The hardest part to becoming a Twitter regular is developing the habit of using it. Every journalist today should be on Twitter — the excuses are few and the benefits are many. It’s not just a place to share and find stories. You can also use it as an alternative to the news wires and/or to find sources. It’s also a platform in its own right for unique journalism and storytelling. If nothing else, the practice of writing short (in 140 characters or less) is great for your radio scripts, too.
How do you Twitter?
Before we go any further, answer this question: What are you using to tweet and follow Twitter? If it’s just twitter.com, you may want to reconsider.
A tool like TweetDeck (owned by Twitter) or HootSuite will make the difference in your Twitter usage. Both of them allow you to keep eyes on different parts of Twitter at once, such as your mentions, new followers, lists you’ve created, hashtags and much more.
I personally recommend TweetDeck, especially since you sign in with your Twitter credentials. You can download the desktop app (no mobile version, sorry) or keep tweetdeck.twitter.com open in a web browser tab all day.
Just like you have to go to the gym regularly to see results, you have to tweet regularly to build your Twitter muscles. By completing a couple of the varied “exercises” listed below every day, you may find that Twitter opens up to you in a way it hadn’t before.
You may also learn something, including how to build Twitter into your day-to-day workflow, follow news events, find sources, and discover new ways to report and share your stories. Your technique will get better over time, especially if you use Twitter’s built-in metrics tool to learn what works — and what falls flat.
The assignment: Every day for one week, do at least five things from the list below. Strive for diversity and try to get something in every category over the course of the week. You can (and should) repeat this “assignment” indefinitely until it all becomes second nature. Don’t panic if you don’t know what these things mean — each item on the list is explained in greater detail (with examples) below.
Print it: (Download a printable version of this list)
Do at least five of these things every day:
- Share part of your story that didn’t make the final cut
- “Like” a tweet by someone else
- Tweet using an existing hashtag
- Pose a question to your followers
- Create a poll
- Share your own story
- Share another reporter’s story (from your news outlet or elsewhere)
- Schedule a tweet
- Use quotable, image, gif, etc.
- Show some personality (tweet about your life)
Create a topic-based list
Twitter lists are an easy way to follow different subjects over time. Regional lists, topical lists or those based on a hashtag (like #BlackLivesMatter) can help you stay in touch with 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 or Cincinnati.
This Twitter guide to making lists will get you started. A couple of things to note:
- You don’t have to follow someone to add them to a list
- When you make a list, you set it as “public” or “private”
- Public lists can be shared with anyone.
- You can subscribe to public lists made by other people (like this one of NPR people or these international lists by reported.ly)
- If you add someone to a public list, they will get a notification.
- Private lists cannot be shared but people on the list won’t know about it.
Once you’ve got a list started, follow these instructions to add it in TweetDeck:
1. In TweetDeck, click the “+” symbol on the left of the screen.
2. Click “Lists” and then find and select the list you created. Click “add column.”
After you’ve added a couple of lists, your TweetDeck will look like this:
Tweet about your beat/region
You shouldn’t save your tweeting for when a story is done. Think about different ways you can share insights during the reporting process.
NPR’s Eyder Peralta (read from the bottom up) published this string of tweets after a circuit court opinion was released.
If you don’t have a particular beat, try sharing things that are relevant to the region you cover.
Find a source
There are a couple of ways to go about this — you can search for people who are already tweeting or you can try to have those people come to you. For the former, check out this six-part exercise that will teach you how to find sources based on their location (via geotagged tweets) or keywords in their messages.
Otherwise, you can find people with a callout. It can be very low-tech. (The one below helped NPR’s Sam Sanders Sam find two people for this story).
Have u ever bought anything from a presidential campaign’s online store? Why? Lemme know if ur game to discuss for an @nprpolitics story.
— Sam Sanders (@samsanders) November 23, 2015
Or involve a little more work. In this example, Michel Martin posted a link to this form where they were asking to hear from seasonal workers:
For other ideas, check out this post, 6 ways to use social callouts.
Tweet at someone or send a direct message
Twitter is a great place to reach out to sources — especially those who seem to ignore your phone calls and emails (cough, cough). There are two ways to do it.
- Tweet at someone with a public post
- Privately send a direct message
In the example below, Sam tweeted at Alicia Garza. While it was a public post, it probably did not show up in many places since it’s considered a “reply” (like a sidebar conversation).
@aliciagarza Hi Ms. Garza, NPR camapign reporter here, hoping to interview you for an upcoming story. Can we chat? Thanks in advance
— Sam Sanders (@samsanders) December 7, 2015
Direct messages are a private way to do the same thing. It used to be really easy to mess up when sending a private direct message (DM). Some people got into a lot of trouble that way. It’s a lot simpler now (read Twitter’s guide). Direct messages are a good way to get phone numbers and other details from sources when you don’t have an email address for them, although you can generally only DM someone who follows you back. I know one reporter who communicated with government sources exclusively via DMs because, unlike emails, they aren’t subject to public records rules.
Share part of your story that didn’t make the final cut
Every story yields way more material than you could possibly fit into the final product. But that doesn’t mean you should trash the leftovers. Try sharing a behind-the-scenes photo from the field, an extra fact or spare anecdote. You can post it while you’re reporting and after the story is finished.
If you’re looking for similar content, check out NPR’s On The Road Tumblr.
Like a tweet by someone else
Twitter changed its stars to hearts. The same sentiment applies, though — heart away.
Tweet using an existing hashtag
Hashtags are a way to (loosely) organize conversation around a topic. They often emerge during breaking news and televised/live events. In the tweet below, #ysltf stands for “You should listen to, Friday,” a hashtag for sharing good audio content that’s used on Fridays.
Want more? Check out this post on hashtags.
Pose a question to your followers
Most questions asked on Twitter are rhetorical (“Are you kidding me?”) but they don’t have to be. You should not be a tweeting/retweeting robot. Asking questions is an easy way to engage with the people who follow you and grow your following in general. You can pose a question as part of a structured Twitter chat (like the example below), but you don’t have to. In either case, you may find the ensuing conversation yields a story in itself — like it did in this Code Switch example.
Check out this post for more advice on how to run a good Twitter chat.
Create a poll
Twitter introduced a polling feature in 2015. The polls are pretty straightforward and a very easy (but unscientific) way to get a quick take on something.
Note that you can currently only create a poll on Twitter.com and in the Twitter app.
Share your own story
Don’t write a lazy tweet where you just copy/paste the story’s headline. Try to pull out an interesting takeaway or quote. You should also include a link. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short link (e.g. http://n.pr/1NYAJw6) or the full URL — Twitter “charges” you for the same number of characters.
Share another reporter’s story (from your news outlet or elsewhere)
You can …
Write an original tweet:
Or retweet or “quote retweet:”
Schedule a tweet
Scheduling tweets to post later is a great way to optimize the time you spend on Twitter. Some important things to know:
- It’s still a good idea to keep an eye on your Twitter mentions once the tweet posts, in case there are other engagement opportunities
- If big news breaks or Twitter is otherwise going nuts, make sure your scheduled tweets won’t sound tone deaf or out of place once they go live
The short video below demonstrates how to schedule tweets in Tweetdeck. You can also do it on Twitter, but it’s slightly more complicated.
Use a quotable, image, gif, etc.
It’s a fact: Tweets with media (images, animated gifs, videos) usually receive much better engagement than text-only tweets. It makes sense — don’t the two below stand out in a Twitter stream?
If tweeting an image, make sure you have the proper permissions to do so. You should include credit to the photographer and/or publication that ran it.
Show some personality
You are more than your job! It’s a good idea to put some of yourself into your Twitter feed, whether it’s about your family, hobbies or just general observations from life. It humanizes you. Keep it light, though — no one wants to see a million photos of your dog.
I had holiday-themed Cap’n Crunch for breakfast. This has been: Reports From Someone Else’s House. — Linda Holmes (@nprmonkeysee) November 27, 2015
Nervous? Read the social media section of NPR’s Ethics guide about what to do — and what to avoid.
Try out an “A/B test”
An “A/B test” a technique where you try something two different ways and compare the results. When it comes to Twitter, that could mean sharing this story one way in the morning …
… and another way in the afternoon …
… and then comparing the results. Which was retweeted more? Which had more likes? Sharing a story multiple ways like this helps you learn what works through trial and error.
(By the way, both of the tweets above were the result of an NPR-wide push to share a single story. You can see other examples here.)
Look at your Twitter metrics to see how you did
Twitter makes it really easy to see how you’re doing with their analytics dashboard. Try to look at it weekly so you can start to learn what’s working — and do more of that type of tweeting in the future.