Category Archives: Twitter Basics

The one simple thing businesses must know about using Twitter

You wouldn’t go to a party and ask people to leave with you to go to your store, right?

Yet I see businesses join Twitter all the time and do nothing but promote their business.

Yes, you CAN use things like contests, specials, exclusive content (particularly effective on Twitter), events, etc. to drive people to your business, but first you have to build a positive reputation, and connect with some of the communities on Twitter.

What this means is very simple: You have to network first.

Make connections, be helpful, share interesting information, and over time add information about your business bit by bit.

Businesses too often get confused about what is really a very simple formula:

Get to know people first, share information about your business second.

Misunderstanding Twitter, “The Semi-Colon of Social Media”

Quote in headline is from @JenniferLockett

Why do so many people swear by Twitter, while other swear they will never try it because it doesn’t make sense?

“In no other walk of life have people bashed something so fervently that they haven’t tried as Twitter.” – @DarrenRovell

Years ago I came across an argument in a grocery store. An elderly woman was mad at a woman who appeared to be her daughter. The elderly woman was saying.

No! I won’t be one of those people talking to themselves while they shop for groceries!

But a little more eavesdropping turned up a big surprise: She wasn’t concerned about her mental health. The older woman was saying she would not accept the gift of a mobile phone from her daughter. The daughter wanted her to have it for safety, so she would always have a phone she could use in case of emergency.

But the older woman just saw people “making fools of themselves” by talking on phones as they roamed the aisles, seemingly speaking to ghosts. She didn’t want a phone because she wasn’t going to be “another one of those fools.”

Technology doesn’t have to control you. Make it work for YOU.

Of course, the older woman could have kept the phone turned off in her purse, and no one would have known she even had one. It’s amazing how easily we are misled as to what we can do with technology. New technology always seems to fool many people into thinking it will control them, rather than the other way around.

That’s why when people first started saying about Twitter “Why would anyone want to know what I had for breakfast?” at first I laughed, but now I just shake my head.  Were people really that foolish? Just because they heard other people talking about breakfast, they thought they would have to as well?

The learning curve of new things

If you are NOT an early adopter, the most important thing to remember is this: When something new becomes widely adopted:

  1. Stop listening to the people that say they don’t understand it.
  2. Throw out what you think you know about it.
  3. Ask a few people you respect how people like you are getting benefits from the technology. Try to find actual people like yourself you can talk to.

You must find out how people like yourself are making the technology work for them. Ignore everything else. Keep asking until you can find out about someone like you who is using and benefiting from the technology.

It’s very important that you shut your ears to information that doesn’t help. The message of people that say something is a “waste of time” is that:

I understand how it works, and it isn’t useful.

This is a lie. They do NOT understand how it works. These are the wrong people to listen to!

Find the right people. Find out how Twitter, or any new technology, can work for you.

Keep an open mind until you do.


What Is A “Fake” Retweet? What Can You Do About It?

A question from a person new to Twitter:

What is it with retweets? On many accounts they seem of no value at all and look nearly random. Plus, I’ve retweeted others but get no reciprocation. Am I missing something?

Fake and semi-fake accounts often use retweets as a means to look real, or to promote/validate other fake accounts. These “fake retweets” are simply part of services that exist to automate Twitter accounts (which is in most case a bad thing).

What is a “fake” Twitter account?

To understand fake retweets, you first have to understand fake accounts.

A fake account is usually one that is created and computer-automated by spammers to look real so they can insert promotional links in some tweets. (If every tweet was a promotional tweet, they would be recognized as spammers and suspended, so this is their way of avoiding being caught.) They’re like websites that try to appear real (often by stealing content from elsewhere) but that are computer-generated and only exist to show ads. It’s popular for a service to create these Twitter accounts by the dozens or hundreds, and then to have them retweet each other to add to the appearance of being “real.”

A semi-fake account is one doing the same things that is managed by a real person instead of a computer. Some people get on Twitter with the sole purpose of sharing sales or promotional links, but take a course in “How to appear like a real person on Twitter” [sigh] and so throw in random retweets from time to time just to “look engaged.” Yes, Twitter can be hard to learn. But “pretending to be real” is not the way!

An in-between type of account is where a real person signs up for a service that will tweet from their account from time to make them look more “real” or more “engaged.” Where this means hiring a social media manager, this can be a reasonable way for some businesses to get started on Twitter, because they are relying on someone with experience for help. But some of these social media management services simply fully or partially computer-automate your account.

So what is a “fake retweet?”

A service that finds interesting information (that you might want to retweet) isn’t a bad thing. And if that service makes it very easy to retweet items, all the better. But where it gets murky is when services provide pre-written items to tweet or retweet. Those that automatically send these pre-written items as tweets from your account are the most problematic. When a social media “management” service makes this is an overly large part of how they work, they’ve crossed the line.

How it works

When something you tweet is picked up by one of these Twitter automation services, you’ll see that particular tweet retweeted endlessly week after week by a group of accounts, sometimes much, much too frequently.

A clue that someone who is otherwise clearly a real and engaged person on Twitter is using a semi-automated service is that they are also retweeting one of these tweets that are retweeted week after week.

We ourselves seem to have about 4-8 or so tweets at any given time that are being mindlessly fake-retweeted by these services (the cleverer services fake-retweet their tweets more infrequently, to be less obvious). Here is an example of accounts that are “fake retweeting” this tweet: “7 Things Keeping You From Becoming an A-list Blogger: /via @WritersGroup.” (@WritersGroup is one of our other accounts on Twitter, @TweetSmarter being our main one.)

And yes—of course—this is something we originally tweeted because we like the content! We have no connection of any kind to the website it appeared on or the blogger who wrote it. (In fact we had never heard of either before coming across this post.) Here’s another example of something that is getting a lot of fake retweets, and another.

What about the “other” kind of fake retweet?

This is where someone retweets you…but you never said it in the first place! Example “RT @user I love this snake oil! Everyone should click here to buy some today!” It’s very frustrating to see your Twitter name used in this way. Twitter has taken steps to suspend these kinds of accounts quickly, but always, always report them for spam if you see a tweet like this with your name in them.

What can you do?

The best advice is to find real people on Twitter and engage with them (here’s how to do that). If you find information that matters to you, or you find a person (or their mission) mattering to you, retweet away! But retweeting only because you hope for reciprocation is a bad idea. First, you may just be retweeting a fake or semi-fake account. Second, if you’re not retweeting something that matters to you, you’re becoming a fake account yourself!

Twitter is hard

Yes, I realize it’s hard to figure out how to get connected within the Twitter community. The key is to slowly over time build a network of real people to engage to…and to be a real person yourself!

You might want to read “How To Use Twitter to get influential people to help you” for some tips on finding and engaging with real people. Or, if you’re looking for a simpler approach, check out “Win Friends And Influence People On Twitter In Just 5 Seconds A Day.”

Please come back to Twitter!

UPDATE: We have just learned from her daughter that “Mom had tears in her eyes watching the video and watched it several times.” I wrote her back “Now *I’ve* got tears in my eyes! It’s all about love, isn’t it? I’m so glad we were able to help!! :)))”

Earlier this year, a new Twitter user spending her first busy day on Twitter saw a definition from the Urban Dictionary that we tweeted. Too new to be completely sure how Twitter works, she wasn’t sure it was a general tweet and thought it was probably a message to her specifically (even though it just said “Definition of _____” with a link to the definition entry).

As anyone who has read the Urban Dictionary knows, a lot of their definitions are fairly vulgar. So it was a very, very sad day for us earlier this week when we heard from the daughter of that Twitter user—many months after the fact by that point—telling us her that mother was convinced we had been saying something vulgar about her.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s unfortunate Twitter is so hard to learn. We feel particularly bad since our whole purpose on Twitter is to help people have a good experience here.

So, to the mother of our Twitter friend: Please accept our sincere apologies for the confusion, and we hope you’ll please come back to Twitter!

Is learning Twitter really that hard? Yes, yes it is

How hard is Twitter?

The CEO thinks you have to crash and burn and struggle before you can even learn how to use it!

“When you sign up for Twitter, you fly into this cliff and you catch fire and you, if you’re a brave soul, you can climb back up the cliff and look over on to the vistas beyond, and then you might be able to find out how to use it.”
Dick Costolo, CEO, Twitter

And I agree. I see people all the time who don’t grasp even the basics of using Twitter.

► Brilliant journalist doesn’t realize her tweets aren’t viewable

I know an MA, PhD journalist on Twitter with over 6,500 tweets as of this writing, who still doesn’t know how to make her tweets available publicly! She tweets them TO people when she means to be posting them as public retweets. And since she rarely engages with people she doesn’t know who send her @ msgs, she hasn’t listened to anyone telling her what she’s doing wrong. So instead of tweeting something like:

RT @TweetSmarter Twitter Plus TV Creates “Social Viewing”:

She tweets:

@TweetSmarter Twitter Plus TV Creates “Social Viewing”:

…and the only person who sees that tweet is me! She doesn’t realize she’s just sending the tweets she means to share with the world back to the people who tweeted them in the first place.

► They’re not robots—you just don’t know how to see their REAL conversations

Another example: The people you are following are having conversations that you will NOT see on your main timeline. I hear regularly that “So-and-so must be a bot (automated account) because they never do anything but post links.” But they do much, MUCH more than just post links—these people just don’t know how to view it. A couple times a month I will reply to someone and they will reply back “Always thought you were a bot!”

You have to understand how tweets with “@” in them really work to use Twitter. If you want to see ALL tweets from someone you are following, you have to check their user page (located at, for example: This is one reason you should check several screens of a person’s tweets if you are “checking them out” for the first time. It’s also a fun thing to do for users that interest you—see all the conversations they are having.

► A great, simple benefit of Twitter that almost everyone overlooks

Because few people know how tweets with “@” in them really work, and even fewer have thought it through, almost no one takes advantage of one of the greatest interactive uses of Twitter—turning private “thank you’s” into public praise. Many of the most useful articles about Twitter explain how great it is at building community and cultivating sources and connections, yet most people have no idea how to connect, much less how easy it is to use Twitter to get influential people to help you.

► Twitter doesn’t provide some of even the most basic functionality

How do you add a comment to a retweet? How do you shorten a URL? How do you talk with other people chatting about a topic using #hashtags? None of these things are available or explained on the Twitter web interface. Nor does Twitter provide tutorial links to things you might want to know—you have to navigate their ever-changing help interface.

What’s YOUR story?

What one or two things would you tell someone new to Twitter? What tip helped the most when you first heard of it? What was the biggest surprise you got learning Twitter? I’m going to be updating this post with more helpful links and examples based on your stories. So please, add your comment below! Thanks :)

► The most important tip of all this: help others! Help people learn to use Twitter. Post links to articles about how to use Twitter. But don’t lecture them. Remember Twitter Rule #1.

I joined Twitter in September 2007 (from my account now called @Oppora) and…made a bunch of mistakes. And I noticed almost no one posting “how to” links about using Twitter. So I started @TweetSmarter a few months later (in August 2008). I think social sites are one of life’s biggest opportunities. (Our account was originally called @Twitter_Tips—you can read the saga of our name change here.)

The number one change I would have Twitter make: promote a variety of tutorial links on the main interface for the most important topics—and for critical support messages. One at a time in a “tip of the day”-style location would be all that is needed. But until they start making it easier to learn, it’s up to us to help one another :) So I’d love to hear from you! What do you think would make Twitter easier to learn?

What REALLY happens when you use “@” in Tweets?

The short version: You only see @replies from people you follow to people you follow (except for—obviously—@replies sent directly to your own username).

Twitter made this change years ago. It was controversial at the time! For more details, imagine a fictional family where everyone follows each other on Twitter: @Mom, @Dad, @Brother and @Sister.

The most common error

Here are two example tweets that seem nearly identical, but only the first one will be seen by everyone:

  1. Blah blah blah said @Dad <–this will be shown to everyone
  2. @Dad said Blah blah blah <–this will only be shown to @someone (and anyone that follows you both)

For a detailed table covering all the possibilities, see Meg Pickard’s great table of replies & DMs here. How it works:

1. The basics

It doesn’t matter what the relationship is between the people sending messages to one another. Anyone who follows both of the people chatting will see their messages. No one else besides the people chatting will see the messages.

Rule #1: A person must follow you before you can DM them. If @Mom and @Dad (fictional example names) want to write completely privately so no one will see what they write but each other, they have to DM each other.

Rule #2: Anytime you put an @someone anywhere in a tweet, it will be sent to that @someone, regardless of whether they follow you or not.

2. Creating tweets only your “family” can see

But what if @Mom and @Dad want to write tweets that @Sister and @Brother can both see, but no one else can see? Then they tweet like this:

@Dad Message goes here   -or- @Mom Message goes here

So, rule #3 is: When you start your message with @someone, the message will only be sent to @someone and the people that follow both you and @someone. Of course, anyone who follows both @Mom and @Dad will see these tweets, but for the purposes of our example let’s assume only @Brother and @Sister both follow @Mom and @Dad.

3. Sharing “family” tweets with everyone

So what happens when you put @someone after the beginning of your tweet? It is sent to all your followers, and to @someone. It’s just a regular tweet, delivered to all your followers. Why do that? It’s a way to share the conversation you’re having with @someone with ALL your followers. If you’re just saying something directly to them that you want everyone to see, it’s common to write

.@someone message goes here

If you’re just saying something about them you want them and all your followers to see, you’d tweet something like this:

So like I was saying to @someone the other day… -or- .@someone did something cool the other day…

Since anything you put before you write @someone will have the same effect, both of these messages are sent to all your followers and to @someone. It’s just common to use a period “.” if you’re talking to them directly, but you want everyone to see it.

4. How Tweets are viewed, and how to make it work the way you want

Twitter applications and the Twitter website provide several ways to see your tweets. One way, called @mentions has a problem you might want to work around. This is typically how most interfaces show you tweets “sent” to you. The problem is that @mentions are a list of every tweet that has your @username in it. If lots of people you don’t want to hear from start writing tweets with your @username in them, it can be overwhelming. This happens to popular/celebrity Twitter users, and also to people who get retweeted a lot. What to do? Simple: add a search for message sent just to you to your favorite interface. The Twitter search terms for messages that start out with @TweetSmarter, for example, is:


Since the web interface will save searches for you, I have this one saved: a search for messages sent just to me.Here’s how that works:

5. Viewing conversations

Twitter does notice when you click “reply” on any interface instead of just typing in a user’s twitter name. It then will show you both your “conversation” by making all tweets replied to available for viewing on some interfaces, by clicking “view conversation” below the tweet. Thanks to @WalterKort for reminding me of this feature :)

6. The exceptions

The exceptions are mainly just ways people can see everything you tweet, regardless of how you are using @’s. “Who sees a tweet?” usually means “When I tweet something, who does Twitter send it to?”

Exception #1: Your Twitter page

People can also see your tweets by going directly to your Twitter page. Everything you tweet is shown there to everyone (except your DMs). If you don’t want that, you have to make your tweets private. The only time anyone will visit your Twitter page in most cases is the first time they hear about you. Then they’ll just check out your page to see if you are the kind of person they want to follow.

Exception #2: Searching for tweets

People can search for tweets, and all your tweets (except your DMs) that match what is being searched for will show up. So your tweets are more public than you might realize, especially because of…

Exception #3: Applications can create exceptions

Some applications show your followers what you tweet by using Twitter’s search features. That means they’ll see everything you tweet (except your DMs). Most applications don’t work this way though.

Exception #4: Users that don’t exist

This was pointed out to me by @gnarlydawn, and testing confirms it: If you address a tweet to someone that doesn’t exist (perhaps through a typo), e.g. “@suspended …” everyone that follows you will see it. You might have expected that NO one would see it (since the user doesn’t exist), but when Twitter can’t make sense of the username, it shows the tweet to everyone that follows you.

Exception #5: Clicking vs. typing

Can the “reply” function override or change how a tweet works—change who sees it? This appears to no longer be the case. How it used to work:

When you clicked a “Reply” link in any interface, it writes the first part of the tweet for you, such as


…then you simply add what you want to say to @someone and everything works normally. But what happens if you don’t click anything and just type (or cut and paste in)


It looks exactly the same, doesn’t it? But Twitter could originally tell if you clicked a “Reply” link or not, and the rules only applied if you clicked the link. If you typed or cut and pasted the @someone in, your tweet was shown to everyone, same as if you used the .@someone trick. Alternatively, what if you clicked “Reply” but then deleted the username you were replying to? Read my comment here for more details on this.

7. What about protected accounts?

No one can see your tweets unless they follow you, period. It doesn’t matter if you follow them and include their username, or anything else. If they don’t follow you, they won’t see any of your tweets. And of course to follow you, they must request to follow, and you must approve. Protected accounts are hence very limited.