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A Beginners Guide to Twitter in Local Government

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Since my council got a bit of coverage for our usage of Twitter for planning applications, both in the specialist press and SOCITM’s Better Connected report, I’ve received a few calls from other councils who haven’t yet got on the Twitter train asking for a bit of advice.

Therefore, in the spirit of sharing, and, being a sharing caring kind of a guy anyway, I thought I’d stick some of the advice I’ve already given up here too. Feel free to share some of your experiences (or tell me I’m completely wrong and a massive idiot) in the comments section as well.

Posting your tweets

Twitter is about so much more than just the main Twitter website, in fact, most people who use Twitter on a regular basis barely touch the main Twitter site. They use a combination of tools, from widgets on start pages (such as Netvibes), to Desktop clients (such as Twhirl and Tweetdeck) and mobile applications (such as Twitterfon on the iPhone and Twitterberry on the Blackberry.

There are also other sites that let you tweet from them and offer a wide range of extra features that the main Twitter site does not. Our council use Hootsuite which, as well as giving multiple usernames for one Twitter account (which avoids the risk of giving the password to the main account away to many people), also lets you track the amount of clicks a link you send gets, which is useful if you want to measure the success of your twittering.

Feed your account

As well as tools for live tweeting, you can also automate your tweets. If your site has an RSS feed), you can use a tool like Twitterfeed to automatically post a tweet every time that feed is updated. For example, if you have a news RSS feed, every time a news article is added to the site, Twitterfeed sends out a tweet. This is the process we used for @ldcplanning for planning applications. Also, if you have multiple RSS feeds (say, for jobs, planning applications, events etc), you can add those, differentiating between them with a prefix (i.e. ‘New job:’ or ‘New events:’)

Now, a little health warning here, this really shouldn’t be your only method of using Twitter, it’s all about conversation, and if you’re only broadcasting messages, then really, you’re not using Twitter to its full potential.

Following and being followed

Following is at the heart of Twitter, every time you follow someone, you’ll be able to see their updates when you log into Twitter. Every time you get a new follower, you’ll receive an email letting you know that they are following you, you can then check out their profile, and take a view on whether you want to follow back. Generally it’s considered good manners to follow back regardless, but personally, I only follow back if the person who is following me seems like they might have something interesting to say.

I used to take a similar selective approach with the council account, only following people who were from the local area, but when you get a number of followers every day, that can be time consuming.

I now use a tool called Tweetlater, which automates this process for you, every time someone follows you, you automatically follow back. You can also opt to send them an automated direct message (a personal message only they can see), but most people I’ve encountered on Twitter (including me) find them irritating and intrusive, so, unless you’ve got a very good reason for doing this, erm, don’t!

Search

Twitter really comes into its own when the search comes into play. search.twitter.com allows you to search across the Twitterverse in real time for things that people are tweeting about.

This can prove to be really valuable, as many councils have found out, for example, if you search for your council name and find someone is complaining about the council, you can take a proactive approach and offer to sort out their problem via @ reply. If they give you more information, you can contact them by direct message, sort out their problem and hey presto! a hacked-off resident becomes an engaged resident, who will hopefully go off and tell all their friends how great your council are (that’s the theory anyway!)

Now, obviously, as a council, you’re not going to be monitoring Twitter 24/7, so there’s a couple of ways that you can make this process easier. Firstly, you can monitor a search, either by subscribing to a search’s RSS feed or using Tweetgrid, which allows you to ‘follow’ searches.

You can also subscribe to a nifty service (called, handily enough, Replies), which sends you an email every time someone sends you an @ reply. Again, this makes monitoring Twitter just that little bit easier.

Phew! And I think that’s about it! I’ve learnt a lot about Twitter since setting up @ldcplanning in August of last year, and, really, I’m still learning. It might seem a lot to take in, but once you get into it, it’s really not that difficult. There’s also a great, helpful community of local government people on Twitter, so dive in, follow some people and if you’ve got any questions, just ask!

Also, for a bit of a wider view of Twitter, check out @bounder’s guide to Getting Started with Twitter, which gives an overview of Twitter from a less local government-y bent.

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