Twitter Guidelines from UK Government

According to this article in the Guardian, there’s a 5,000-word publication with the UK government’s guide to using Twitter. It’s available on scribd.com even, according to this Digital Engagement blog entry.

I think there are good lessons to be learned here that are relevant to any technical communicator’s use of Twitter to communicate with customers, users, or the audience we write manuals to.

At the STC Summit in May 2009, I attended Phylise Banner’s session about social media tools used in education, Learn what the Academics Already Know. Naturally, Twitter came up, and a writer who works for the CDC here in the U.S. pulled up their Twitter page. They had 9,000 followers. Yes, 9,000. My jaw dropped. Now, just two months later, they’ve passed the 10,000 follower number on the CDC_eHealth Twitter account. If sheer numbers are an indicator, these microblog posts and status updates are here to stay, and part of many communication department’s overall strategy for talking with real people.

The guidelines are summarized in the Guardian article, which I’ll excerpt here since they’re so well written.

Human: He warns that Twitter users can be hostile to the “over-use of automation” – such as RSS feeds – and to the regurgitation of press release headlines: “While corporate in message, the tone of our Twitter channel must therefore be informal spoken English, human-edited and for the most part written/paraphrased for the channel.”

Frequent: a minimum of two and maximum of 10 tweets per working day, with a minimum gap of 30 minutes between tweets to avoid flooding followers’ Twitter streams. (Not counting @replies or live coverage of a crisis/event.) Downing Street spends 20 minutes on its Twitter stream with two-three tweets a day plus a few replies, five-six tweets a day in total.

Timely: in keeping with the “zeitgeist” feel of Twitter, official tweets should be about issues of relevance today or events coming soon.

Credible: while tweets may occasionally be “fun”, their relationship to departmental objectives must be defensible.

I found all four of these guidelines matched my own experience with Twitter in the two years I’ve been using it personally. But as I look for ways to use it for my employer to connect to customers about the iMIS product and our documentation offerings, I have to pause a bit especially on the first one: Human and not over-using RSS feeds to automate tweets. I think that constant automation of tweets without an overall conversation and reaction strategy is a poor idea, but I do think that tips, release notes features like Confluence technical writer Sarah Maddox (Twitter as a medium for release notes) and others are experimenting with, have a place. I guess the key to execution here is to write microposts that sound like a real person talking about the feature and pointing to the release notes naturally. If you do decide to automate somewhat, be on the ready for replies, and ensure the timing is right and the frequency of tweets doesn’t exceed what your followers would expect.

The frequency of tweets matches the guidelines set by The Twitter Book (which I loved), at around two to four a day. In the case of people who would follow a technical writer or a software company’s account to find out tips for using the software, I would think a few tweets a week may be sufficient. I think that frequency and the timing of the Twitter posts go hand in hand. I’m contemplating Tweeting about a software release that went out a few months ago, though, so I should probably think again about that idea.

And finally, credibility is crucial for success when technical writers consider Tweeting. If the perception is that you’re tweeting in short bursts rather that delivering a technical manual or training video, well, then you’ve lost some credibility. Be sure that your goals with Twitter are in line with your goals as a technical communicator.

What do you think? Are these government guidelines transferrable to the technical communication world? Or are constituents different enough from software users that we’d better find somewhere else from which to draw guidelines?

3 Comments

  • July 29, 2009 - 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Hallo Anne

    I really enjoyed this post. Lots to think about.

    The 4 guidelines you quoted are excellent and very applicable to a tech writer’s use of Twitter. Perhaps there’s no need for a minimum of 2 tweets per day, though. I do think it would be great to have some specific guidelines for the tech writing/comms industry.

    Thank you so much for linking to my blog, and it’s cool to see how the number of tweets we decided upon matches the guidelines :)

    We are about to start the last tweet series in our trial. They’ll be for Crowd 2.0 release notes, due imminently ;) Then we will assess and decide how to continue with the experiment of using Twitter for release notes.

    Thanks for a great post as always!

  • July 29, 2009 - 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Me again! Just to clarify the bit about the minimum number of tweets per day: If you have something to say, then say it at least twice in one day with a gap of some hours between tweets. Don’t say exactly the same thing, but link to the same source for more information e.g. release notes. Reason: People don’t tend to read all tweets, just the last few in their stream. So a number of people will miss your first tweet. This is especially so for people like us Ozzies, who tend to be awake while the rest of the world is asleep ;)

    But in the quiet times, I don’t think there’s any need to enforce a minimum number of tweets per day. What do you think?

  • July 30, 2009 - 8:19 am | Permalink

    Hi Sarah – thanks for the great comments! I’m still pondering them. In a way, we’ll “follow the sun” with our tweets since we have a strong Australia presence. So we wouldn’t have to automate the “flipping” of tweets by 10-12 hours, another person could just re-write the message in their own way. I really don’t believe the frequency of tweeting should be forced at all. Say something when you have something to say. :) But I have found in blogging that requiring two posts a week of myself makes me find something interesting to write about. So a little bit of discipline in amount of microposts makes some sense too. Yeah?

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