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Learn From Rogue Tweeters
7 Steps to Promoting Your Organization in Twitter

By Lisa Gualtieri / August 2009

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Many organizations are struggling with social media, trying to determine exactly how to use it in a formalized way. But while they strategize about how to push messages or disseminate information, they're being preempted by rogue individuals who, in the true spirit of social media, stake a claim and represent their organization with nothing more than permission.

NIOSH Twitter page screen shot

Who wouldn't want to reach the 44.5 million people who visited Twitter in June (according to comScore and as reported by TechCrunch)? The micro-blogging machine was the fourth most visited site after Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube for the week ending June 27, according to Hitwise.

The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, part of the CDC, is a prime example, using Twitter to promote safety messages. The organization is represented by two separate Twitter accounts: NIOSH safe & healthy and NIOSH Mining (OMSHR), the former with a whopping 562 tweets, or announcements, and 1,517 followers as of August 18, 2009.

Mark Senk, the "man behind the curtain," is an IT professional at NIOSH. He told his supervisor he wanted to try it and received permission. Mark's first tweets were in February 2009, not long after the Obama administration popularized the government's use of Twitter, and about the same time as the heavily-tweeted and retweeted (or message forwarding) peanut butter recall updates from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

A presence on Twitter seems to make sense for organizations like the FDA and NIOSH that are trying to disseminate information to the public at large.

Mark says he decides what to put on Twitter based on what's new on NIOSH's Web site and newsletters, what other government agencies are messaging about safety, and other things that pop up on a Google alert set for NIOSH. As he puts it, there is "always something interesting" and he tries to strike a balance in his topics, knowing that, for example, too much about mining safety will not appeal to firefighters. Multiple times each day is a good amount to tweet, he finds, something on the order of two to thirteen updates.

Three a.m. Saturday morning is not an uncommon time to see a new tweet from Mark. He puts in a couple of hours every day, starting first thing in the morning, picking up again at lunch, and then later at home.

Mark experiments with how to reach new groups by "laying bait," that is, tweeting a NIOSH link that's particularly relevant to another organization, to see if anyone retweets it. He did this recently with a conference in Italy on the impact of long work hours.

Some audiences require special consideration; for instance, in trying to get messages to firefighters he found that certain times of day were more successful given their shifts. Mark tries to develop reciprocal retweeting arrangements with organizations such as The International Fire Chiefs Association to promote safety campaigns and events.

NIOSH Twitter page screen shot

Mark plans to continue tweeting until someone tells him "that's not your job." While no one has questioned that he is promoting safety—NIOSH's goal—Mark is concerned that NIOSH will develop policies that will constrain him, for instance, an approval process, which could delay his messages for days. He believes the current informal process works because he is conscientious and diligent.

More formal processes have already been put in place by some, including the British government, which recently produced 20 pages of guidelines, demonstrating how seriously Twitter is being taken. And businesses routinely develop Web strategies to define processes, roles, and measurements. Is NIOSH's lack of Twitter strategy or guidelines indicative of its level of commitment to Twitter, or merely that it's lucky enough to be able to rely on an individual who essentially evolved his own successfully?

Whether the process is informal or formal, organizations are all trying to get the attention of 44.5 million people. You can, too.

1. Try Twitter to learn about it. Follow Mark's lead at NIOSH and try Twitter for yourself. Forrester Research CEO George Colony agrees: "You can't understand Twitter, Facebook, or blogging by reading an article in a magazine [even here]� you won't be able to truly understand how they could change your business unless you actually use them."

2. Become a bit of a rogue. Forget policies and guidelines and instead bring to your own Twitter use the initiative and conscientiousness that Mark brings to his.

3. Commit the time required to tweet regularly. David Armano blogged for Harvard Business Review that the "economics of using social media in business requires the participation of people to fuel it. It is not simply enabled by technology that maintains itself." Mark's production and sustained use is undoubtedly greater if his Twitter time is considered part of his job.

4. Tweet about information that is relevant and timely to attract and retain followers. Good tweets come from multiple sources and it takes diligence to locate them. Setting Google Alerts can help. Have a topic mix that appeals to your current and desired constituency; topical articles are much more likely to be retweeted than what you ate for lunch!

5. Pace your tweets. Tweet too often, and you'll lose followers. Tweet too infrequently and risk being overlooked. Mark's experience is that multiple times each day works. Also be sensitive to when your potential and existing followers are online.

6. Use other channels to get more followers. Promote your Twitter participation widely.

7. Consider how Twitter fits into your overall social media strategy. Exploit Twitter's unique capabilities; Mark could follow the lesson of many businesses that monitor customer reactions on Twitter to identify safety topics that NIOSH doesn't currently address. Finally, Twitter, like other social media, is constantly evolving, so adapt with it.


  • Thu, 17 Sep 2009
    Post by Tim Dalton

    We too have been looking at Facebook/etc and trying to work out how we can best make use of it. The most common objection we hear is always loosely this, about it being a distraction- whether from the educational activity you should be doing online or from what is happening in the class that you should be concentrating on. There are all sorts of debates raging about Internet filtering in UK education so I'm not going there, but it has occurred to us we could think about this in a different way.

    Rather than thinking about Facebook as being a distraction from time that should be spent learning, we've been looking at how we could get the school somehow present in the time the kids spend on there socially. So yes, having your friend list there while you should be studying might be more distracting than being logged into the school learning platform, but if our activities on Facebook were engaging enough that students would choose to visit in their free time then it has to be a good thing.

  • Sun, 30 Mar 2008
    Post by Paul Desmarais

    It is possible that in trying to exploit the popularity of the social networking activity enjoyed by teens (and, apparently over teens)to foster education you may destroy its cachet with the kids. I would also argue that while the ''distraction'' aspect of using Facebook in education is valid, privacy issues are at odds with incorporating Facebook into education. (By that I mean privacy of the students using Facebook and those who do who would rather their information was not exposed to education professionals in a school setting. For example, if you used Facebook in your class, a student would have to have a page, correct? Which would mean you were forcing them (minors) to expose personal data on the internet.) Finally, and most importantly, incorporating Facebook into an educational setting is erasing the lines between work and play. It may be that people don''t think those lines exist any more, but they do. Learning where those lines are and how to walk on the applicable side at the applicable time is part of the education process. Learning to keep work and play separate might be far more valuable in educating high schoolers than exploiting the popularity of their favorite web sites and activities for educational, and, of course profitable,purposes. (There will be advertising on the site, and the visitors internet travels will be recorded and cookies added, and maybe a spy ware program or two? That data will be mined and sold, right? For these and other reasons I think that the Biblical phrase "render unto Caesa those things that are Caesars and

  • Tue, 22 Jan 2008
    Post by DJ Boba Fett

    Please read my blog at to see my running trials and tribulations with this site. At this point, they up and cancelled me, with over 200 hours of work on my site, pages, events, profiles and advertisements. They are billing my card even though I no longer have an account. I called the Palo Alto offices at 650-543-4800 to dispute the bill (as it''s ads for a deleted site they''re billing me for) and had to call 3 times before a human picked up. I talked to a female Sam (supposedly the only Sam that works there, yeah right) and she said they do NOT offer voice billing support. i told her that by refusing to work with me, she is okaying my choice to dispute the charges with my credit card company. We''ll see. If you have ANY problems with the site or infrastructure, please call them, ask to talk to SAM, and tell them "DJ Boba Fett sent you."

  • Thu, 03 Jan 2008
    Post by Caryl Oliver

    I loved hearing what James had to say and agree totally with using the tools that students use anyway to support delivery of learning. My concern, though, is with our preparedness as educators to be able to move with the speed required to make sure we are actually on the same wave as the students... Once mainstream media, and therefore most teachers, start to discuss Facebook or whatever, how much longer is it likely to stay cool? I work every day with teachers at all levels trying to get them to think about their teaching in a digital world in general rather than about one platform or another. If they can prepare material that is inter-active, in small files (easy download on any device) and engaging individually or for groups then they certainly can make whatever social computing phenomenon work for them and their students. But if they have to re-work it for every new platform they will never embrace any of them. What do you think?

  • Fri, 21 Dec 2007
    Post by John Thompson

    If Facebook, et al. really want to impact society (i.e., increase users and user activity), then it will need to race Google, etc. to provide the 21st century equivalent of the shopping mall - i.e., find everything (including education) at the site. Sorta like a "life portal." Tracking/participating in a ton of individual, disconnected sites is OK in the beginning, but if the Facebook sites get it right, then their content (and easy appearance/navigation) will drive traffic to their sites.

  • Sun, 16 Dec 2007
    Post by Michael Staton

    As a developer of educational tools on facebook, I completely agree with James. Students must learn to interact with others using social web 2.0 means, as well as to cope with ubiquitous distraction while being productive.

  • Sat, 15 Dec 2007
    Post by gina stefanini

    I wonder what would happen if you engaged the learners in this conversation. What if they could be part of the equation; looking at the potential (distraction) problem and helping to solve the solution. When learners (especially teens) become actively involved in the why-how-why of their learning then they are engaged and invested in learning. What if our students became so engaged in the learning and learning process (just like they are when they are on facebook for hours every night) that nothing could distract them from it? I don''t think you should lose the intensity of engagement that facebook provides but use it to engage them with learning. Just a few thoughts from an educator and a parent of teens, gina PS. You may be interested in Universal Design for Learning at Cast, org and Making Learning Visible at the Harvard University/Project Zero website. These are organizations that look at the affective side of learning, exactly what you are hitting with Facebook.

  • Fri, 14 Dec 2007
    Post by Mary Gutwein

    There is a professional website called LinkedIn where professionals like myself keep up with only professional contacts. Why couldn''t there be a specific, facebook-like site for students? The site could be limited, somehow, to educational endeavors. Just a thought.

  • Fri, 14 Dec 2007
    Post by Mark Notess

    I''ve also been thinking a lot about learning in Facebook. Certainly Facebook could be distracting. But so is sitting in a classroom full of other people. That said, my concern about Facebook as an academic platform is whether the activities for which people come to Facebook are perhaps in a different activity clump than the activities associated with academic learning--and students may well prefer keeping those clumps separate, or at least they may want to carefully manage the connection between the two. For instance, they may want to pull some of their profile information from Facebook into their CMS, but they may not want to advertise what they spent last night doing instead of writing their paper. What I am suggesting is that to call something a "distraction" may merely mean we''re trying to mix activity clumps in undesirable ways.