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Working in the non-profit world means I deal with a small budget for new media promotion, but I’m still expected to get the Mercatus Center’s research out to as many people as possible.  Twitter has been a great promotions tool because it allows you to find people interested in the topics you write about as well as folks interested in people or groups similar to you.  In other words, Twitter makes it easy to find your audience and to do it quickly.

But to get thousands of quality followers who are really interested in what you’re saying, you’re best off staying away from the dozens of “gurus” out there.  Instead, you can use the simple and nearly free solutions available that can save you time and expose your tweets to a larger and larger audience.

Twitter is a very new phenomenon, so there doesn’t seem to be a single service out there that does everything I need to grow my Twitter accounts—perhaps I will build my own tool eventually.  In the meantime, I use this group of tools to automate my tweets, track the traffic I get from Twitter, and grow my follower numbers:

HootSuite (Free)

This service allows you to schedule tweets, which is crucial as you’re never going to be able to create a routine that allows you to tweet throughout the day.  Instead, figure out what you want to promote, then site down once a day to schedule your tweets so they’ll trickle out throughout the day.  This spacing out of tweets throughout the day is crucial as most Twitter users check their feeds frequently—maybe a handful of time a day.  So, scheduling your Tweets allows  you to always be among the few dozen more recent tweets in most users feeds.

Chris Moody of the Cato Institute insists that loading up the afternoon with tweets is the best strategy as this is when most people are active on Twitter.  This is good advice, but perhaps an even more important take-away from Chris’s experience is that monitoring your tweets is important, which brings us to the next reason to use Hootsuite.

Hoot Suite also offers URL shortening.  This URL shortening—HootSuite uses its ow.ly domain (get it?) as its shortening service—also allows Hootsuite to track all the folks clicking on the links you tweet out into the Twitter community.  This is also critical as website traffic tools like Google Analytics will see any incoming traffic from a cell phone or desktop Twitter client as direct traffic, not traffic from Twitter.com.  This means you could be grossly under estimating how frequently your tweets are converted into traffic for your website because programs TweetDeck or Seesmic Desktop along with applications running on the BlackBerry or iPhone don’t register on your tracking software.  I found the Mercatus Center had more than 5 times the conversion rate previously estimated after switching to HootSuite.

Finally, Hootsuite will also allow you to enter in an RSS feed, so new blog posts and other new publications are posted automatically along with a shortened URL link to the post, saving you more time.

I should note, however, that while RSS-to-Twitter tools are a time saver, they may not be the best strategy.  Making your tweets conversational and making sure they highlight the most relevant items of the day is the bare minimum for sustaining an audience—this isn’t likely to happen by dumping your RSS feeds into your account.  Instead, consider offering accounts that are solely RSS-to-Twitter powered for those who use Twitter as a substitute for RSS readers, but be sure to maintain a hand-crafted account for users who have a general interest in your organization.

TwitterMass ($24-$99 per month)

Once you’ve got a regular stream of quality tweets flowing, you need to let people know you’re talking about things they care about.  Thankfully, Twitter allows you to do this on-mass by following people.  This is powerful because when you follow someone, Twitter sends them a message, usually in the form of an email, letting them know that you’re following them.  This results in many of the folks checking out your profile and past tweets, and sometimes following you back.

TwitterMass is a tool that uses the Twitter API to follow folks in swaths of up to 50 people at a time.  TwitterMass does this in three ways:

  1. Follow people who are tweeting about a specific word or phrase like “Regulation” or “Federal Reserve”
  2. Follow people who are tweeting about a specific word or phrase, but only if they’re in your local area (this works only for folks geo-tagging their tweets).
  3. Follow people who are following another Twitter user.

The last item on this list may not be as intuitive as the first two, but it makes perfect sense.  If you’re trying to build an audience for a certain issue, following the folks who are already interested in another individual or group talking about that issue is the perfect place to start building your audience.  Someone out there has already built the audience you’re looking to reach, so why bother reassembling that crowd?

TwitterMass also lets you quickly drop folks you’ve followed, but who haven’t followed you back.  This is especially important as Twitter does limit the number of folks you follow based on the number of folks following you.  So, dropping those people who didn’t return the favor is the only way to keep growing your account.

Social Oomph (Free)

A few months ago, this was my tool of choice for scheduling tweets, but since HootSuite has integrated that feature and tracks the traffic resulting from those tweets, I’ve found that Social Oomph has lost a lot of its utility.  However, it still has a couple of feature worth looking into.

First, you can set this service to auto-follow anyone who follows you.  This is just plain polite in the world of Twitter and allows you to watch what everyone who’s following you is talking about.

Additionally, you can use Social Oomph to automatically send folks who follow you a Direct Message (visible only to them) that thanks them for the follow and maybe even refers them to a web page you’re trying to promote.  Right now, the Mercatus Center is asking its new followers to also check out our Facebook page, for example.

Final Words

So, don’t trust the gurus when they say you need their expertise to be effective on Twitter.  You just need the right tools, a little setup time, and a consistent program of tweeting and following new people.