A quick guide to getting started on Twitter right now

I wanted to answer some of the basic Twitter questions I often get. Keep in mind that the answers below have been written for individual journalists and may not necessarily apply directly to what we call branded accounts (official accounts such as @NPR, @MorningEdition, @NPRGlobalHealth). 

Let’s get started: 

What should I tweet?

You might not need help with this one, but many people do. I like to recommend that people start tweeting using the “rule of thirds”:

  1. Tweet your stuff: Promote your content one-third of the time. Link to your stories. Post your photos. 
  2. Tweet other stuff: Promote other people’s content one-third of the time. This could be your colleagues stories or other things you’re reading/enjoying. This could also be supplemental material that supports your particular beat. Tweeting other people’s stuff helps establish your credibility around a particular topic or beat, as well as creates relationships and *warm fuzzies* in the Twitterverse. 
  3. Be human: One-third of the time, you should engage people and/or show your own personality. Answer people’s questions. Talk to your followers. Share a glimpse into your life. Do not post photos of every cupcake you eat. 

How often should I tweet?

Often. There’s a wide range of what’s acceptable here and it the “right” answer will vary from person to person. I actually hate giving a definitive answer here, too, because it’s subjective. Here’s what I think it appropriate for most journalists: Three to 10 times a day. I would also say it’s okay to go a few days without tweeting (like weekends, vacations, etc.). I would caution against over-tweeting, too. I know some reporters who tweet 30+ times a day. Some are able to get away with it without losing followers because they have a strong fan base who really wants to hear from them that often. For most of us, however, it’s likely that tweeting that much might have a negative effect. Essentially, in order to be getting value out of Twitter, you need to be contributing to it on a regular basis, but don’t go overboard. 

When should I tweet?

Anytime and all the time. Not the answer you wanted, right? I know! There’s no “right” answer here, either. But, if you’re really needing some guidance, I would recommend spacing out your tweets throughout the day and throughout the week, not excluding weekends. I try to think about when people are most likely to be using their mobile devices, and tweet then. (In short: mornings when people wake up and are commuting; lunchtime, when we grab our phones and down our sandwiches; evenings, for the afternoon commute and after work, when we all crash on the couch to watch TV.)

Can I schedule tweets? 

Yes, but only if you promise to be human, too. You’ll need a tool to do this. We recommend TweetdeckHootsuite or Buffer. They’re all free and get the job done. 

Perform a self audit

Even if you think your Twitter game is on-par, I highly recommend doing a self-audit from time to time. Consider the following and make changes as necessary:

  • Is your Twitter bio up-to-date? 
  • Does my Twitter avatar need updating? 
  • How often am I tweeting?
  • Am I promoting my content too much (instead of mixing it up by promoting others and interacting)?
  • Are people retweeting me? If not, why?
  • Are people tweeting to me? 
  • Do I have a Twitter background? (If not, you should!)
  • Are people following me back?
  • Am I following the right people? Who is missing? Who can I unfollow?
  • Who do you think is doing a great job on Twitter? What are they doing that you aren’t?
  • What were your most successful tweets this month? Last month? (Check it out at analytics.twitter.com.) Is there a theme?

Use Twitter lists to keep tabs on your beat

Twitter lists are an easy way to follow different subjects over time. Regional/topical lists or those based on a hashtag (like #BlackLivesMatter) can help you keep the pulse of something you have a long-term interest in. They’re also a great way to find pitches. For example, you might create lists for: baseball, drones, food safety and Cincinnati.

Henk van Ess, a reporter and researcher, once used a private Twitter list of Dutch bankers to break a story about mass layoffs when he noticed this series of Tweets from people on the list:

10:00 hrs Hate unscheduled meetings
12:00 I’m at a restaurant in Amsterdam

12:00-16:30 No Tweets at all

16:30 Sometimes you must leave behind what you love the most
16:45 Will have to go back to school, one month earlier than I thought. 

Direct messaging

Direct messaging (DM, in shorthand) is useful once you have someone willing to talk to you and want to take your interactions out of the public view, but remain on Twitter. It’s good for exchanging phone numbers, email addresses and the like.

However, you can generally* only message people who follow you on Twitter. This is the trickiest part of getting contacts from Twitter — the people you want to talk to in a breaking news situation are often the ones being bombarded by other media outlets, hecklers/trolls and random Tweeters. You can just search their username on Twitter to get an idea of who’s contacting them.

  • To send a direct message, click on the person icon and select “Send a Direct Message.” Your conversations appear chat-style in the TweetDeck column labeled “Messages.” There is no character limit on DMs.

*(Some accounts, especially businesses, may accept DMs from anyone).


We’ve got a whole post on that!

Examples from public radio

Kirk Siegler uses Twitter to cover news as it happens:

Siegler utilized Twitter during months of breaking news when he was a reporter at member station KUNC, covering everything from huge wildfires to the Aurora Theatre Shooting. Day-to-day, Siegler uses it to take notes, and share photos as he reports.

  • Put this into practice: Is there an event or story coming up that you can practice live-tweeting?

Davar Ardalan used Twitter to start scheduled conversations around a series

  • Put this into practice: Is there a scheduled conversation, chat or live-tweet that can happen around a series? Brainstorm early in the process of producing a series, and take tips from this Twitter write-up of Davar’s work.

MPR’s The Daily Circuit host Kerri Miller uses Twitter to connect with her audience.

  • Put this into practice: Can you share some of your personality on Twitter? Ideas: Ask people for questions for upcoming guests, share what you’re reading, share a photo from behind-the-scenes or a great article you’re reading. Don’t forget to respond to some questions and get into conversations with others.

Bob Mondello used Twitter to host a half-hour Twitter chat to share his expertise on movies.

  • Put this into practice: Choose a topic and go for it. Make sure to promote it enough ahead of time so people will have questions to ask, but Twitter chats don’t always have to be big productions – sometimes they can be small instances of interesting conversation and sharing of tips. Then, on to the next thing!

A version of this post originally appeared on NPR’s Social Media Desk Tumblr

Lori Todd was a social media editor at NPR.