likely show up in that person’s Mentions page.
Note that if you reply to another person using the Reply arrow button on Twitter, though, that only people who follow that person will also see that reply in your feed. It’s kind of a drag; more on this here.

# Rt, RT or rtwt. These stand for “retweet.” If you read someone else’s tweet that you think people following you should also read, put this before copying and pasting the whole thing, including the original tweeter’s username. Here’s an example, where I retweeted something that Nancy Scola posted: “rt @nancyscola: isn’t there something uniquely DC about 1/5 of Politico’s “top 10″ DC Twitterers not actually tweeting?”
Update: Also, you can use “via @username” to attribute something that you saw with another user, but aren’t directly quoting word for word. (thanks, @nezua!)
Update #2: Twitter now has its own built in retweet function (the circular arrow button). Many people don’t use it, though, because those retweets don’t show up in Mentions, and it throws off their user’s own feeds by displaying the icons of strangers.

# The # symbol. Words that follow # in Twitter are called “hash tags.” It’s a way of assigning a keyword to a tweet so that so that others can follow the topic. For example: When folks were attending the WeMedia conference this week, they would tweet information about the conference and put #wemedia somewhere in the tweet. That way, everyone else interested in news from the conference could easily find and track them. Tracy Van Slyke of the Media Consortium said this, for example: “#wemedia. Twitter wins game changing award! @biz says best thing: twitter isn’t about triumph of tech, it’s about triumph of humanity.” And you can see lots of other tweets from that conference here by searching for the hashtag. If you see a hashtag in use and don’t know what it means, try checking out “What the Hashtag.”

# URLs that look like,,, etc. These are URL shortening services that take very long links and squish them down to fewer characters. Why? Because on Twitter, you only have 140 characters to get your thought out, and this leaves more room for your words.

# Direct messaging. This is a way of sending a message to someone so that only they can see it like sending a txt message. The person has to be following you in order to receive messages from you, though! (No DMing Jane Fonda or Henry Rollins unless they’re following you, ya hear?) To do this, you can either go to the person’s twitter page (aka, their profile page), and click on the “message” link in the left sidebar. Or, if you’re using another device or application besides the Twitter website, you can type the letter d, the person’s username, and then your message. I.e., “d randomdeanna let’s go to happy hour at abilene later”

It takes a while to get used to the language of Twitter, so just give yourself some breathing room to get the hang of it.

I want to delve in here by first covering the use of downloadable tools to work with Twitter. The Twitter website is fine, but it’s the magic found in many “clients,” as they’re called, that make working with Twitter easy and fun. I use one for the Mac called Tweetie, but today we’re going to talk about Tweetdeck, since that’s one that can be used on both PC and Mac, and is pretty popular amongst Twitter users.

Why should you use a Twitter client? For one thing, it makes sharing links much easier. Often URLs are very long, and it’s a pain to go to the websites of those shortener services I mentioned. Clients like Tweetdeck do the shortening for you. Another thing is that you have all of your commonly used tools: mentions, saved searches, etc., which we’ll get into, right at your disposal– and you can be notified of updates like mentions.

There are also clients for smartphones that are extremely useful. I like Ubertwitter for Blackberry; I hear Tweetie and Tweetdeck for the iPhone are great, and I’m pretty sure folks are still using twidroid for Android phones. If you have a web-enabled regular phone, you can go to and login.

That’s some of the nuts and bolts there: lemme stop and answer some questions on any how-to questions you might have. We’ll cover theory and best practices next, but is there anything that you want me to go deeper into?


A typical day is going to depend a lot on your personality, of course. If you’re a newsjunkie and you compulsively scan RSS feeds, news sites and blogs for interesting things, Twitter will easily fit into that diet. If you’re more laid-back, and participate only occassionally, Twitter might seem like “just another thing” you have to participate in because someone’s making you.

That can be a tough pill to swallow, for sure. In the beginning, it will feel like an additional task on your plate, I won’t lie. But over time, as you build connections and relationships, Twitter can decrease the workload in other areas, and can become a fun place to hang out.

I view it a lot like a water cooler where I stop in to see what’s going on, share something interesting or funny, and just generally check in with what’s happening in the rest of the world. I don’t spend all day at the water cooler (okay, I’m an addict, I spend a lot of time there, but you don’t have to), but it both gives me a mental break from the grind and provides fodder for conversations.

The other thing to think about as communications people is overall how social media are changing the work we do. We know that in the last few years, bloggers, for example, are becoming less and less responsive to traditional means of mass communications– press releases, etc. Because so much of what social media is about is our very human need to be connected to one another, increasingly folks expect to be talked with, not at. Building relationships in a one-on-one basis can be time-consuming, but Twitter certainly helps ease some of that pain. Engaging with communities of all kinds can lessen some of the load you have to get the word out about your programs and noteworthy news. We’ll talk more in depth about how to have conversations on Twitter in a bit.

One more way Twitter can complement the work you do is by acting as a curation filter for you. Sharing links is one of the primary activities on Twitter. The network you build can function as a personal guide to what’s important in your world, and help you find information and other people that you otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon on your own. This can also cut down on the time you spend trolling for information elsewhere.

You’ll end up adjusting your digital mix of news, email and social media over time, and that adjustment will be ongoing as your work and needs change. None of this is set in stone, and you should feel free to use the tools how you see fit.


Let’s lay out a typical day for a non-fanatical Twitter user:

– At the computer in the morning, coffee in hand. Checking email, browsing Twitter.
– Note that you should be giving glancing blows to Twitter. Don’t try to catch up on everything since you last checked.
– See a couple of mentions came in; scan them for noteworthiness and reply or retweet as needed.
– Check saved searches and reply/retweeted as needed

– Rinse, repeat two more times throughout the day.


There’s an economy at work on the Internet, and it’s all about reputation. Increasingly, our lives are being built around referral, recommendation, and being known Out There. This isn’t new, or different, than how we’ve operated for eons it’s just that it’s all mapped out, and we can all see everything now.

So if you’re missing from a number of social networks or media spaces, it’s a little awkward. It’s like, remember when it was OK to not have an email address? And then all of the sudden that wasn’t OK? This is where we’re going with these things. Part of that also is that you’re going to show up in search results one way or another, and social networks are coming up more and more in the top results, so this is a really good way to have tremendous influence on what comes up.

Ah yes, influence. So, the currency of this economy You know the gift economy?  is social capital. Just like regular capital, it’s something that’s earned and invested, but not just for personal gain. This whole part of the world is about doing things because they’re a good idea, not just to Get Ahead. It’s like a simplified notion of karma, in many ways.

Here are some of the things that make up your social capital, according to Tara Hunt, author of The Whuffie Factor (with my explanations):

* Connections: Who do you know? Not just important or famous people, either. Are you connected to lots of different kinds of people who can complete different tasks?
* Reputation: What are you known for? What do people say about your expertise?
* Influence: Can you move groups of people, small or large, to take some action?
* Access to ideas, talent: Beyond your own skill set, do you have ways of reaching out to others with talent and knowledge?
* Access to resources: You may not be able to fund a particular project, but do you know people who can? Do you have ways of generating physical support?
* Potential access: Will your access to resources and talent stay static in the future, or will it continue to grow?
* Saved-up favors: We’re not writing down every good deed, but do people remember you for the ways that you help others? This is incredibly important. Is your own generosity with your social capital part of your reputation?
* Accomplishments: What awards have you won? What concrete recognition  papers or articles published, etc.  have you received for your work?

One of the biggest things is to know that authenticity is absolutely key here. Who you are  as a professional, as a person, whatever you choose to run with  needs to shine on in social media. Your voice is unique, your expertise and perspective are 100% you don’t lock them down in old school stuffy corporate speak. Conversations are important; messaging is more subtle.


Content is king, they say. Here are some starting points for what you can talk about on Twitter:

– Follow your grantees and fellows and retweet interesting posts and news from them
– Save searches for keywords in your program area and share what you find, or engage with people there. For example, if you someone tweeting about human rights abuses in North Africa, you might either respond with empathy, retweet it, or (if appropriate) point out a program or grantee that the person might be interested in.
- Obviously, news and information about your program area

One of your jobs here is to think of yourself as a curator, and a network weaver. Connect the dots for your community, both issues and people.


When thinking about how to join the fray in Twitter, one of my favorite analogies is to think of Twitter as an ad-hoc, informal get together whose attendees are constantly moving and shifting around the room. And just as you wouldn’t walk into a party, get up on a chair, and start yelling at everyone who can hear you that you’re awesome, you shouldn’t do that on Twitter, either.

Social media is called “social” for a reason. People expect to have conversations, and they expect them to be fairly authentic experiences. We’ll talk more in a bit about how this breaks down, but only 20-30% of your tweets should be about your work: the rest should be the other stuff that I mentioned just before.

Here’s an example of an organization that pulls this off well. (@poptech)

A common fear that people tweeting on behalf of organizations is that they’ll make a mistake. They fear the Wrath of higher-ups, and of course, spreading misinformation. (HOW MANY PEOPLE FEEL THIS WAY?)

The people in charge, yes, that’s a tough one. One of the things most organizations are facing right now is a huge shift in their internal culture, from being one of a completely closed, controlled communications environment to one that’s more open, transparent and thus, harder to control. This terrifies most people because it’s contrary to how we’ve been operating as comms people for the last hundred years.

First, let’s not get crazy and throw the doors open on everything right away. It’s okay to take baby steps and experiment a little. Try a few new things out, and then take the material to your director to see how it goes over. (We’ll talk about success metrics in our last section, too.)

Second, let’s reframe what we think about private and public information. During the opening keynote at SXSW, danah boyd brought up an media interview with Angelina Jolie, where she was asked why she gave away so much information about herself, and let herself be photographed so much without ire. She said that the more she put herself out there in public, the less people were interested in the things that were truly private for her. She controlled the situation by opening what seems like floodgates, and keeping back information that really no one should know.

It’s not that different with organizations, either. You might have a regular conversation with your director about what those really, really private things are, so you’re aware of them, and so s/he feels comfortable with the boundaries you’re setting together.

As far as making a mistake, it’s actually an oddly good way to build social capital. People like it when you take ownership of a mistake– when you say, “Oops, bad link in that last tweet” or “@username just corrected me– it’s actually 80% of the population, thanks!”

One reason is that this is a MUCH more informal environment. We worry about everything on the Internet being Out There forever, but remember: everything’s out there forever. Everyone’s bits. So not only are the chances of finding your slipups in ten years next to nil, but people are much more understanding–because they’ve got their own slipups to worry about.

Jaclyn Friedman, an author and coeditor of Yes Means Yes!, made a great point in a workshop I was leading about how our perception of social media is rapidly changing, similar to how our perception of tat- toos has changed in the last 50 years. Think about the attitudes toward a person who got a tattoo in 1960, versus attitudes now. Its the same with social media. Ten years ago, someone getting a swig of TMI via Google search results might have had an adverse reaction. Today, seeing something a little off-topic in a Twitter stream is not as big of a deal.

I also want to address quickly the personal/professional divide that many people face.

– If you have a personal account, it’s welcome to share some of your OSI work with your community.
– Some thoughts for people who don’t want to mix their private/professional lives… this is becoming increasingly difficult, but can be done.
– Show of hands for who has which concerns, then address them



In looking at all of the things OSI has going on, one of the conclusions I came to is that it may make sense to maintain one overall OSI Twitter feed, and then let each program area have its own Twitter account. If you have personal accounts, too, that’s even better.

The overall OSI Twitter could continue to act as an institutional voice for the organization. It’ll monitor the new program feeds that get set up, and pass along any relevant information. The program accounts will have a more familiar, casual tone (suited to each person who’s managing the feed), and should engage in more conversations with their communities.

Another foundation is doing this already– the MacArthur Foundation (@macfound) and their blog (@SpotlightDML).

Since the overall OSI Twitter is likely to get a lot of mentions, it’s going to be tough for one person to respond to everything. I’d recommend saving a search in each of the program accounts for @OpenSociety and respond to things as needed. It’s not necessary (and sometimes impossible) to respond to everything, though.

One thing I do want to clear up at this juncture, too, is the fallacy of many followers. As I say in my book: size doesn’t matter, relationships do.

For mass media, bigger always has meant better. You needed capital to own a printing press, and the more papers you sold, the bigger your empire became. Quantifiable metrics, such as the number of subscribers or viewers, were key, because thats how ad dollars were determined.

If you think about it, though, those numbers were padded in a big wayin terms of television viewership numbers, for example, not every cable subscriber is watching every channel.

Measuring authority based on sheer numbers is also an im- perfect approach when it comes to digital media and social net- works. Theres no easy way to rank relevance in the online space (yet); the sheer number of friends or followers you have on any given social network service doesnt tell you that much about your authority or influence.

No one can guarantee that each and every one of those people is genuinely invested in the material youre posting. You cant count on people to be committed to any kind of ac- tion you ask for, simply because large numbers of people are consuming the material.

If we keep obsessing about social network numbers the way we have over numbers of visitors to our websites, or numbers of subscribers to our newsletters, were going to fail at being effec- tive when reaching out to the people who might want or need the most to hear the stories we have to share. In fact, sometimes smaller numbers of followers and fans who have been culled and cultivated have a much greater ultimate impact than a large audience you dont know that much about.

Michelle Greer, a web marketing strategist, explains the situation deftly using some simple math and Twitter:

1. A person who blogs about foreign films starts following people who tweet about movies like Dinner with Andre or are tweeting about the Cannes Film Festival while it is occurring. By tweeting back and forth and engaging people, tweeting unique links, this person gets 2,000 followers. Many of these followers have over 1,000 film obsessed followers themselves.

2. Another person buys followers, follows people just so they follow back, etc. The whole mentality of Ill follow you only if you follow back is just childish. Tim OReilly offers useful info all the time and will probably never follow me in my lifetime. So what? Anyway, by playing this numbers game, this person gets a whopping 25,000 followers who are more concerned about reciprocal fol- lowers than actually getting useful information.

Say Im marketing a foreign film. If I have these people tweet something with the intention of it getting as much exposure as possible, the person with 2,000 followers will probably be of more use to me. Why? Because this person will get retweeted by people who actually care what I have to say, who would have a lot to offer their own followers by retweeting my stuff.


Do the math:

2000 people exposed initially
6000 unique followers among these retweeters
600,000,000 possible impressions

vs. 25,000 possible impressions for person #2

This mode of outreach turns the traditional concept of an influential communicator on its head. Bigger used to be better, but now, effective is better. And theres no easy ranking sys- tem for effectiveness; its so dependent on individual goals that no one can possibly say, These are the top 10 most effective people in the entire world of social networking.


The last thing I’m going to cover today is a quick overview of what metrics mean.

My friend Beka referred me to this fabulous 28-page Social Media ROI report from Peashoot. All the info covered in the report applies to commercial, for-profit enterprises, but there’s a lot to be applied to the non-profit world as well.

One of the biggest takeaways from the report is that it’s important in social media to not just consider traditional ways of measuring success. This is not about dollars raised, for example, as a direct measurement of the time you invest in having these conversations. There are other, more interesting ways — more qualitative than quantitative ways — to keep track of how you’re doing.

Here are some examples:

* Satisfaction. Look at not just the number of people talking about your work, but start documenting what they’re saying. Is it positive? Neutral? Negative?
* Authority. Are they coming to your organization as a resource, looking to you for expertise?
* Loyalty and trust. How about repeat performance — is this their first time dealing with you? How often are they dealing with you?

When working with these measurements, goal-setting becomes crucial. It’s important to keep your goals very tight, direct and focused, especially when you’re getting going. Choose timeframes that are small — having x positive conversations about your work per week.

One Response to “Open Society Institute: Twitter training”

  1. [...] supposed to do, you should try checking out some of Deanna Zandt‘s instructional stuff, like this presentation on Twitter basics. Or, if you’ve got the basics already, you can read this thing I wrote for Aid & Abet [...]

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