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How to start building your brand on Twitter

March 3, 2011 · 49 comments

in Journalism how-to's

Imagine being in the sleek Manhattan offices of a top fashion magazine, interviewing for your dream job.

Things are going well — until the interviewer poses The Tough Question:

“So…which designers do you follow on Twitter?”

This scene is no joke. It happened to a graduate student taught by NYU Journalism Professor Mary Quigley, who shared this anecdote with me. Without getting into the student’s personal business, let’s just say that the question was brilliant. It reveals everything a prospective boss needs to know about the student’s potential.

Here’s what the interviewer is thinking: Hmmm, does this candidate simply follow the major clothing designers? Or does she track tweets by that groovy, undiscovered Bronx-based shirtmaker? Does she have fashion depth? Wonder if any fashion players follow her tweets. If so, this is an enterprising, ambitious candidate. Definitely a hot prospect.

Of course, I’m not suggesting people are finding jobs just because they’re good tweeters. Then again, maybe I am. Whether you’re focusing on work, a pet project or favorite cause, this online service with the blue birdie logo can make a difference.

Twitter is transforming the world one 140-character message at a time. Activists tweet their way through political revolutions. Celebrities might still travel with bodyguards, but they won’t hesitate to tweet their fans. Retailers tweet special deals to customers. And what about those editors and producers who were once “too busy” to return a freelancer’s phone calls? Now they’ll actually contact you on Twitter.

I’m a fairly recent convert to the charms of this micro-blogging phenom. But now that I’m hooked, tweeting has become part of my daily routine. I get a kick out of interacting online with my global network of writers, media folk, business contacts, artists and like-minded creative souls. To be honest, it still feels strange to be so familiar with people that I’ve never met!

But someday, I might be looking for a gig or marketing a book or selling my paintings. Until then, the mission is to “build my brand” in anticipation of that moment.

All the tech and social media blogs advise us to create that support base long before we need it. Because even though technology moves fast, Twitter — at its best — is still about the intimate process of forming human relationships. And marshaling a loyal audience takes time.

Twitter is a great vehicle for our current needs because:

  • There’s no expense involved; Twitter is free.
  • The company claims more than 145 million users, a true schmooze-fest.
  • You can develop your brand at your own pace.
  • Everything keeps changing, which leaves room for new possibilities.

Since I teach social media basics in some of my classes, I’m always searching the Web for relevant blog posts. While Twitter’s ultimately easy to use, it’s an idiosyncratic tool. I have yet to find anything written about Twitter that’s clear and comprehensive enough for classroom use.

So I’ve created this post for my students. But maybe it’ll help you or someone you know. Okay, here we go…..


10 Basic Twitter Tips for Your Brand!


Set up your Twitter account properly. The site’s Help Center is quite good on explaining the how-to basics. Other things to know: If you want people to find you, put the account in your real name. But, you might choose a different username for your Twitter profile. If you do that, make it a name that ties into your identity and brand.

E.g., If you search Twitter for “Betty Ming Liu,” you’ll find my account. However, my username is “BettyMLiu.” Dropping the “i-n-g” from my middle name gives me three precious extra characters for tweeting.

Adding a good profile photo is also key. So is filling out the bio section. It’s your one shot to blurb who you are. If you have a blog or website, include its url. If you want people to contact you, then your email address goes in the bio too.

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An attractive Twitter profile page supports your brand. Twitter provides a bunch of basic backgrounds to choose from. You can pick a simple one and stick with it. You can also “shop” at twitrbackgrounds.com for free design themes.

If you stick to a basic Twitter background, you can still jazz it a bit by changing its colors. If tweaking the color combos gets overwhelming, go to ColorSchemeDesigner.com. It’s a very cool color wheel that instantly shows what blues go with which shades of red.

Another quick-&-easy customizing trick is to use one of your own photos as the background. It can appear once in a corner of the screen. Or, you can have the shot repeated until it covers your entire page. For this option, check the “tile background” box. This is my current branding choice. My Twitter background is a photo of the orange-patterned wallpaper featured on my blog.

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Link love is the key to connecting. Writing clever tweets comes naturally to some people. The rest of us stay in the game by being useful. That’s why I’m always scouring websites and blogs for stories, posts and photos that I can link to in my tweets.

I want my followers to click on those links and say, “Oh gee, I didn’t know that!” or “Wow, that’s crazy!” My links revolve around my brand: journalism, lifestyle, food, art, relationships, culture.

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Use bit.ly to link in style. A typical, space-hogging url link can be at least 70 characters long. Most exceed our 140-character space limit. What to do? Well, shrink the link.

Bit.ly is the most tech-smart of the url shorteners out there. Paste a url into bit.ly and it will be compacted down to a bitty, 13-character url. This site can even elegantly bundle multiple url links into a single tweet. Anyone can use bit.ly without signing in. But it costs nothing to open a free account. Do that, and bit.ly will track the number of clicks on each of your links. The ability to score tons of clicks is definitely a marketable skill.

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Twitter etiquette is a must. Twitter people — known as tweeps — can be very nice to each other. They often thank me for following them. They tweet shout-outs to their crew by putting “@” in front of the valued follower’s username.

Tweeps also thrive on quoting each other. This practice of repeating someone’s tweet is called “retweeting.” It’s written up as “RT,” which is typed in front of your quoted tweet.

Warning: A word about good manners…Avoid the bad practice of dumping a flurry of tweets on your followers. That’s like being a rude dinner guest who talks too much at a dinner party. Be more conversational. Space out your tweets. And it’s totally okay to only tweet once a day.

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It takes interesting tweeps to create a community. Finding tweeters to follow — and developing followers — can be daunting. Again, this is like throwing a party. You want an exciting mix of guests to create chemistry. And if your tweets are boring, no one will want to hang with you.

Last semester, a student told me that he only saw the value of Twitter once he crossed the 100-mark in both follows and followers. For me, the threshold was having 200 follows and 400 followers. I was finally moving beyond those annoying marketers and porn girl spammers.

Now I’m mingling with the Dalai Lama, Kanye West, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, a bunch of journalists I’ve never met, real-life contacts, students and quirky far-flung strangers who either have interesting blogs, tweets — or both. Btw, you can group your followers into lists (but I don’t bother).  which is a great tool. The best part is you don’t have to actually follow the people on your lists. Just list them.

Once you have followers, there are different ways to tweet with your peeps. If I follow the Dalai Lama and mention him in a tweet as “@DalaiLama,” he’ll see it. And so will everyone else. But if by some miracle he decides one day to follow me too, then we can start sending each other private messages. Sometimes, if you mention someone enough, they start to notice you. And then, they’ll follow you. That’s the secret to networking in the twittersphere.

As for figuring out who to follow…once you’ve padded out your list with your personal circle, go for the players in your world, both big and small. Try Wefollow.com, a Twitter directory. Then there’s Twiangulate.com, which does this cute thing…if you submit three Twitter usernames it’ll identify the Twitter contacts those three folks have in common. To see how it works, watch this YouTube video by FolkMedia.org.

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Manage your tweeting on a dashboard. TweetDeck.com and HootSuite.com are two free websites that allow you to view all your social media networks on a single screen.

That means you can upload your Twitter as well as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace. You can also write your tweets in advance and schedule their future publication at a specific date and time.

I prefer HootSuite.com and not just because the owl logo is adorable (owls hoot, get it?). The big plus is that you can use HootSuite on any computer because everything you’ve loaded is stored on the Web. TweetDeck offers the opposite — your social media is stored on your actual computer. So if you’re not at your own machine, you’ve got no access. (At least, that’s how things work right this second. The two companies are very competitive and they’re constantly making changes.)

P.S. — HootSuite has its own url shortener. But I still prefer bit.ly because it tracks the number of clicks on my links. The owl won’t do that.

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Tweeting by smart phone is the future. Hooking this up in the “Mobile” section of your Twitter account is a snap. But be sure to limit the settings so followers can’t auto-text you. Their constant tweeting would be more than just irritating. If your cell phone service plan charges you for texts, it could also get expensive.

Note: Twitter, Hootsuite and Tweetdeck offer phone and iPad apps. The ability to tweet-on-the-go puts Twitter right up there with Facebook. It’s possible to tweet photos from your cell phone too. See Tip #9 for details on that.

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For variety, post photos that serve your brand. A good photo is worth a thousand characters. Twitpic.com allows users to upload both pictures and videos. It’s free and simple to use. Tweeting photos, even blurry ones, creates precious, in-the-moment spontaneity. Followers like seeing you in action. On this level, Twitter reminds me of Facebook — posting photos always leads to a boost in traffic.

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Join Twitter conversation groups. You’ll eventually need to learn two phrases: “trending topics” and “hashtags.” If you’re overdosing now on this stuff we’re covering, hold tight. We’re almost done, you can make it…

Go to your Twitter account menu bar and click on “Home.” To the right, you’ll see a continually updating “Trends” list. These are the moment’s hot topics: “trending topics.”

If you want other people who are tweeting about that topic to read your tweets on the subject, you need to put a special thing at the end of your tweet. That thing is the symbol “#” followed by the trending word or phrase. When the topic’s not hot anymore, you can still search for the hashtag and keep chatting in a circle that enhances your brand.  TechforLuddites.com offers an excellent explanation on how to create and use hashtags. WhatTheTrend.com helps you search and identify hot hashtags.

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This is plenty for an “Introduction to Branding Yourself on Twitter!” In moving on from here, please remember to proceed strategically:

  • Anything that goes out on the Internet stays there forever. Plus, the Library of Congress is archiving our tweets. So don’t publish anything that you’ll regret. I constantly remind students not to tweet about being bored on the job or drunk in bars — unless they’re branding themselves as slackers who hope to land on some kind of reality show.
  • To tweet smart, learn more! Last year, I took a great four-week social media course at my alma mater, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. It was taught by the fabulous Professor Sree Sreenivasan, a tech expert who is the school’s dean of student affairs. The $575 program will be offered again starting March 17. If you can’t afford a class, key content is available for free in Sree’s online “Twitter Guide for Newbies & Skeptics.” Another place for Artbizblog.com i

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