When I first read about Twitter last year, I scoffed. Who cares what other people are doing, thinking or eating every waking moment of the day? I don’t have time to pay attention to random bits of information or to post my every passing thought. For those of you not up on the latest shiny object to be embraced by the neterati, Twitter is a microblogging application that asks you to answer the question, “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less. People use it to do everything from detailing the minutiae of their days to engaging in witty banter to promoting their latest blog posts and sharing useful resources.
While I was on my blogging hiatus, I found that I had a lot of thoughts I wanted to share, but no time to put them into a blog post. I decided to try out Twitter on a short-term basis to see if I thought it was worthwhile. After a few days of using it, I was hooked. I found that Twitter was a great way to have ongoing conversations and build relationships with colleagues, get quick answers to questions and get pointers to useful links. It sometimes feels like I’m drinking from a firehose, but I’m learning to identify the people who consistently have the best tweets. I’ve been on Twitter for a couple of months now (follow me at @Nedra), and I can see many potential applications for organizations promoting health and social issues.
Some of the ways nonprofits and government agencies could use Twitter in their work, along with real examples and ideas, include:
- Providing information and tips – ex: eDiets, womenshealth, Health News
- Providing motivational support – ex: Qwitter (smoking cessation), Twitter PT Challenge (fitness)
- Creating a social support network – ex: Frozen Pea community, Back in Skinny Jeans (weight loss), mental health, Traineo (fitness/weight loss)
- Fundraising – ex: 1PinkRibbon, Frozen Pea Fund, Beth Kanter/Sharing Foundation
- Responding to disasters – ex: San Diego fires, safeandwell (American Red Cross), InSTEDD (Google.org + Rockefeller Fdn), general emergencies
- Tracking activities or readings – Tweet What You Eat (food diary), SugarStats (diabetes), gtFtr (exercise), pain diary, My Mile Marker (fuel economy)
- Reminders – ex: Timer (could be used for medication, stretch breaks, etc.)
- Pushing news/information out quickly – ex: MissingChildren, Los Angeles Fire Department
- Connecting patients and health care providers – ideas from Medical 2.0
- Conducting research – ex: ethnography, buzz tracking, surveys
- Role modeling – ex: Scott Hanselman (diabetes), skinnyjeans (weight loss)
- Early warning systems – ex: Morbus (pandemics), trouble alerts
Since Twitter can be used via mobile devices as well as computers, many of the same concepts behind using mobile phones and SMS for social change are applicable as well. In fact, this Friday (2/29) there will be a conference on Texting 4 Health at Stanford focusing on using SMS to improve health behavior. Though it is not explicitly on the agenda, I would hope that they will also be discussing how Twitter can be used to facilitate this approach. Does anyone know if someone will be livetweeting the conference?
Nate Ritter lays out some of the benefits and limitations of using Twitter that you should take into account when determining whether the tool will work for your purposes:
- Speed Using twitter, you can very easily publish information more than once per minute. If distribution speed is critical, regardless of the information being distributed, Twitter may be the tool for you.
- Non-website (source) based alerts Instant messaging, SMS/text messages on cell phones, RSS/Atom feeds, email alerts, badges/widgets on other sites, and other methods of distribution are available. If your community can’t be tethered to a website for it’s communications, Twitter can provide other methodologies to get that information out to them.
- Community publishing There are a few (slightly more technical) ways of aggregating a group of twitterers posts, which means you could have more people — even your community — pitching in to help publish pertinent information.
- Only text and links can be posted. No maps. No photos. No videos. Text and links are all you get.
- 140 character limit. URLs will get shortened wherever possible, but 140 characters is tough to get used to.
- No conversation threading. This can be tough to deal with when you’re used to discussion forums and such. Connecting with your community in this way is almost limited to real-time dialogue, which can limit the conversation’s depth and longevity.
- The API has a 70 post per hour limit. Note that from what I could tell, the web UI doesn’t have this limit, but I’m sure they wouldn’t like you posting more than that unless it was an emergency anyway.
For still more ideas on how nonprofits can use (and shouldn’t use) Twitter, see NetSquared’s Net2ThinkTank round-up.
So, for some, Twitter will always just be a place to tick away the moments that make up a dull day, to fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. For smart social marketers, though, Twitter can be a powerful tool for education and action. How will you use it?
(If you have additional ideas or examples, leave them in the comments and I will add them to the list.)