Don’t Be An Egg Head! Ten Twitter Tips for Patient Advocates

Last month Twitter announced it is now possible to filter out accounts with the default (egg) profile image, so that they don’t appear in your notifications. While this change is part of the company’s efforts to deal with abuse on the platform, it is also a timely reminder to those Twitter users who still have accounts without a personal picture to add one.   It is still surprising to me the number of new (and not-so new) Twitter users who are tweeting from an account with no clearly identifiable name, bio, or profile picture.

Twitter is a powerful tool to help raise awareness of your cause, keep current with research, amplify your advocacy activities, and build collaborative relationships. A study published by researchers from Microsoft and Carnegie Mellon University, “Tweeting Is Believing? Understanding Microblog Credibility Perceptions,”  analyzed how users assess Twitter credibility. The study found that users represented by the default Twitter icon, or a cartoon avatar, are perceived as significantly less credible than users with a personal photo.

Patient advocates who are looking to change hearts and minds should consider the image they present online. What will people’s first impression be of you? What might make them decide to follow you? What kind of content should you tweet to engage your followers?  Whether you are a Twitter newbie, or you have been on Twitter for a while, these ten tips will help you develop your professional identity on social media.

1. Perfect Your Profile

The first and most fundamental thing to understand about Twitter is that it is a conversation. Would you approach someone at an event and not introduce yourself first? Would you keep your face hidden from view while you hold a conversation? And yet this is precisely what some users do when they set up their Twitter accounts. Many Twitter users will not follow accounts without a profile picture on the assumption it is a fake account, and now with these new changes it will be easier than ever to weed out these accounts.

Let’s start with your avatar. An avatar is something used to represent you in an online environment and on Twitter it is the small thumbnail picture that appears alongside your tweets in the feed.  Since the thumbnail is so small (400 x 400 pixels), choose an image that is clear and easy to see, like a head and shoulders shot, or your organization’s logo.

You also have an opportunity to personalize your profile by uploading a custom header image, similar to a Facebook cover photo.  Use this opportunity to bring more authenticity to your account, for example you might use a picture of yourself holding a sign with a hard-hitting message.

2. Craft Your Bio

Trying to capture your passion and experience in Twitter’s 160 character limit for a bio is a challenge.  You won’t be able to express all you want to say, so think of this as a snapshot of who you are and what you do.  How will you describe yourself to pique people’s interest to learn more about your work?  Which of your accomplishments will you highlight? Is there a project you are currently working on? Or a campaign you are part of?  Use campaign hashtags, and link to other relevant Twitter accounts to highlight your online community.

Bonus Tip: When writing your professional bio, be brief but authentic, and make your core expertise and experience immediately clear.

3. Find People to Follow

Begin by following your organization’s Twitter account. Twitter will then auto-suggest people who also follow this account for you. Next draw up a list of organizations and groups related to your area of interest. Go to their website and click on the Twitter follow button if they have one. When reading blogs written by other patients check to see if they have included their Twitter profile.

Follow healthcare professionals, researchers and patient advocates who are tweeting about issues related to your illness. The easiest way to find conversations of interest is to click the native search facility at the top of your Twitter screen and enter your keyword or hashtag (words or phrases prefixed with a “#” sign).  You then have a further option of performing an Advanced Search. This allows you to narrow down your search using parameters such as specific keywords, language, people, location, and date range.

Bonus Tip: It’s a good idea to organize your followers into lists. You can create your own lists or subscribe to lists created by others. I use a tool called Listly to curate healthcare lists – you can view my epatient list here.

4. Engage Your Followers

The more people who follow you, the more you can amplify your content and increase your social shares.  As you attract followers to your account you will need to think about how you are going to keep them engaged over the long term.  How will you maintain trust and credibility and give people a compelling reason to keep following you? Take the time to acknowledge when a person follows you online or re-shares your content.  Keep your eyes open for those who retweet you often or share your blog.  Thank them sincerely for sharing your content. Show your followers you are interested in their tweets too by retweeting and favoriting their updates.

5. Share Interesting Content

If you want people to share your content, you need to give them something worth sharing. The New York Times did a fascinating study on the psychology of social sharing a few years ago. It showed that people want to connect to other like-minded people, they want to support issues they care about, and above all they want to share content that will be useful for those in their network. Create content that your audience will want to share because they believe it will be of value or interest to others. Don’t just add to the online chatter. Before you post something, stop and ask yourself would this pass the re-share test? Why would I want to click on this information? Would I want to share it with my friends/family?

6. Use Hashtags Wisely

A hashtag on Twitter is a very popular way of creating and monitoring a conversation around a particular topic and can be a great way to engage your followers. To create a hashtag, simply place # before a word.  Twitter’s own research into hashtags shows that there is significant advantage to using them. Individuals can see a marked increase in engagement simply by using hashtags. A word of warning though – when #you use #too #many #hashtags your #tweet looks like #spam. Don’t use more than 2 hashtags per tweet. Research shows that tweets with more than two hashtags actually see a drop in engagement.

7. Live Tweet

A great way to add value for your community is to live tweet from conferences and events. Twitter is fantastic for taking the content of conferences beyond the walls of a conference venue. You can follow along on Twitter using the conference hashtag and share your insights and key highlights with your followers who cannot be there.

Curate the tweets from the event using Storify – a tool which gathers social media updates and media from across the web to build a social story. You can also notify people that their tweets have been curated in the Storify – which is a great way to publicly recognise your followers and attract new followers.

Bonus Tip: If you’re new to Storify, check out my step-by-step guide to creating your first story.

8. Develop a Regular Posting Schedule

In order to stay in front of your audience’s eyes you need to post consistently. Create a social media calendar using a simple Excel spread sheet so you can map out in advance upcoming holidays and cause awareness days to tweet about. When you have created your calendar, you can use a Twitter scheduling tool, like HootSuite, Buffer or Tweetdeck to schedule your tweets in advance. The internet is global and if you want the spread of your content to reach further than your own backyard, you need to hit multiple time zones. Scheduling tweets allows you to reach followers when they are most likely to be online (even if you aren’t there at the same time) and allows you to maintain a regular and consistent online presence.

Bonus Tip: Follow this link to learn more about this tip and download a social media posting calendar.

9. Join a Twitter Chat

A Twitter Chat is a public Twitter conversation around one unique hashtag. This hashtag allows you to follow the discussion and participate in it. Twitter chats can be one-off events, but more usually are recurring weekly chats to regularly connect people. The chat will be hosted and the host will ask questions along the way to stimulate discussion and sharing of ideas. There are chats for most disease topics and a full list can be found by searching the database of the Healthcare Hashtag Project. In addition you will find past transcripts of chats on the website. This is also a useful resource to find Twitter users to follow.

Bonus Tip: It’s good Twitter etiquette to let your followers know your tweet volume is about to increase as you join the chat.

10. Have Fun!

If you’re new to Twitter you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed at all this advice. Remember you don’t have to do everything right away. Go slowly at first. Take one of these tips each week and put them into action.  Soon you’ll find you are becoming a Twitter pro, ready to teach others the tips and tricks you have perfected. Above all, have fun with Twitter. It’s a super place to network and learn, but it’s also a fun place to make new friends.

A Stanford Medicine X e-Patient scholar, Marie Ennis O’Connor is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and consultant on global trends in patient engagement, digital health and participatory medicine. A board member of the Patient Empowerment Foundation, a network of people, foundations, organizations and medical institutions dedicated to empowering patients worldwide, Marie’s work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare values. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to advocate on her award-winning blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.