Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Using Twitter as a Professional Development Tool

Written by Sarah Fischler, Director of Consulting and Special Projects
Follow Sarah on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SarahFischler

During a recent meeting with one of my consulting clients, we started discussing how the organization could use social media to advance its mission. I brought up Twitter and the executive director’s response was, “I don’t care if someone ate Cheerios for breakfast.” Her response demonstrates a common misperception about Twitter. Yes, there is a tremendous amount of useless noise on the internet and a lot of it is developed through Twitter, through which the ten billionth Tweet flowed this week. If you are not familiar with Twitter, check out this introduction before reading the rest of this article.

Over the last year, I have been doing a lot of training on how nonprofits can use social media to leverage resources and advance their mission. Until recently, I gave Twitter a cursory review, showed a few examples, and moved onto other tools that I have personally find to be more useful. While some nonprofits have found success in connecting to their constituencies through Twitter, my perception had been in line with my clients’ opinion that Twitter communicates nothing but noise.

In December, I decided to give Twitter a try. In a few short months, I have become a convert but for different reasons than I anticipated. For me, the biggest surprise in using Twitter has been that it is a tremendous professional development tool. For free, I have access to a personalized nonprofit news service, through which a self-designed list of contributors feed information to me through their Twitter streams. How else could I have instant access to the latest thinking from the thought leaders in my field, get a current pulse on trends in the nonprofit sector, and follow the things that interest me – all in the same place and for free? Only through Twitter.

Even though I subscribe to traditional publications in my field like the Chronicle of Philanthropy, follow a lot of nonprofit blogs, and subscribe to many listservs, I have found that the most relevant and interesting information comes through Twitter. My perception that Twitter is full of noise has also been completely debunked through my personal experience. Because I am very selective in choosing to follow people, I would estimate that 90 percent of the Tweets that come through my Twitter stream are highly relevant and interesting. The other 10 percent, even if it a casual mention of someone’s other hobbies or interests, still add depth and personality to postings.

For me, the biggest advantage to using Twitter has been coming across tools, articles, and resources on a daily basis that can help me do my job better. Additionally, I am exposed to interesting ideas on a daily basis and see links to articles that I would not otherwise see. In this time of non-existent professional development budgets, Twitter has helped me stay in tune with ideas from the leading edge of my field. Twitter is also an excellent research tool, as I can stay up-to-date on what similar organizations are doing to advance their mission, raise money, or communicate to their constituencies.

The only drawback that I have experienced is that of information overload. I could spend all day following up on ideas I see mentioned on Twitter or reading the interesting articles that come across my Twitter stream. For me, setting the boundary of spending no more than 15 to 20 minutes a day reading things that come through Twitter has been working. I also use a service called TweetDeck that helps me mark items as favorites so I can follow-up later.

If you are interested in exploring how you can use Twitter as a professional development tool, here are some tips on getting started:

  • Sign up for Twitter. Choose a professional username if you plan to actively use Twitter to communicate your own ideas (remember, what you post on the web can haunt you forever). Or, you can choose to be completely anonymous if you want to maintain your privacy.
  • Decide on why you are using Twitter. If you just want to follow people to see what they are saying, all you need to do is set up an account and find people to follow. The easiest way to find people to follow is to find a person you want to follow and then look through the list of people they are following.
  • If you plan to actively use Twitter to promote you or your organization, you will need to be more thoughtful about getting started. For me, I decided to start two separate accounts, one to follow people in the nonprofit sector and one to follow people engaged in my main hobby, landscape photography. If you want people to follow you, a longer-term goal for me, you will need to make yourself relevant. I will not be relevant if I post things about nonprofit governance models to people who are interested in my photography, just as most of you reading this could care less about my new 10-stop ND filter, which I tweeted about through my other account. To learn more about using Twitter to advance your career or your organization, check out our reading list below.
  • If you are actively tweeting, be thoughtful about what you write and share. David DuChemin, writing about Twitter for photographers, says, “Be yourself. But be a carefully edited version of yourself.” I think this is very good advice.
  • Finally, consider using a tool like TweetDeck to manage Twitter. I find the Twitter interface to be clumsy and difficult to use. Through TweetDeck, I am able to manage both of my Twitter accounts, along with my Facebook and Linked-In account, all in one place. TweetDeck is a free service and can be used on any computer (I use it on my iPhone, too). Since I am using Twitter for professional development, I often come across things that I know I will want to access in the future. TweetDeck has a very friendly “favorites” interface that allows you to tag things for future reference.
If you have been using Twitter for professional development, please let us know how it is working for you and who you are following. Or, if you would like to learn more, check out the reading list below or contact Sarah with basic questions. If you are in northeast Colorado, sign up for Sarah’s class on using online communications for nonprofit organizations.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to follow you, from Heidi for the Human Services Network, @HSNetwork

    Here is a post I did on lots of other Twitter tools, http://judiciousweb.wordpress.com/2009/01/14/twitter-tools-ii/, but the newer Lists feature on Twitter makes categorization much easier.