I’ll be the first to admit that when we launched a Twitter feed for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last December, we had no strategy and little idea of what we were getting into. In the words of my Aunt Winnifred – the one with an unexplained scar from a knife fight on the side of her face—we had less sense of direction than a headless man on a Tilt-a-Whirl.
We weren’t completely clueless. We knew we had lots of new content as fodder (we generally post 100 or more new publications on our site every month). We also had a good idea of the audience we wanted to reach.
NIne months later, we have a few lessons to share, and a conviction that it was well worth the effort. If you are teetering on the edge of the diving board, knees shaking, toes cramping, here are some reasons that might convince you to fling yourself into the world of Twitter (and avoid the long, humiliating walk back down the ladder, past a fearless four-year-old who still needs help blowing his nose).
- You’ll meet interesting people. Twitter is a great platform for reaching influential people directly. Our mission at RWJF is to make a difference on key issues that can improve the health and health care of Americans. It is critical for us to get our information into the hands of people who can influence policy around those issues—the media, policy-makers, thought leaders, researchers, others working on the same issues. We were delighted to see the Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog begin following us our first day in the Twitterverse. Since then our list of followers has grown to around 1,900 and includes many health and policy reporters, along with key bloggers and others who can make a difference on our issues.
- You’ll be more informed about what people are saying about you and your organization—good and bad. People are talking about your organization and the work you are doing. Twitter is a wonderful tool for listening to and joining in that conversation. We set up RSS feeds from searches on Twitter to monitor mentions of the foundation. We also use tools like Tweetdeck, HootSuite and Radian6 to listen to what is being said about us and our senior staff. That helps us join relevant conversations and respond to constructive criticisms. A few weeks back, we surprised one man who tweeted that our RSS page was giving “other RSS pages a bad name” by letting him know we would try to make it better. Take advantage of those opportunities to let people know you are listening.
- You’ll be more effective at your work and as an organization. We are gradually uncovering ways in which Twitter is a relevant tool for our everyday work. By providing the ability to put our ear to the chatter on Twitter, our program staff (the people involved in day-to-day grantmaking) can stay tuned in on their topic areas and even join in the conversation. Recently, one program officer was trying to decide whether to help fund a documentary. He knew the documentary maker had done good work in the past. He knew the topic was on target. But how could he get a sense of how it would be received? Would it have the impact we were looking for? He put the name of the film into Twitter search—and voila—uncovered all sorts of conversation from people who had seen it at film festivals. That’s a neat little trick that would have been nearly impossible in the world before Twitter.
- You’ll build and strengthen your network. Twitter, like other social media, is more than a publishing platform. Ultimately, what you are really doing on Twitter is developing a network of people with a common interest. That community will prove invaluable to your organization as it grows. We built a group of followers mostly by sharing interesting pieces of our work. Now comes the fun part. We have begun tapping into the community by asking them to participate in polls and even recruiting people for user testing. We plan to start building out that community aggressively going forward by identifying exactly the type of followers we would like and working to bring them on board. We know who we want to reach. We don’t see any reason to not go after them.
One caution to keep in mind as you launch yourself off the high dive, hoping that your bathing suit will still be on when you hit the surface: The cost of entry on Twitter is low; the cost of success is much higher. Don’t let this stop you from getting started, social media is all about taking small risks and seeing where it takes you. But it is good to keep that key lesson in mind. Doing Twitter—or any other Web 2.0 tool—well and getting what you truly want out of it, involves much more work than you intially might have realized. Sort of like inviting Aunt Winnifred over for dinner. You start with simple plans of a pot roast and a salad and wind up with 300 obese bikers in whitey-tighties singing songs from the Sound of Music on your roof. But that is a story for another time.
What about you? Any lessons to share from your Twitter experience? Successes? Failures?