How understanding Twitter etiquette can lead to big opportunities online

First I point out some things you may already know…but then I share a secret that very few people seem to know…

A chain of Canadian newspapers interviewed me and Scott Stratten (@UnMarketing) last month. The topic was “Rules and etiquette of social media.” In “10 Guidelines to do doing well on Twitter” (excerpted from that interview), three key rules stand out as proactive etiquette guidelines. They are:

  1. Seek others that you can help, and help them.
  2. Work at striking a positive tone in all your communications.
  3. Be biased toward setting a good example, instead of telling people who are still learning what you think they should do differently.

Keep these three guidelines in mind; they are your tools. If you haven’t taken these three tips to heart yet, consider rethinking what you’re doing, as the death stick seller does when he meets Obi-Wan Kenobe in this Star Wars excerpt (which always makes me laugh):

How your biggest opportunities hide from you:

In “Why Defending Your Reputation Is a Waste of Time,” Justin Kownacki outlines a typical mindset: when people criticize you, you have two choices—defend yourself or don’t. But there is an incredibly valuable, third perspective:

Your critics are the most engaged members of your community.

Even when a complaint is valueless in and of itself, the person isn’t. Make a connection. Network instead of argue. It doesn’t have to be about:

  • Who’s right, who’s wrong.
  • Defending your reputation (yet).
  • Exposing or avoiding someone acting like a jerk (probably the most popular responses).

To strengthen and build your community when engaging with a critic, look for ways to defuse tensions somewhat so you can introduce networking techniques into your engagement with them so you can make a connection with them.

Step 1: Change the playing field

You need to start by defusing emotion, and orienting yourself towards learning. Begin by doing everything you can to find some harmony with a critic:


  • Let emotions run wild because you are “right.” Put the opportunity to connect first.
  • Pretend disagreement doesn’t exist. Just start with listening, learning and understanding.
  • Talk or explain first. Listen first.


  • Seek first to understand (habit 5 from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).  Be interested. Clarify actual issues by listening and questioning WITHOUT sharing your perspective yet.
  • Learn about the person. Read about them online, or ask basic networking questions (interests/background/current goals). Point out one or more interests that you share.
  • Find areas of agreement or shared interest. Find what you can appreciate about how they interact (be it caring passionately, reasoned discourse, deeply thought out points, etc.); what their points are; remember to point out shared interests (“we both love Twitter” etc.)

Step 2: Keep your attention on what you can gain

You have their full attention—don’t waste it! Turn the engagement into an opportunity, and make the most of it.

  1. Your behavior is a public workshop that your community is attending and will review later. Be an inspiring mentor; be a leader—which means going beyond the obvious. Leaders use their behavior to reach outcomes that are often invisible to others. Take the opportunity to connect and learn.
  2. Critics will be promoting you to their community later. Often people will have a lot to say to their communities after disagreements. What they will say often has more to do with how you listened and communicated versus what you actually said. It’s how humans are built—emotions, visuals, connections realized all play a part in how someone will perceive and present you later.
  3. Very often, areas of disagreement are found to be small, and areas of agreement large. Your critic then becomes a new strong, positive connection for you, connects their community to yours, and becomes a positive force in your community.
  4. Of course, sometimes you actually learn something you didn’t expect when you probe for details and listen. Pay attention! Give credit to them for anything you learn.
  5. You will make valuable new connections. By learning as much as you can about people you engage with, you will learn about their strengths, their connections, their communities.
  6. Sometimes your worst enemy can become your biggest supporter. People pay attention when engagement is strong, whether it is positive or negative.

Step 3: Keep networking

Make sure you’ve done you’re homework, and stay engaged.

  1. Did you learn everything you could about them? For example, if you forgot to read the bio on their personal blog, do it now. Pay attention to who they communicate with, read what they write. Twitter is of course excellent for this. You can often see conversations they are having with others at the same time they are engaging with you.
  2. Follow up! At this point you may or may not have made a new friend. Either way, stay in touch, at least at first. Brainstorm reasons to follow up and reconnect with them.
  3. Encourage them to write about what they had to say. Read what they write or have written. Comment thoughtfully.
  4. Engage with others in their community where appropriate. This is how we all get to know each other, how communities are built.

A few tips

I’ve bolded a few pieces in this further excerpt from the interview to provide some additional guidance:

Q: Why do rules of etiquette constantly require reiteration? Is a person’s lack of etiquette often amplified online?

The emotions that we naturally pick up on when meeting in person can be missing in short written statements, sometimes making us looks harsh and distant. So it’s helpful to add a little positivity to what we say online to restore that natural emotional balance from in-person interaction. There are always people at various stages of learning. Those of us trying to help others love and care that people have the best Twitter and social media experience.

It’s worthwhile for those of us more comfortable with online communication to help out those that aren’t. It’s often simplest to set a good example for folks, and let those ready to make the necessary adjustments do so in a positive atmosphere.

Q: I find the net is like a community “policed” by its people — sort of a mega-Neighbourhood Watch that sniffs out these rule-breakers. So, what are the consequences of breaking the rules of social media etiquette?

You can make amazing connections and get life-changing help online—it happens all the time. Find and be positive member of an online community where you can fit in. If you don’t make the effort, you’re going to miss out!

Have any good examples?

One that comes to mind for me happened recently. On a very difficult day for me, carelessness on my part turned Aaron Biebert—at that time a future friend only—into a vocal critic of @TweetSmarter. After many tweets, I blogged about the interaction here, Aaron then blogged it here, and we have made plans to connect further in person. It’s a good real-world example, because I made a lot of mistakes in the first few minutes, which I detail in the blog post.

What are YOUR stories? I’d love to hear your comments below:



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