It is not uncommon in the world of blogs and micro-blogging to bash media professionals for their lack of involvement in those spheres or the way they choose to get involved in them. I have been lucky enough in my professional life to see both sides of the divide (as a blogger, Twitter-user and as someone who worked for close to a decade in digital media) and I believe that sometimes the problem really is that there is no simple, easy-to-understand explanation of how things work out there. So, this is an attempt at that.
Even though, the following has been written mostly about Twitter, it can also apply for blogs and other publishing platforms that allow media professionals to post content that is often published without going through the usual formal editorial checks and balances. The following are a couple of guidelines that should, hopefully, help media tackle Twitter in a better manner.
It is not a Unicast medium
In any form of traditional media — print, television, internet — the flow of information is overwhelmingly unidirectional. The journalists and the organizations they work for are the content producers, while the audience are the consumers. It is never an even playing field. In the sense that the producers/publishers are on a higher platform than the audience. Blogs and Twitter differ on that front by getting everyone on the same platform and tooling.
The immediate ramification of this is that the journalists have to cede control of the distribution. Being who you are will certainly make the visibility criterion an easier deal for famous media professionals, but if you use it only to preach from the pulpit, the audience will move away from you in a flash. Platforms like Twitter and content aggregators, first up, strips content producers of the protection that branding traditionally grants them. For professionals who have always lived behind that, it can be a disconcerting/disorienting feeling to be out there on their own. Welcome to the new world.
Engage, Engage, Engage
The first step top stop being an unicaster is to get a decent Twitter client, so that you can engage the audience better. Twitter clients are to tweeting what Microsoft Outlook/Outlook Express is to email. Twitter's web site makes it quite hard to interact with the audience, especially for a new user. Using a Twitter client helps you work around that problem (here is a list of such applications. If you are behind a corporate firewall or if you are restricted by a lack of privileges on your system, use the ones that are marked 'website').
The difference for media, between a unicast Twitter account (@prabhuchawla: 2390 followers) and an account that is genuinely interactive (@virsanghvi: 26,161 followers) can be substantial. You will be surprised at the amount you can learn just by interacting to people.
For the more adventurous, consider this as the difference between singing in front of a thirty thousand-strong crowd from the safe confines of the stage and stage diving into them. The latter is grimy, more dangerous by many degrees, unscripted and uncontrolled, but the rush is also like nothing else. After all, a passionate audience is something that every content producer loves to have with them.
But do keep in mind that being active on Twitter can eat up a lot of time. An example of this is DNA India's Twitter account. When they started on Twitter DNA was manned by a real human being who used to post snippets of news with no links on Twitter. While it is not clear when the switch happened, of late, the only entries in the account now are automated posts from the site's RSS feed. Since measurement of the RoI on activities like tweeting is still a work in progress, the sweet spot for engagement will also differ from organization to organization.
There will be blood
And there will be plenty of it. Being on the same platform with millions of users also gives you a real-time feel of the reactions. The feedback — being instantaneous, unscripted, unedited, unmoderated — can be overwhelming in both the positive and the negative, which is a far cry from the normal sanitized version of the same within the traditional media confines. You will experience name-calling, a lot of angst, rank abuse and many other negatives.
Be clear about disengaging with the bad as much as you are clear about engaging with the good. The easily-offended minority with a very loud voice has always been the bane of the internet. You will find the same lot here too. Engage them at your own peril. But don't let the noisy few stop you from engaging the quieter majority.
Have clear guidelines
This one applies more for organizations than individuals. Since tweets essentially are messages in the public domain it is a good idea to have a clear policy about what can be said and what cannot be said. Organizations need to clearly spell out which accounts are representative of the company and which are the ones that belongs to individuals.
It does not augur well with a desire for completely free-flowing conversation to have such restrictions in place, but the odd lawsuit or two regarding something that was said on Twitter will increasingly become more common in the coming days. It is much better to be safe than sorry on that front.
Verification & Classification
Twitter accounts from media fall into three kinds: individuals, automated feeds and content-specific (examples in the links). Specifying what kind of account it is also sets the expectations right for the audience. It would be a good idea for organizations to list in a single location the names of the employees who use Twitter and also the other automated and content-specific feeds. This gives a degree of legitimacy for the accounts and also allows the individuals to clearly specify the degree of association they want to have with the brand/employer in their usage of Twitter.
There is also the option of going for a verified account with Twitter. According to the Twitter, the feature is still in limited testing, but it will be a good idea to give it a shot. If that does not work, you can always use listings on your own site to work around it for the time being.
Track key metrics
It is important for organizations to track the ROI from activities like being on Twitter. A basic list of parameters to track would include follower count, replies, ReTweets, and click-throughs on automated feeds. This will go a long way in determining the degree of engagement that is right for the results you desire. Doing it yourself can be a chore as it is often quite tough to get consolidated referrer information from click-throughs that originate from Twitter clients. In that case, you can always outsource it to an agency or specialized sites that do this for you, for a small fee.
To be very honest, I am not sure whether two-years down the line Twitter would be the big thing that it is right now. But the moot point is that regardless of what happens with Twitter, muti-point, limited-branding distribution is going to be a significant part of distributing content in days to come. For media, it is important to adapt to such new features and use the same principles to approach them.