Sunday, April 8, 2012

What Bert and Ernie taught me about Twitter (VIDEO + POST)

Bert and Ernie? How did I ever get into Bert and Ernie and what do they have to do with Twitter?

When you have a kid, a lot of things change. And when you love social media as much as me, you start learning lessons from the most surprising of places.

Here’s how it started. Every morning my 16-month-old son, Ali Raza, has breakfast. Getting him to sit still is sometimes tricky. Why would he when he could be playing with his Elmo doll?

But we’ve found that there is a solution: Play videos of Bert and Ernie on YouTube. Ali Raza seems to enter a different zone when he starts watching Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers that, conveniently for his parents, makes it a LOT easier to feed him.

There is one video of Bert and Ernie in particular that Ali Raza loves, when they go fishing. We can watch this 10 times in a row and he doesn’t get bored. Of course I end up watching it too and memorizing the whole plot.

Here is the video: 

At first I, unlike Ali Raza, WAS getting bored. But then I started actually thinking about what Burt and Ernie were saying.

Basically it boils down to this. It’s not WHAT you say, but HOW you say it that really counts. And this is such an important concept, especially when you are trying to reach out to people on Twitter.

Often times people don’t hear us on Twitter. They’re “underwater”, as Ernie explains, drowning in a sea of tweets. So doing something to stand out is important. If you want to build Twitter engagement with followers, it takes work.

This is fishing class. Here are some tips to start reeling in your followers.

1. Pack in the content in each tweet!

Yes, content. What do I mean by packing in the content? I mean try to say as much as possible in 140 characters. Throw out vowels if you have to, use number symbols instead of writing out, do whatever it takes to say a lot in just 140 characters. It’s clever, forces you to think, and keeps everyone on their toes. Part of the Twitter tactics I used after I launched my own media organization back in 2007 was to tweet recipes, for example, hummus. It’s amazing what that sort of approach can do to get fish biting!

2. Ask questions

This is a corner stone of good social media. Have you noticed how a good question can stop and make you think? There, I just showed you. Start your tweets with who, what, when, where, why and how, and you will see your Twitter peeps starting to take notice.

3. Comment on links you post

Posting links seems like a no brainer, right? The thing is, going overboard with posting links is good way to annoy people and its only half of the equation. Instead of only posting links, make it a point to review the links and offer your thoughts as well. If we do this, we look like real people, not robo tweeters. A good way to break this cycle is to tweet about where you are at the moment, even if you're just sitting in a boat.

4. Use the ‘@’ symbol generously

The “@” symbol is one of the most powerful ways of building rapport with your followers. Think about it: if you’re at a party, do you usually go over and speak to the wallflower talking to the middle of the room without directing their words to anyone in particular, like Bert? Or do you talk to the charming person who brings up stories and ideas, and talks directly to you with passion, like Ernie? Make sure to comment on other people’s posts. If they don’t engage with you after several tweets, stop following them.

Oh, and don’t use the @ symbol in posts without content for the sole purpose of getting people to pay attention to you. That scares away the fishes. Be bold, but give something for people to listen to.

Btw, try to not start posts with the @ symbol if you can. It doesn’t read well and makes it more difficult for the fish to bite.

5. Post consistently and thoughtfully

Quantity of posts is not as important, I think, as consistency and quality. When we show a regular presence, we become trusted by our followers. That is hugely important to engaging people and becoming friends. On the other hand, if you fill up people’s Twitter feed with posts, they very likely are going to get turned off. Unless you’re already a celebrity of some sort and have fans who follow you for reasons other than Twitter.

6. Don’t be afraid to be laughed at or judged

This is HUGELY important.  Some people use Twitter, but they don’t know how to be original with the site. They copy other people rather than offering original content, because they are afraid to be laughed at. Don’t go there. The world is filled with Burts accustomed to doing what they have been told is the right thing to say or do. It’s important to have a strong foundation, but we have to be Ernies, ready to be ourselves and use techniques we know work from our own personal experience.

7. Retweet carefully

It’s ok to retweet praise, but seriously, who likes hearing people always talking about how others say how good they are? It comes off as arrogant and petty. It’s much better to simply retweet comments that you find insightful or useful.

8. Hashtags? Use them sparingly!

Hashtags (the “#” sign) can be a good way to get attention for a subject, but they definitely can be overdone. Personally, I don’t even like to use them. I think they’re another symbol that is overused. Try to keep your tweets interesting enough.

[Edit April 9, 2012: Beverly Shepard, an expert marketer, asked a great question on LinkedIn regarding this section on hash tags. I’m posting my response to that part of the question now.] As you know, hashtags are utilized because they help Twitter users find content. However, hashtags are too often used on inane words that no one is really going to search for. Pretty easy to understand, I think. 

Other times hash tags are used by people for trending topics. Trending topics are fun to play around with to get thinking and "free write" which can be a huge boost for creativity and productivity in our lives (something I will blog on later in the week -- check it out on Thursday!), but they tend to update VERY quickly because many people are trying to get attention using them. Whither the days of yore when Twitter was not used by every Tom, Dick and Harry! Hope that explains why I find trending hashes to be generally a waste of time -- they are supposed to be used to make finding content more easy, not more difficult. 

Now, this is not to mean that hash tags are not at all useful. For example, journalists tend to use hashtags very selectively and effectively to mine the site for breaking info. If you can get a hold of trending topics for journalists, that would be much more useful than the general Twitter trending topics. That's because journalists can be a great source of information and even if they are not going to work your story, they often times can be good people to keep in touch with. Getting on their radar screen is a first step. 

The other way in which hash tags are useful is if a small group of people are using unusual tags for the purpose of keeping in touch over an important matter, for example, a conference, class or work project. In that case hash tags are VERY important in staying connected with other without directing attention to one group of people, I still think the pool of people aware of the tag should be a relatively small or focused one.

9. Try to engage with your real friends on subjects that matter to you both

If you want to be good at Twitter, but don’t know where to start, start with your friends. Maybe you have a class or a workout regimen that you’re both crazy for. Or maybe there are recipes you enjoy sharing. Talk about that first as you learn how Twitter works. 

A great professor of Marketing at Northwestern, Rick Kolsky, used Twitter last quarter for one of my classes in this way. He set up a Hoot Course module and measured our class participation in part by how much we engaged each other microblogging on different topics:

This was a great way to engage the class and get us talking about things that we wouldn't have otherwise. I learned a lot more from my classmates and the material we were reading than if I had just been studying by own. Twitter can and should be useful for us, as well as our followers. There's no reason why this approach couldn't be used to build up followings on Twitter around niche subjects, and in fact many of the most successful Twitterpreneurs use this very approach.

10. Use relevant pictures

A picture says a thousand words, which is nice when you only have 140 characters to work with. Taking your own pics is very useful and can pay dividends. I just won a prize from a social media marketing agency for doing this, which was cool because I don’t win prizes every day and it was a huge honor. I’ll explain.

I had gone to a great Northwestern University career fair hosted by the Medill Journalism School where I ran into a great word-of-mouth and social media marketing organization called Zócalo Group. I took home some of their fliers, including a paper on their word-of-mouth services. While I wasn’t looking, my son, Ali Raza, grabbed the word-of-mouth flier and ate part of it.

Here’s the pic:

I tweeted what had happened to @ZocaloGroup along with the picture. A short while later they sent me a direct message asking for my address so they could mail me a prize! It’s a huge personal honor to be recognized – even if it’s a small prize, getting attention from pros at Zócalo means a lot to me. I’m convinced it had something to do with using a funny picture.

11. Enjoy!

Don’t worry about crafting the perfect tweet, there’s no such thing! Instead, just have fun with Twitter.

Some people begin by following several celebrities and get confused. They don’t know what to do with Twitter and get discouraged after just a few tweets because no one is talking to them. The fact is, Twitter seems simple, but it is an art that takes time and some practice to master. It begins by keeping an open mind and literally willing to look for inspiration anywhere.

Use these tips and you could see fish start jumping into the boat today! What other tips can you think of to build relationships on Twitter and what are your stories?

Aatif Bokhari is a social media specialist. You can find him on LinkedIn at and Twitter at @aatifbokhari.

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