Listening to Twitter- some key tools for your NGO or Council

Serendipity is not uncommon in social media. People find new and unexpected ways of using social media tools all the time. Of course, the same thing happens with PC-based software, but the web allows people to develop new uses for social media and then to spread these applications far more cheaply and effectively.

Twitter is a case in point. The 140-word microblogging service is still seen by many as an exercise in narcissism but at a deeper and more serious level it have found uses in areas as diverse as providing feedback on brands and products, distributing alerts for upcoming events, giving real-time responses to speakers in current affairs programs and even spreading information among activists demonstrating against dictatorial governments.

Both fed and been supported by the growth of a small forest of add-ons, Twitter is rapidly becoming a mainstream communication channel, which means it needs to be considered as part of the social media strategy for all NGOs, councils and other small organisations.

This presupposes of course that you have a social media strategy. The reasons for NGOs and councils to have a strategy and what it should do have been written about in numerous blogs, but the simplest argument is the most compelling – the hundreds of millions of people around the world who use various forms of social media on a daily basis.

What your social media strategy should do obviously will depend on your organisation’s objectives, projects, activities and users (both staff and customers/clients), but the basics are summed up in this post by Spurspectives. I’ve expanded a little on the standard components identified in that post to form this list:

  • Adding a blog to your website (of course you can have multiple blogs, but don’t underestimate the demands of keeping even one up to date);
  • Setting up a page for your organisation on Facebook;
  • Sharing videos (for example through YouTube) and posting podcasts on your website about your organisation’s policies, projects and events;
  • Connecting with colleagues and community leaders through LinkedIn and then joining LinkedIn networks relevant to your organisation;
  • Using Twitter to post current news and updates about your organisation. These can include links to your blogs, videos or podcasts. You will need to decide who exactly has authority to post tweets on behalf of your organisation and what they will tweet about.

This list is a good start, but one key element of a good strategy is that you should not just see social media only as a one-way street to disseminate information about your organisation. Social media is about a conversation, or rather thousands of many-to-many conversations, and your strategy should be more about how to engage through these conversations with your users and those you are trying to influence.

This means that you need to listen to your target audience as well as broadcast to them. All of the social media components suggested above provide opportunities for feedback, but this is one area where Twitter shines, given that anybody with an account can respond instantly and publicly.

I don’t intend to provide a general intro to Twitter here – this has been well-canvassed in guides like the one on Victorian State Government eGov website or this local government-related blog from the UK. Instead I’d like to look specifically at how to receive and handle the rich stream of responses that Twitter provides.

Twitter is like a fast-moving river, with thousands of tweets posted every second; while you can use Twitter to search for your organisation, this is difficult if it has a long name. To help you can start using a hashtag for your organisation or its services in your own tweets. A hashtag is a short, distinctive is name preceded by the hash key (for example, #wikileaks or #cityrail) which used in tweets. If the hashtag catches on and other people start using it, searching for tweets relating to your organisation will be much easier.

Once you do this you can simply dip your hand into the “twitterstream” in every now and then to see what people are saying about you by using Twitter to search for your hashtag, or a filtering tool such as Tweetdeck, which allows you to display searches for multiple topics. You could then provide these as public feedback on your website by using applications such as Twitter widgets or Twitterfeed.

However, while Twitter and Tweetdeck can yield some interesting posts in real time, they don’t allow you to store the results for later use. For a more systematic approach you need software that allows you to filter and then extract the resulting list of tweets to examine outside of Twitter.

Tweetdoc allows you to enter a hashtag or other search term and then set date and time range and limits on the number of tweets to display. The resulting list is displayed in a PDF file which can be stored offline for later reference.

A similar service is provided by SearchHash. As the name suggests this concentrates on filtering by hashtags (though it does seem to work with other search terms) but is a bit more flexible than Tweetdoc in allowing export to an Excel document, which is easier to use as a basis for further research. Meanwhile other tools such as the Archivist provide a snapshot of statistics such as the number of tweets over time, the  top users, main sources, etc.

Be aware, however, that this is a fast-changing area. Search applications such as Searchtastic which were widely recommended only a few  months ago have already ceased operations. Others such as TwapperKeeper have removed their export facility, claiming that Twitter has alleged that it infringes its Terms of Service.

Setting up a Twitter account and then searching for your organisation’s hashtags or other topics related to your services is an important start, but you can do so much more with Twitter. In a future post I’ll look at how you can use it to help in running conferences and forums.

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