So Your Client Says They Want To Get On Twitter…

Avatar of Chris Coyier
Chris Coyier on

Twitter. They talk about it on the local news, they talk about it on ESPN… it’s mainstream. It’s almost a household name like YouTube, Facebook, or Johnson and Johnson. Businesses know that other businesses are using it, and they feel like they are potentially missing the boat on something big. Because it’s web related, they turn to us, their web designers, for guidance. What do we say?

“Sure, no problem”

The “getting on Twitter” part is trivial. It’s free to sign up and hardly takes any time at all. And the sooner the better, because like all services that require a username, the longer you wait the higher the chance is that the username you want is gone. This part is a no-brainer. It’s never going to hurt a business for having a Twitter account, it’s just not a golden ticket.

If the username you want is taken, try contacting the owner and see if they’d be willing to give it up or sell it to you. Or, get creative and pick a username that is interesting, has to do with the business, and isn’t a lame add-on to the username you actually wanted.

But Why?

This is the same question you could ask when it comes to having a website at all. Why? Just why is it that you want to be on Twitter? That nagging, visceral feeling of “missing the boat” doesn’t count anymore. It’s time to do some intellectual quantification of what there is to gain from this.

  • Do you want to sell more widgets?
  • Generate leads?
  • Trying to put a human face on your business?
  • Just want to have some fun?
  • Keep an eye on competitors?
  • Provide customer support?

Well guess what?

It’s all of the above

As a business on Twitter, you do stand the chance to grow your business, but that may not come as directly as you might imagine. You only control what you tweet, not what others tweet at you. If you want this to be effective, you need to manage that incoming stream as well. If someone has a problem, help them. If someone has something to say about you (good OR bad), respond to them.

Quick Case Study

With Are My Sites Up? (twitter), we subscribe to a few saved searches like “My site is down”. Anyone tweeting that phrase has a pretty high likelihood that a service like Are My Sites Up would be useful to them. We don’t get up in their grill and send them messages saying they should sign up, we just follow them. They can check us out for themselves and see if we can be of use (the name of our account helps in that way). Of course, we also use the service for status updates, talking with customers, and just for fun.

It’s a forum not a pedestal

The way Twitter works is that you “follow” people. The people you follow’s updates show up when you visit Twitter. People can follow you too, then your updates show up on their Twitter page. You can talk directly to each other with @replies and Direct Messages. It’s a community. It’s like a giant chat room.

If all you do is tell people things, that’s not a community, that’s just shouting. And when that shouting is in the form of “NEW PRODUCT, BUY NOW!!!!”, you are spoiling the party. Nobody will want to listen to you.

Important Note

When you tweet, if that message starts with @somebody, nobody will see that tweet except you, them, and anybody else that follows you that also follows them. That means you can reply to people often, even have a whole conversation, and not worry about flooding your stream with stuff most of your other followers don’t really care about.

It’s about followers

We don’t need to beat around the bush here. The goal is getting a lot of followers. And not just followers, but followers that really care to hear what you have to say. The more followers you have, the wider your messages spread, and the more “effective” Twitter is going to be for you.

If you build it…

…it’s still a ton of work to get anybody to care. Not as magical as Field of Dreams, I know. Driving people to your Twitter account, just like driving people to your website, is hard work on your part.

So how do you gain followers?

  • You ask your audience nicely. Send out a newsletter? Ask them to follow you, because you’ll be engaging with people through there. Speak in public? Mention that you are on Twitter. Anywhere you already engage with your audience is the place to do it. It’s easier to convert the converted.
  • Put it on your website. If people are already on your website, they are about two clicks away from following you. This is the best possible place to let people know.
  • Follow people. Now don’t go ape-shit and follow a zillion people, because that ruins the usefulness of your own Twitter stream, not to mention you look like a spammy idiot. But follow your friends, your customers, your neighbors, people that interest you, other people in the same industry as you. Some of them will notice and follow you back.
  • Talk. Just because someone isn’t following you, you can still talk to them. Reply to things they have to say that you have something relevant to say back. People follow people who engage with them.

How do you lose followers?

In general, your follower numbers will just rise. That’s because Twitter is growing and people are always finding new people to follow. The activity of unfollowing is far less common than following. But still, people will unfollow you if your messages are not the kind of thing they like in their stream. That’s part of the beauty of being a Twitter user, you can manage what the incoming flow to you looks like. Someone tweeting stuff you are sick of? Unfollow thetm. The most common offenses (in my opinion):

  1. Too many! – A few times a day may actually be “too few”, but some people go nuts and I see 10 tweets in a row within seconds of each other. Nope, not in my feed you don’t.
  2. Boring – I want to look forward to people’s tweets, not have another source of the mundane.
  3. Too sales-y – It’s really easy to turn people off with sales messages. You either better keep it light or make the messages incredibly interesting and seductive.

You have to actually do it

It’s tempting to go all Field of Dreams here again, but you get the picture. If you want this to work, you have to actually do it. It becomes fun and addicting, so once you get going it’s easy to keep going, but that beginning is tough. Part of it is…

Finding the right tools

Actually going to might feel like a hassle all the time. Fortunately, there are tons of different ways to interact with Twitter without using your web browser. If you have any kind of “smart phone”, chances are there is a Twitter application for it. Use that. It’s always in your pocket and will allow you to be more spontaneous and human about your tweeting. There are also some seriously great Twitter applications for your computer. This isn’t intended to be an article about Twitter tools, but just for the record Tweetie is an excellent app for both the iPhone and the Desktop that is superb. See this wiki for a big listing of all kinds of apps.

Schedule it

Make it part of your day. Or, make it part of someone else’s day. That young intern you hired, she’s probably all over this Twitter thing, have her to it, just make sure she has the tools she needs within the company to be useful to your customers.

What should I say?!

This might be the hardest part for a new business on Twitter. Plus you’ve heard that Twitter is a bunch of people that just got back from a run and tweeting about their breakfast and you don’t want to go there. First and foremost, if something major is going on at your business, that’s an appropriate thing to Tweet. Launch a new website or new major section of the website? Have a new CEO? Now offering service in Canada? All good things you might want to let your followers know about. Your own gut instinct will tell you if the news sounds interesting or mundane (skip the mundane stuff). But it’s not every single day there is major interesting news that happens at a business. Here are some other ideas:

  • Offer a special deal to your followers only. Maybe a contest?
  • Share industry news. People following you might be interested in your industry as a whole, not just you.
  • Be a human. Just see a movie that you absolutely loved? You can share it. It’s OK, not every single thing you tweet has to be 100% on message of your company. We’re all humans here, with a variety of interests.
  • Preview the future. If the business is working on new things, share the progress, do teasers, make people guess.

  • Tell a joke.

You might want to peruse other businesses on Twitter as well, and see how they approach it. Although of course copying exactly what other people do is no way to innovate.

So ultimately what can we do as the designers?

  • Educate them. As in, the points made in this article.
  • Design a background for them. Fairly trivial compared to how they use it, but we are designers after all. Remember, don’t put links in your background. It’s an image, so the links obviously won’t be active. Twitter backgrounds with links all over them are incredibly ridiculous.
  • Integrate it into their website. Whether it’s actually displaying recent tweets, or just placement of links/buttons to get people over to their Twitter account, that’s our job.


I should say that I’ve never single-handly taken a business from zero to Twitter super-stars, but I have had some success on Twitter myself, and feel my common sense in this is fairly sound.