An Afghan strategy shows my conversion to Twitter

When Twitter got started several years ago, it was a tool meant to be used via text messaging on your cell phone. That meant that, every time you got a message via Twitter, your phone vibrated or made a sound.

And that’s why I stayed away from it. That’s way, way more information I want via cell phone text messaging. And I wasn’t the only one that felt that way: I talked to nonprofits who told me they were abandoning their Twitter feeds in those early days because their volunteers and other supporters were complaining: we do NOT want this many text messages from you.

But just as Facebook went from being primarily an online dating tool for university students to an online social networking tool for everyone, Twitter has become a way for people to send and receive very targeted information – because it’s accessed primarily via a web browser or cell phone app rather than cell phone text messaging. Now, unlike its early days, Twitter reminds me so much of USENET newsgroups, the online communities that preceded the web and launched me into cyberspace (back in the 1990s, I checked my newsgroups before email!).

I hadn’t realized how far my conversion to Twitter was until I was midway through creating a strategy last weekend regarding Twitter use for an Afghanistan government ministry initiative. I never would have written this strategy two years ago!

And my point is: you have to be ready to revisit online tools. What may not be right for you now may be right for you in a couple of years. And what you are using now may be replaced by something better.

It’s annoying, I know: right after I had fully invested in an online profile on MySpace, including a blog focused specifically on youth volunteer engagement, people started abandoning MySpace in droves for Facebook. All that time and effort, down the drain… but I’m sure organizations that fully invested in their America Online profiles and communities back in the 1990s felt the same way when the World Wide Web really took off.

In case you are wondering: why did I recommend that an Afghan government initiative adopt Twitter?

  • Afghan government ministries have trouble thinking of their web sites as something that needs to change daily, even hourly. Adding a Twitter feed on the home page and other key web pages of this initiative will automatically make its web site dynamic – updated with every Tweet.
  • This government initiative needs to communicate much more effectively with current donors and international donors – and many of those international agencies and foreign government offices are very active Twitter users. They will still send their reports and meeting invitations, but now, they will also give very short, regular updates – and that’s just what the donors want.
  • This initiative needs urgently to communicate better with the press. And the press in Afghanistan is really tired of press conferences and 10 page press releases.
  • This initiative needs to learn to say why it’s great (and it is) in 140 characters or less. Afghan government workers are some of the most verbose writers you will ever encounter. I attribute that to a combination of Persian poetic roots and United Nations training. I’m hoping Twitter use will contribute to them writing more effective messages in all of their communications.
  • The initiative staff needs to read what is being said about its work beyond local newspapers, if they want to know what international donors are thinking.

My goal with the strategy is to get the staff at this initiative up and using Twitter as soon as possible, and to keep their use as effective and worthwhile. So my strategy included:

  • What to write as the program’s Twitter user name – and why.
  • The wording for the program’s Twitter bio – and why those specific words were important (word choice is important, so that people looking for certain key words will find their profile).
  • The Twitter feeds for this initiative to follow, at least at first, and why (which I hope will guide the staff regarding future follow choices). It’s about 200 Twitter feeds – and, yes, I carefully chose each of them.
  • Exactly what to do during their first 48 hours on Twitter.
  • Tweets for the first five days.
  • What to tweet after those first five days.
  • Tags to use, and not to use – and why.
  • Best days to tweet (best days are NOT Thursday afternoons, Fridays or Saturdays, which are the Afghan weekend), as well as best times of day (late morning is best to reach Europe, late afternoon is best to reach North America).
  • Tips for avoiding bad PR on Twitter (how to be supportive of the nation and the government without getting political, the importance of keeping personal info off the Twitter feed like “here are photos from my vacation in India!”, choosing whom to follow, etc.).
  • Why it’s important to check to see who has mentioned the agency on Twitter, and how to find direct messages on Twitter.
  • What activity is public on Twitter (pretty much everything!).

I spent about an hour dreaming up example Tweets for almost each advice item above. That was fun. It involved poppies.

What about communicating with Afghan citizens? That certainly will happen too with this Twitter feed, with affluent Afghans, even if that’s not the primary purpose of the Tweets. While cell phone permeation is shockingly high in Afghanistan, even among farmers and ranchers (Bloomberg News, April 2010), I doubt many will follow via cell phone text messaging – and the numbers are still relatively small (because of literacy and remoteness). Should the ministry create a separate Twitter feed to reach those farmers and ranchers specifically via text messages? Maybe! But first, this ministry needs to use Twitter with donors and the press, IMO, so they can hone their messaging skills. And when they’re ready, I hope I get to help with other strategies as well.

Will this government ministry go for it and start using Twitter? If they do, I will announce it on my own Twitter feed. Stay tuned…

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