You have undoubtedly heard of Twitter, and perhaps your college admissions department even has a Twitter account or two. But if you don't use Twitter regularly, tweets often read like a strange jumble of code. Because each Twitter message has a limit of 140 characters, people are quite ingenious when it comes to packing as much information as possible into their messages.
Twitter lets your brief message go out to everyone who has signed up to follow your account, as well as others who are browsing Twitter. Your message may be forwarded (retweeted), embedded, or theoretically seen or answered by anyone on Twitter anywhere. Twitter has more than 230 million users sending half a billion tweets every day. Facebook may have more users, but Twitter's goal, according to co-founder Jack Dorsey, is "to reach every single person on the planet."
Here's a quick primer on what you need to know about the anatomy of a tweet to get the most from your 140 characters.
Hashtags, designated by the "#" symbol, are made from a word or phrase to mark a keyword or topic of interest in a tweet. Created organically by Twitterers, they are used to categorize messages. The word or phrase that immediately follows # should have no spaces. So, instead of typing "#campus activities," you would type "#campusactivities." When you see a hashtag, you can click on it and see all other Tweets marked with that hashtag. The most popular hashtags can be seen in Twitter's list of Trending Topics. You can put hashtags anywhere in your Tweet, but you should keep the number of hashtags to one or two per Tweet, and you should only use hashtags that are relevant to your Tweet's topic.
"@" Followed by a Username
You'll often see the "at" symbol (@) attached to text in tweets. The information attached to the "@" is a username. Twitter users use @username to mention another user, or to reply to a user in a conversation. To do this, you type your tweet, and mention a user's name preceded by "@." For example, if you wanted to mention a product you bought from Target, your tweet might contain "@Target." When replying directly to someone else's tweet, simply place your cursor on the tweet and choose "Reply." When you do this, Twitter automatically includes the user's Twitter name appended to "@" in your reply or update.
Checking Replies, Favorites, and Retweets
Under each Tweet, you'll see a brief menu that looks like this:
When you click on "Expand," you'll see replies, favorites, and Retweets that the tweet has already amassed. If you click on "Reply" or "Retweet," you can then complete those actions. If you click on "Favorite," you're letting whoever posted the Tweet know that you liked it. To see what another user has favorited, you can look at their profile under "Favorites" in the left-hand column. When you click "More" at the little menu under a tweet, you are given the option to embed the tweet on your website or blog, or to report the tweet for spam or abusive behavior.
Adding Links to Tweets
You may worry about putting a really long link into a tweet, but don't. All URLs you put in tweets are automatically shortened to 22 characters by Twitter. If you include a URL that's already shorter than 22 characters, it's lengthened to 22 characters. If you think about it, however, this is good, because it's easier to plan around URLs when you know exactly how long they'll be each time.
Putting It All Together
Using Twitter effectively involves knowing about hashtags, usernames, Retweeting and other peculiarities of the site, but you also should know something about the intangibles that make a tweet good. Sourcecon's Steven Z. Ehrlich has a terrific guide to creating good tweets that can really help you out, but the main elements of the good Tweet include:
- Knowing the purpose of your tweet and who your audience is.
- Hooking people with a short, simple call to action, like "Sign up for our webinar" with a link.
- Occasionally sharing information created by a third party: "X, the CEO of Y, has a terrific article on Z that's worth checking out."
- Realizing that the most retweeted content comes from reputable organizations, particularly news organizations, so include this information when you share content.
- Using hashtags to help people find and share your information, and to help you find those who may be good to have in your Twitter network.
Tweets may only be 140 characters long, but they're practically an art form, because people are increasingly creative about getting powerful, compelling information into them. Learn the basic Twitter tools, and use the information in your profile to learn which of your tweets are most replied-to and most often retweeted, and soon you'll be able to use Twitter as a solid brand-building tool.