140 Characters or Less: Writing for Social Media

Nowadays, everyone tweets. But not everyone tweets well.

Knowing how to utilize the conventions and limited word count of Twitter (and Facebook) is crucial for staying relevant on social media. In a world that demands immediacy, the messages we put online must intrigue, inform and inspire our readers in no more time than it takes to scan a timeline or newsfeed. The 140-character word count leaves no room for verbosity but allows for our messages to be very meaningful if worded properly.

Before any tweet is typed, however, a goal must be set--a goal for growth of follower engagement, information delivery, or even real time updates on your order at Starbucks. Regardless of what that goal is, every account and its managers need to know why they tweet.

Setting a goal allows for posts to be intentional and cohesive; it gives your content purpose outside of filling someone’s timeline.

There are several accounts that translate their unique purposes into great Twitter campaigns (@CocaCola, @ENews, @99u) that build their brands and engage their followers. They, along with many other accounts, do Twitter well whereas accounts like @BurgerKing (in my opinion) don’t. Coke presents its message as well thought out and intentional; Burger King on the other hand is a few fries short of a happy tweet.

Once goals have been set, a voice must be clarified. Voice is the tone or temperament of your tweets. The voice through which you tweet determines word choice, the level of professionalism in your tweets, and how messages are structured.

  • Do you want to include acronyms and abbreviations?

  • Does syntax and structure need to follow exact grammatical conventions?

Your voice will answer those questions.

There are several Twitter accounts I think do a great job at conveying themselves and their voices. Check them out if you need inspiration or like to read good tweets!

(@rachaelray, @mindykaling)

There are several basic conventions to using Twitter effectively: Hashtags and Retweets. Hashtags are phrases following the # sign that serve to tag a tweet so it can be searched and catalogued. There are not many rules regarding hashtags however the few that exist are very important:

  • Only hashtag 3-4 words
  • No spaces
  • Use only 1, no more than 2 hashtags per tweet to preserve meaning
  • Don’t use hashtags on Facebook

Retweeting is a function that allows you to integrate content from other accounts into your timeline (similar to the “share” function on Facebook) and engage other accounts.

There are several ways to retweet. Twitter provides an automatic retweet option that replicates the account’s tweet in your timeline however it does not allow for much engagement with the account or its content. An alternative to that is manual retweeting. Manual retweeting involves adding comment to the tweet you wish to share. By including the tweet and the other account’s handle in quotation marks, you are able to add original content before or after the quotations in whatever format you wish.

Here are several retweet forms I think are great:

  • RT “@handle”
  • [comment] : “@handle”
  • “@handle” | [comment]

You can also edit someone’s tweet if quoting it exceeds your character count. Simply denote that once you tweet it, it’s a modified tweet (MT). It looks like this:

  • MT “@handle”

Here are a few sure fire tips to make your message count in #140orless :

  • Shorter is always better. If you have to, start with a very long post and tailor it to fit your character count. Get all of your words out and then edit. It’s OK to take your time if your end product is a stellar tweet or Facebook post.
  • Use active verbs. Helping verbs do not help here. By omitting them, you save 3-4 characters each time.  For example: “Ethan helps in the lab” as compared to “Ethan is helping in the lab”
  • Omit “I” or “we” as subject when appropriate (and if it aligns with your account’s voice). Tweeting “Had a great time at Ethan’s Step It Up” delivers the same message as “I [We] had a great time at Ethan’s Step It Up.”
  • Replace “and” with “&.” To save more space, delete the spaces on either side of the ampersand, connecting the words before and after to the symbol. If the ampersand touches number or lowercase letters, this is a great strategy as readability is not reduced. I do not suggest conjoining uppercase letters with “&” because the words can become jumbled; however this is a personal preference.

Lastly, the easiest way to make all 140 characters on Twitter or every word on Facebook impactful is to be authentic--authentic about your personal or professional posts; be authentic about your brand and the stories you’re telling.

Our followers were (and hopefully still are) interested in the story of our accounts. Acknowledging their desire for your content--whether as serious as research funding or as silly as pumpkin spice lattes--and staying true to that will give your account more credibility than any properly used hashtag.

Intertwining your followers into your social media story is crucial for staying relevant and building a brand that not only includes your goals and voice, but also your followers.