Figuring out Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter for a little more than six months now, and in that time, I’ve assembled a loose collection of reasons not to follow people. As a general rule,  I won’t follow your Twitter feed if:

  • your Twitter account doesn’t show your name or link to a web page
  • you’ve been on Twitter for more than half an hour and you don’t have a photo
  • you’ve posted hardly any updates before following me
  • you’ve protected your updates, giving me no reason to follow you
  • your ratio of following-to-followed is more than 5 to 1
  • your updates are mostly links to your blog posts or press releases
  • more than half your updates are RTs of people I already follow
  • not one of your last 20 updates contains a link I feel like clicking on
  • you’re selling something (a product, service, cause or belief)
  • your posts are political and bitter, or political and smug
  • you’re Oprah Winfrey

Many of these are characteristics of Twitterers who aren’t all that interested in their followers or inclined to find out what those followers might find worthwhile. They don’t want a conversation, they just want an audience  — a “follower”  in the narrowest sense of the word. They also seem to constitute the majority of Twitter users, and unfortunately, they include more than a few lawyers, legal professionals and legal industry suppliers. This doesn’t mean lawyers shouldn’t use Twitter, but it does mean they need to use it well, which means they need to understand what to use it for.

I’m coming to think it’s a mistake to describe Twitter to lawyers as a marketing tool, for a couple of reasons. First, most lawyers don’t really know what marketing is or how to do it properly, so they end up doing it as badly on Twitter as they do on their websites or in their advertisements. They think marketing is about telling everyone how amazing they are, which is why they talk far more about themselves than they do about clients. And clients, reasonably enough, find that dull and kind of insulting, so they tune it out.

But secondly, and more importantly, Twitter isn’t and was never meant to be a marketing mechanism. Twitter is a communications mechanism — it’s a publishing tool, and the way to use it successfully is to approach it like a publisher. That means learning who your readers are, finding out what they care about, and finding a way to supply it to them or point them in its direction. It’s not about you and what you have, it’s about them and what they need.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I use Twitter. First, I hardly ever talk about myself: what I’m doing, where I’m going, how I’m feeling, what I’m eating, etc. I assume you don’t care, so I don’t bring it up. Secondly, although I do link to my blog posts (and I get a lot of traffic from Twitter), I try to make those posts the exception — the rare commercials in between the programming. What I spend most of my Twitter time doing is trying to find good programming — worthwhile content. It comes in four main varieties:

1. A link to an article I think people will find interesting but that doesn’t merit a full blog post — a microblog (Dennis Kennedy pioneered this in the legal Twittersphere). I keep an eye on a number of legal, media and general news services, looking for something that will interest people who are following me; where possible, I add a short editorial comment of some value.

2. A response to a question or a point someone has raised in reply to an update. Again, I try to make sure the reply has some original content or additional observation that furthers the discussion (obviously a challenge in 140 characters). I also try to keep these exchanges brief, on the theory that people aren’t interested in hearing an extended conversation (or worse, half of one, if they don’t follow the other person).

3. A retweet (or RT) of something other users have said or linked to — I try not to overdo this, especially for Twitterers whom I know have a large following that overlaps with mine (I know I get tired of reading the same post RT’ed by three or four people who all read the same Twitter account that I do).

4. Less formal stuff: expressing thanks to people who’ve RTed my blog post (I always try to track those, and my gratitude is always genuine) or linking to something I found odd or amusing.  (I’ll confess a weakness for breaking news, which is a bad habit — racing to be the first to relay a big event, happy or sad, carries the tang of sensationalism or exploitation.)

In the result, my Twitter feed is a personalized news service, but not about me — about what I find interesting. It gives you information and perspectives that I consider useful, insightful or entertaining, relayed to you in the hope that you’ll share my sentiments about them and find value in them as I did.

The price of that feed — the advertising, if you like — is the occasional update about a new blog post. I know that those advertisements work, because my Twitter feed has driven more regular traffic here. But although that’s a clear benefit from Twittering, it’s not the reason why I Twitter — I do it because I like informing people about things that, based on their interest in my feed, I know we share a common interest in. You can call that marketing if you like, but it’s the very definition of publishing.

Of course, most lawyers aren’t publishers, and their interest in Twitter extends only so far as there are tangible benefits to their business (and rightly so). But I think the same principles that guide my Twitter use can apply to lawyers’ hard-nosed business use of Twitter.

Above all, you need to remember that no one reads Twitter because they care about you — they do it because they care about themselves. So talk to them, and talk about them. Give them links to news and knowledge that benefit them, no matter where these links lead (even, I’d go so far as to say, to a competitor’s website). Offer tips, pithy observations, and checklists in serial form (no one uses Twitter this way better than Matt Homann). Ask questions relevant to your practice area, and blog the results (and link to the post from Twitter, of course). Strive to make your Twitter feed an important source of knowledge to your readers.

But, you say, how do you know what your Twitter followers care about? Well, you could do what I did: accidentally and organically assemble a group of people who must be interested in what I have to say on Twitter. Or you could take a serious client-development approach to it. Here are some steps you should consider if you really intend to use Twitter as a business tool.

  • Conduct a Twitter audit — if you don’t know who your readers are, you’re not going to derive much business value from it. Make a list of your followers, divide them into current or potential clients and the merely curious, and cultivate relationships via email or direct messages with the former group.
  • Use the @yourname function to figure out who’s RTing you, and send these people very nice personal notes — they’re  doing your Twitter marketing for you, and for free.
  • Solicit feedback on your Twitter updates — create an email address, twitter@yourfirm.com, to which people can send criticisms, questions and ideas. Then act on them.
  • On a regular basis, assemble your best Twitter updates into a blog post — as Steve Matthews says, Twitter is a river, and most people step in and out of it only occasionally, so make sure your pearls of wisdom are collected for future reference — theirs and yours. (Steve’s list of Twitter do’s and don’ts, just posted at Slaw, far outstrips anything I have to say here).

Finally, don’t concern yourself with how many followers you have — it’s a meaningless statistic, not least because a lot of people are gaming the system to try to build up impressive-looking follower totals, to make themselves look more popular than they deserve or just to stroke their egos. Concentrate on quality over quantity — ten loyal readers, any of whom could bring you business any day, are worth more than a  thousand followers who added you out of curiosity, reflex or politeness.

The only point of using a communications and publishing tool like Twitter is to know who your readers are, know what they care about, and provide it to them. If you do that right, you’ll establish yourself as a trusted source of knowledge in an area of importance — which, last I checked, is what marketing is about anyway.



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