The Very Best Branded Twitter Accounts. Part I: Tactics.

Icon provided by The Noun Project.

What does a good, branded Twitter account actually look like? What do good accounts do that mediocre ones do not? Until recently, I didn’t have answers to these questions.

First, a bit of background: I’ve always had a hard time with social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — these are “Skinner boxes,” designed to gobble up as much free time as possible. And I’m a compulsive person. I’m easily addicted to the sugary-nothings, the flashy rewards, that these platforms offer whenever I login.

I’m also terrible at it: my tweets are frequently incomprehensible (I delete a lot of them), my Facebook posts are political (UGH!), and my Instagram photos are largely unprocessed. Nevertheless, earlier this year, I started a software company whose target customer is social media professionals and publishers — people who are, presumably, good at social media. I know that I can help these people because I’ve studied what a good account actually looks like.

In this post, part of a three part series we’re writing in anticipation of the launch of Extra, I’ll be summarizing the tactics employed by the very best brands on Twitter. I’ll be detailing each tactic, providing examples, and I’ll be outlining some of the most common reasons people fail to implement them effectively. This list is exhaustive and the result of months of research and interviews with founders who are getting it right. It is virtually everything that we know about how to succeed, as a brand, on Twitter. Buckle up.

7 Tactics

Express Gratitude 🙏

Just as mindfulness has been linked to improvements in overall mental well being, so too has regularly expressing gratitude. The world’s leading organizations have built expressing appreciation into their corporate processes. As Christine Riordin writes in the Harvard Business Review, “when employees feel valued, they have high job satisfaction, are willing to work longer hours, engage in productive relationships with co-workers and supervisors, are motivated to do their best, and work towards achieving the company’s goals.” The same holds true for audiences.

Brands which deliberately express gratitude trigger in their audiences deep feelings of optimism and mental wellbeing. These feelings are important, as research suggests there may be a link between power-use of social networks and the development of mental illness.

You should express gratitude for other brands, for thought leaders, or, better yet, for the unsung heroes in your industry or space. You’ll also want to celebrate your customers, and to celebrate your staff — just make sure that when you do, you do so in a way that is legitimately interesting (that Jeff in accounting is the foosball champion probably isn’t that interesting to your audience). And don’t limit yourself to just expressing gratitude for that which is in your self interest (customers, staff, offices). By reaching outside of your company, and by celebrating the work of others, you’ll begin to build community. Focus on that.

Slack regularly expresses gratitude and does so in a way that’s sincere and convincing.

Now, it is possible to express too much gratitude. While this is largely contingent on the tastes of your audience, you must not come off as too air-headed or wide-eyed. That is, while gratitude is a wonderful thing, when overused, it can be quite grating. Do a quick gut check to make sure that you really do appreciate the things that you’re expressing gratitude for. And make that sure that it’s actually relevant to your audience. If it isn’t, you risk appearing like you’re manufacturing gratitude (“so grateful for the sunshine wow”) which will inspire cynicism.

Sonic’s twitter account, seen here expressing gratitude, is an example of an account doing almost everything right. Constant jokes, original content, expressions of optimism and gratitude.

Do

  • Regularly express gratitude for your customers and your staff.
  • Regularly express gratitude for relevant brands, leaders or unsung heros in your industry.

Do not

  • Express gratitude for things which smell a little too strongly of self promotion.
  • Express gratitude for irrelevant things, or things which aren’t interesting or entertaining in their own right.
  • Express gratitude for things which you aren’t actually grateful for, or which are too vague.

💎 Want to share these take aways with someone on your team? Download a free PDF cheat sheet here.


Amplify with Sincerity 📣

If you’re an established brand, you’re in a privileged position. That is, every day millions of people fight for attention and for mindshare on the internet. Given your company’s budget and pre-existing success, you likely don’t have to fight very hard for it. That’s great — your position of power can be used to grow and engage your audience.

The best brands endeavour to amplify the voices of smaller creators with the result that these smaller accounts, and most importantly, their audiences, grow to appreciate that somebody big is actually paying attention. Similar to expressing gratitude, amplification involves boosting the signal of somebody who is doing a good job — it’s an effective method for building a community around your organization. Regularly amplifying the voices of those in your network reinforces the bonds of that network, allowing you to count on these individuals to help you when the time comes. This works at every level of scale as there is always somebody smaller and quieter than yourself, or somebody who desperately wants another person to retweet or like their content.

Slack boosting the signal of Bench by reinforcing the point in the article. One ought to take this a step further by saying something more meaningful about the article, but a statement of sincerity can often suffice.

Amplification is important, but it can be pretty ineffective when done incorrectly. You do not want to be amplifying things without engaging with them first. While it may seem silly to point this out, mindlessly retweeting or reposting content without first exploring whether it’s genuinely exceptional can lead to a pollution of your audience’s airwaves. Instead, after you’ve spent some time really appreciating something, you should write something short and interesting about it (or perhaps express gratitude for it 😉) before reposting. Once you’ve reposted, make sure to congratulate and thank the individual whose voice you’re boosting. They’ll appreciate it, and a bond will be formed.

Do

  • Amplify the voices of other individuals and organizations.
  • Attach something interesting, insightful, pithy, appreciative or entertaining to whatever you’re amplifying.
  • Reach out to the individuals or organizations that you’ve amplified in order to congratulate and thank them.

Do not

  • Amplify without first reading, understanding, and genuinely appreciating something.
  • Amplify without comment. Don’t be an RSS feed.

💎 Want to share these take aways with someone on your team? Download a free PDF cheat sheet here.


Be Insanely Useful

The central challenge, and aim, of content marketing is to provide something useful, or insanely useful, to your audience (this post is an example of it). On Twitter, this same principle holds true, but on a much smaller scale. Every day, your audience is having discussions, making statements and asking questions, and this should be seen as an opportunity to provide value.

ProductHunt has setup a separate Twitter account just for making product recommendations.

Because your participation in most discussions is likely to be viewed with suspicion, you’ll need to provide insight that goes above and beyond what anybody is expecting. You do not want to just “shoot the shit” with those who are having a discussion. Rather, when you see an individual asking a question, or you see two individuals engaging in a discussion, engage in the spirit of supplementing and elevating that discussion. Link to resources that are best in class, bring out facts and figures — be “insanely useful” and they’ll love you for it.

There are a few ways to screw this up. You do not want to engage with statements that might seem too controversial, or which appear to show the passions of the individuals making them, unless, the statements being made aren’t being taken too seriously by the individuals themselves (in other words, they’re “sounding off”). Stick to conversations, questions, and statements which you can provide useful supplementary information on, making sure that the information is supplemental — and again, “insanely useful” — rather than pushing a particular point.

Also, you don’t want to engage flippantly or in a way which is clearly self promotional. By flippant, I mean that it’s important that you take the discussions of others seriously and not try to insert yourself without providing value. Again, if you’re transparently self serving with this — say your “insanely useful” supplement is a link to one of your blog posts — you might be doing more harm than good. If it looks like you’re trying to engage for the sake of engaging, or for the sake of converting, you’re doing it wrong. Focus on providing value.

Do

  • Contribute to discussions that your audience is having by providing something insanely useful from a high-quality source.

Do not

  • Insert yourself in a way that does not respect the terms and tone of the discussion.
  • Engage with impassioned statements of opinion unless you really know what you’re doing.
  • Enter into discussions for the sake of promoting your own content, rather than providing value.

💎 Want to share these take aways with someone on your team? Download a free PDF cheat sheet here.


Show Your Values, Be Respectful

Good brands stay out of the way of social or political topics because they understand that their motivations are under a higher-degree of scrutiny and that any posturing may come off as tone deaf. However, good brands also live their values and their audiences celebrate them for it. Good brands that engage in charity, in providing a hand to those that are less fortunate or who are under attack, who engage in the issues that their audiences’ care about, and those who do so subtly, are celebrated by their audiences.

For example, you may choose to support Planed Parenthood, to donate money to them, or to have a discussion with them on Twitter, but, as a brand, you should avoid saying anything about your views on reproductive rights, or engaging with any discussions on the topic (unless of course you’re a political organization). The same goes for engaging with political moments like President Donald Trump’s travel ban: go ahead and donate to the ACLU, amplify the voices of those who are doing so, but don’t wax on about Trump. The trick is to act on your values without saying exactly what they are — to show rather than to tell. Speaking with your actions is a good way for brands to be political without being obnoxious.

Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe, joined dozens of other CEOs in matching donations to the ACLU during Trump’s travel ban. Good thinking, Patrick!

Audiences want to see that their brands share their values, but it’s important that you actually have them and not treat them as a branding exercise. “Astro turf” values, manufactured consequence-less values, values created to appeal to millennials (as was on display with Pepsi’s latest campaign), will do you more harm than good (assuming here that Pepsi didn’t know exactly what it was doing). If your organization has shitty values, you may want to drop this tactic and find another job.

Been putting off donating to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU? You can do that here, and here.

Do

  • Act in a manner which is consistent with your company’s values.
  • Donate money to charity, boost the voices of charities and good causes.
  • Speak with actions (like donations and signal boosting)

Do not

  • Weigh in on cultural, social or political fire storms, scandals, or debates.
  • Hide your values, or try to manufacture astro-turf values in order to appeal to a particular demographic.

💎 Want to share these take aways with someone on your team? Download a free PDF cheat sheet here.


Make People Laugh 😂

Show that you have a sense of humour, and be consistent with it in your messaging. Make your own jokes — good and bad. Engage in absurdity and in gags and participate in the creation and modification of memes. While this may seem hard to do at first, once you’ve done it regularly, it’ll transform social media management into something you love to do. (In putting this article together, I met with a founder who has managed to do this, and who, despite having staff who manage his brand’s social media for him, and having 40K followers, still enjoys it so much that he still has notifications turned on on his phone!)

Here Wendy’s is providing a new profile picture to a follower. Wendy’s, whose Twitter bio reads “We like our tweets the same way we like to make hamburgers: better than anyone expects from a fast food joint,” has a social media team at the top of their game. They frequently troll McDonalds, and regularly make jokes that their followers love.

Humour can be destroyed by over-thinking, by hedging-your-bets, and by being overly sensitive to the optics of what you’re posting. Having a sense of humour requires, in other words, some element of risk, and some license for absurdity. It isn’t always going to be appreciated by everyone. But it will allow you to develop a more humane brand that audience members will actually develop an opinion on. Some will get it, others will not but those who do will become your biggest fans.

Like many of the other tactics listed above, humour can be “faxed in.” Many brands will post memes or funny videos with empty comments like “Happy Friday!” assuming that this is enough to lighten the spirits of their audience. For some, it may, for others, merely posting something funny is not enough to show that one has a sense of humour. Just as we’ve explored above, you must actually add to the joke, or participate in it, or else your attempts may come off as those made by a brand trying to tag along.

The Yetee has been tweeting at Papa Johns for weeks. No response yet from “the Papa.”

Do

  • Make jokes, troll, engage in absurdity.
  • Participate in the creation of memes.
  • Express personality even if that personality might not be totally understood by others.

Do not

  • Create jokes by committee.
  • Feel pressure to make sure that everybody understands everything.
  • Passively post memes or funny videos without adding to them, or furthering the joke.

💎 Want to share these take aways with someone on your team? Download a free PDF cheat sheet here.


Create Medium-Specific Content

Instead of linking to a page that no one will visit, Slack itemizes its change logs with tweet essays and GIFs.

This is a short and easy one: most content posted to Twitter has been recycled from elsewhere. However, the best brands create unique content for each and every platform. Create unique illustrations, photographs, videos and infographics and set aside a budget for this. Write an insanely useful Twitter essay on a particular topic every now and then. And look at Twitter as a medium for content creation rather than distribution.

Do

  • Create unique media for Twitter.
  • Create Tweet essays of insanely useful content.
  • Put aside a small working budget for illustration, photography, video etc.

Do not

  • Just recycle content from elsewhere.
  • Look at Twitter as a distribution hub rather than a unique medium for content.

💎 Want to share these take aways with someone on your team? Download a free PDF cheat sheet here.


Be Transparent 👻

I’ve left transparency until the end, because it is by and large the most common tactic employed by software companies and startups. Transparency content typically takes the form of videos with founders, posts about decisions that a company has made and why, snapshots into planning for the future, detailed descriptions of the business or the psychological challenges faced when starting a company, reflective pieces on successes, postmortems on past failures etc.

Transparency content generates trust and vested interest by exposing the juicy, typically suppressed, details of running a business. Companies like Buffer, who operate with almost complete transparency (they’ve released a salary calculator, a list of salaries at their company, and have provided open access to their roadmap), or Need/Want, who have provided complete revenue numbers for some of their products and who run a podcast in which the founders talk about virtually everything, have gone to exceptional lengths to bring their audiences into their businesses. The best brands use Twitter to provide this level of transparency on day-to-day basis.

Jonnie Hallman tweets snapshots of his app, Cushion, as he builds it. Watching Cushion come together has been incredibly rewarding.

Like humour, or many of the other tactics listed above, transparency requires some courage. Sharing a photograph of beer Friday at the office is not going to cut it. If you’re too paranoid about what your competitors might think, aren’t willing to open yourself up to criticism, or you’re overly concerned about the vanity of it, you’re unlikely to succeed. More than any of the other tactics listed above, transparency involves risk, which is why it’s so appealing to your audience.

At Extra, we’re recording all of our product discussions in anticipation of making them available on Twitter.

Do

  • Provide meaningful insight into decision making, planning and the challenges that you’re facing.
  • Show slightly more than you’re comfortable with.

Do not

  • Assume nobody cares, or give in to paranoia about your competitors.
  • Confuse taking photographs of beer Fridays with real transparency.

💎 Want to share these take aways with someone on your team? Download a free PDF cheat sheet here.


The best brands express gratitude, amplify the voices of others, show their values, make people laugh, create medium-specific content and are totally transparent while they do it. They’re sincere, and they’re authentic. In order to be like them, you’ll need to be humble, to be open to enjoying the process, and you’ll need to resist trying to cut corners. As Ryan Hoover of Product Hunt, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on community and product building, rightly points out, in order to succeed, you must build an audience first. Building an audience takes creativity, commitment and love. You must invest in those who are investing in you.

While this is may be end of my list, we still need to explore the higher-level principles which govern these tactics. When we talk about authenticity, what the hell are we talking about? Is it possible to create authenticity within your organization or is that antithetical? I’ll be exploring these questions in more detail in Part 2: Principles and in Part 3: Design, we’ll outline best practices for actually designing your Twitter account.

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