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Monday 28th May 2012 | 07:30
This weekend marked my 50,000th Twitter follower. So to honour them all, I present my random thoughts about how MPs (and other politicians for that matter) can better engage with their voters, critics and followers alike on Twitter.
I should immediately point out that I don’t get this right all the time. And I’m definitely not suggesting that Twitter can or should be a constant 24/7 conversation with your Followers. That just wouldn’t be practical. But I do think there are specific approaches you can use to engage your Followers in a mutually beneficial way. So, here are 9 of them…
1. Hold your own “Twitterthon”
Every now and then I’ll make a series of posts in quick succession about a specific issue or policy area. I’ll intersperse these by responding to people who are commenting on my posts as I go along. In the process you can quickly find that you’ve engaged an audience of several thousand posters very quickly. The whole thing takes 10 to 15 minutes.
It’s what I call an impromptu Twitterthon and my advice is to keep them pretty much ad hoc. If you take the trouble to advertise the ‘event’ in advance then you’re sure to attract organised resistance or “Twitter trolls”.
2. Offer exclusive content released only on Twitter
One great thing about Twitter is that you can use it to release information that’s not available elsewhere. An inside scoop or late breaking development in your constituency or policy area. And for some reason journalists seem to love reporting that such and such used their Twitter feed to let followers know XYZ piece of news.
Depending on the size of your current following, you may of course need to ‘tip off’ an interested journalist to actually notice your Tweet in the first place.
3. Build expectation and excitement
I’ve also found that Twitter can be a great way of creating a buzz around a particular activity. This past weekend I knew that I’d be announcing the 12 winning Portas Pilot High Street bids. Given that 371 Towns had applied I knew that folks would be anxiously awaiting news. And whilst I knew that the traditional media would cover the results, none of them were likely to flag up precisely when to expect them. I was able to turn to Twitter and using just one or two Tweets ensure that – via reTweets – everyone who might want to know could find out about the anticipated announcements. It created a mini online buzz.
4. Aim for reTweets
reTweets, as mentioned above, are in fact an excellent measure of your online ‘reach’. When you write something truly interesting, others will reTweet it for you. This means that anyone watching their timeline will see what you’ve written. Plus of course their followers might decide to follow you to be closer to the source of the information.
If you are logged into Twitter, going to https://Twitter.com/reTweeted_of_mine will show you Interactions including reTweets. However many phone apps, including the outstanding TweetCaster makes seeing reTweets, conversations and much more – easy to follow.
5. Tweet from your mobile most of the time
A matter of personal preference perhaps, but it’s worth noting that many of the really good Tweeting apps – like TweetCaster – are designed for mobile platforms. There’s definitely a correlation between someone’s propensity to Tweet and use of a mobile platform to do so. Apart from anything else, Tweeting can usefully be carried out when you have a spare moment travelling from A to B. So mobile devices are not only capable of better Twitter apps, but tend to focus your mind on Tweeting more actively and that of course increases the likelihood of interaction with your followers too.
6. Use Bookmarks when Tweeting
If you’re about to do go on, say, the BBC News Channel, then you’ll obviously want to include their @name or #hashtag - in this case that’s @BBCNews or #BBCNews. But when you think about this from the Twitter user perspective this isn’t all that helpful. A Tweet which actually provides the live link is far more likely to create engagement too.
If you’re Tweeting from your phone then keep a list of Bookmarks for all the live programmes and then link to this at the end of your Tweet. Write it up like this…
About to debate XYZ on @BBCNews Channel. Watch it live here > http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10318089
Using this kind of link means that you’ll drive viewers to your performance, get instant feedback, and have the chance to further interact with your Twitter followers.
In addition you’ll see that there’s nothing particularly memorable about that BBC Live News feed web address above, which is why you want to have all of these Bookmarked on your mobile in advance to aid easy Tweeting.
7. Keep it local
Never forget where you’re from and who you represent. It’s all too easy to get carried away in the Westminster Village Tweeting about the 2nd Reading of the Widget Protection Bill but don’t forget, all politics is local. Actually I’ve found that my followers don’t object one bit to my posting frequent constituency updates. A hunch reinforced by at least one follower in this New Statesman article.
@Aljwhite I find myself getting increasingly excited as I wait for his next Tweet. Exactly how frivolous will it be? And then it comes, and his 40,000 followers learn he's "On way to Partnership Accreditation for Landlords launch at University of Hertfordshire," and you think: brilliant. Who cares about that? Obviously I do, because I'm slightly obsessed, but what about everyone else? I suppose it's like following Joey Barton or Jedward: never mind if you find his updates boring; he clearly doesn't. You end up being buoyed along by the enthusiasm.
8. Surprise them by being human!
Let’s be blunt. Lot of folk don’t think politicians live on the same planet. They think we think differently, eat different food, breath different air… and that you certainly wouldn’t be seen dead actually Tweeting in person. Right?
Well, I think it’s your job to prove them wrong! Since you can probably only bust one myth at a time I suggest you start by proving you carry out all your own Tweets. But don’t stop there – take it one stage further by replying to some Tweet questions or even the occasional accusation.
When you do screw up on Twitter – easily done with auto-correction on a small keyboard – then own up to it. In fact you can even use your ‘misspeaks’ and ‘misspells’ to your advantage by demonstrating that… well, you’re only human.
9. When to Reply, Reply WITH Comment or occasionally Direct Message instead
Twitter can be a confusing place. Who the author of a comment was and who is reTweeting it is an obvious place for mix ups. When you do hit Reply it’s quite likely that your followers haven’t read the full thread and what you’re saying is often therefore out of context.
For this reason I usually prefer to Reply WITH Comment. This means that the original post is repeated (much like a reTweet), but that you can then add your own comment on to the end. This keeps the conversation in context and makes it much easier for others to follow the thread. Of course the 140 character limit is even more challenging, but it’s amazing what you can squeeze in.
I rarely use the Direct Message feature because it’s typically full of spam posts. There was however one occasion when it definitely would have been a better bet for my wife.
On my way to the TV studios I once Tweeted, “Off to discuss our latest policy on #BBCNews Channel”. Walking back to Parliament afterwards I fired up Twitter and was mortified by a timeline response by new-to-Twitter Mrs Shapps. It read, “Love Twitter. Now we don’t need to actually speak during the day. Anyway, hurry home because I have a BIG surprise for you!”
Now this was one occasion when we definitely did need to speak – and quite urgently! “Belinda, do you know you just posted your ‘hurry on home for a BIG surprise’ message to the world?” “What? Oh no! I thought I was replying to YOU.” And she was. Plus everyone else on Twitter.
The point is that the first decision to make about interacting is whether you need to Reply, Reply All, Reply with Comment or reply using a Direct Message (which might have been better on that particular occasion).
For reference the BIG surprise turned out to be one of our kids having won a Merit Award at school. Not that I was disappointed of course ;-)
The Rt Hon Grant Shapps is MP for Welwyn Hatfield and Minister of State for Housing & Local Government. You can read his 10 rules of thumb for every Tweeting MP
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