9 Lessons to Improve the Signal to Noise Ratio on Twitter

By Brian Solis , written on February 29, 2012

From The News Desk

Even if information overload is in of itself a fallacy, the feeling of being overloaded with information can be very real, as well as a reflection of our inability to pull the levers necessary to decrease noise and improve signal.

Achieving this maneuver can require some very blatant actions that go beyond simply reducing the volume of unneeded information. In essence, getting rid of a sense of information overload requires disconnecting from actual human beings. And whether we're severing ties with individuals, say, on Twitter or those representing an organization we once supported on Facebook, this process can be emotional. The severing of ties carries guilt, knowing that our action causes an incremental blow to the psyche of the individual we're unfollowing.

And thus, we don't unfollow or unlike as often as we should. But by not reminding people to  be more thoughtful about their posts and updates, we are by default enabling their objectionable online behavior.

Think about why you Tweet or update your status. It's part self-expression, part therapy, part fulfilling, and of course, part egocentric. You share something and naturally, you expect a response. There's a bit of anticipation that builds up around it. Have you ever tried Qwitter? It's an old school service, when compared to the overall history of the Twitter ecosystem, that tells you who unfollowed you, when, and gives you the Tweet that sent them over the edge.

We are as guilty by our inaction as others are for their action. And while it's easier to blame others than to hold up a digital mirror, some very interesting reports are substantiating what we're feeling in wanting to hit the “Unfollow” button. In one such study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, MIT, and Georgia Tech, data showed that people on Twitter said that only one-third of Tweets that hit their streams are worthwhile. All others are either, at best, "meh" or not worth reading at all. So it's not a surprise that a well-received Tweet is not all that common.

So, what makes a Tweet worthy of response or of sharing? The afore-mentioned research team is currently studying the specifics, but initial findings indicate that the best Tweets are those that included questions or featured curated/relevant information with added personality, as well as those used for self-promotion, such as including links to original content.

Paul André, a post-doctoral fellow in Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), and lead author of the study, explained an important outcome of the research. "If we understood what is worth reading and why,” said André, “we might design better tools for presenting and filtering content, as well as help people understand the expectations of other users."

While we await tools that will save us from the feeling of being overrun by social networks, the research team documented nine best practices to use as an editorial guideline of sorts. To clarify, the data is drawn only from Twitter, but I'm sure that they apply across other networks as well. The idea is that these lessons will improve our own streams while inspiring others to do the same.

1. News No Longer Breaks, it Tweets Old news is no news. Twitter places emphasis on real-time information. Followers quickly get bored of even relatively fresh links seen multiple times, unless they're repackaged through a different lens of context or perspective.

2. Add Perspective Opinions in social media tend to spark dialogue. So add an opinion, a pertinent fact, or move the conversation forward, rather than simply sending your update or hitting Like or Retweet. Consider the MT (modified Tweet), if you want to express your views. Such slight modification is the difference between who you know you are and who others think you are.

3. Keep It Significant and Shareable (KISS) I often say, in brevity there's clarity. Of course, it's easier said than done. Studies show that followers appreciate conciseness. Keep it short. Using as few characters as possible also leaves room for longer, more satisfying comments on Retweets. But even that's not enough. Think about a new KISS, where simplicity is replaced with significance and short is substituted with baked-in shareability.

4. Don't #geekout with @'s and #Syntax LOL It's pretty easy to geek out on Twitter...especially when using 140 characters is already too complicated (kidding). Often we're compelled to overuse Twitter syntax such as #hashtags, @mentions, code, and abbreviations. But, if you study the art and science of Retweets, you'll quickly learn that while such "Twitter syntax" might make you seem cool, these Tweets are harder to read and interpret, and by default, are unshareable.

However, such Twitter-specific syntax can be helpful when context is inherent to the Tweet. For example, if posing a question, adding a hashtag that explains the nature of or the inspiration for the Tweet helps everyone follow along, which also lends to reactions.

5. Strengthen Your Inner Voice For some reason, Twitter seems to debilitate our ability to practice self restraint and therefore we are somehow inspired to express nonessential experiences. As the study found, these cliched "sandwich" Tweets about pedestrian or personal details were by and large disliked. If Tweets had an "unfavorite" button or if Facebook employed an "unlike" button, people would learn in real-time the hard lessons delivered through services like Qwitter.

6. Context is King As discussed early with KISS, short isn't always a #winning strategy. Sometimes Tweets that are too short leave readers unable to understand their meaning. How many times have you read a Tweet where the context, intention, or tone was impossible to discern? The study found that by simply linking to a blog or photo, without providing a reason to click on it was "lame." Think about each Tweet or update as contributing to an experience or image that you want others to see.

7. If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say... It should be no surprise that negative sentiments and complaints were disliked. Yet, people complain every day. In fact, there's a bit of an inside joke on Twitter. It seems that only "Social Media experts" have problems with airlines, because we'll hear about it every time. Studies show that too many complaints only turn off followers. The same is true on Facebook.

Conversely, we are also learning that Twitter-venting can be the quickest path to resolution, as well as the cathartic expression of personal frustration. The online community is far more forgiving of negative Tweets aimed at companies. But, if you aim your negativity at individuals regularly, you will lose favor among your followers. Find the balance.

8. Introduce Brain Teasers Savvy marketers, producers, and editors alike figured out long ago that building anticipation creates an appetite before an official release. While this isn't new to the world of distribution, simply releasing content isn't good enough. One needs to build strategic and thoughtful anticipation for big Tweets.

Often, if we're caught up in conversations or observations, we miss an opportunity to alert followers that something big is about to come. So when we say something important, the response is stunted.

Additionally, in like manner to news or professional organizations that want readers to click on their links, one can add a compelling hook. It's important to not give away all of the news in the Tweet itself. Intrigue your followers.

9. Brands are People Too The study found that individuals or businesses with a public persona should pay particular attention to how their status updates contribute to the brand they wish to portray.

Sounds incredibly commonsensical, but people often say things that erode the mystique or the grandeur of a persona or brand.  As the authors of the above-mentioned report share, "People often follow you to read professional insights and can be put off by personal gossip or everyday details." I believe this is true for any individual or organization and, as such, what's shared and what isn't shared should contribute to the perception desired.

Of course, it doesn't take new technology or research to understand the importance of personal self-control and governance. But we may in fact need tools to do what we cannot, which is to tune out people en massé or withhold from expressing what we think in the moment.

Basically, this research shows that Twitter, Facebook and other social networks are only reflections of our real world society. In the digital realm, by Tweeting our lives, one can proudly exclaim, "I Tweet therefore I am." But at the same time, one must consider whether or not simply Tweeting what comes to mind isn't just contributing to a far more likely reality, "I Tweet and therefore I am...adding to the noise."