Who should you follow on Twitter? Ask the pros.

To follow or not to follow—that is a difficult question for some federal users on Twitter.

While it is relatively easy for federal users to sign up for Twitter, deciding whom to follow, and what rules should apply, is a bit of a stumbling block for federal users managing official accounts, personal accounts or both.

Participants in a Federal Web Manager University seminar offered some tips for federal Twitter users on Jan. 26, but the conversation revealed that even the presumed experts don't always have easy answers.

For example, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, which is @airandspace on Twitter, has more than 22,000 followers but follows only 122 accounts, most of them other museums.

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Victoria Portway, chair of Web and new media for the air and space museum, said the official museum account generally does not follow individual accounts on Twitter because of a concern about making those individuals uncomfortable or creating an awkward situation.

“I am on the fence about following individuals on Twitter,” she said.

Other federal Twitter experts shared similar concerns. Stacey Palosky, social media specialist for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said her agency interacts with thousands of businesses on Twitter. But to avoid any appearance of favoritism or preference, it does not follow businesses on the social media site, she said.

The commission’s @Onsafety Twitter account has about 13,500 followers, but follows only 218 accounts.

Consulting with the agency’s legal team, Palosky said she has obtained permission to follow several types of Twitter users—including major media organizations and “Mom bloggers”—who have been very helpful in providing feedback and engagement and who often retweet the commission’s messages and publish them as news items or blog postings on their own websites.

Those retweets, news articles and blog postings have been very significant in terms of extending the commission’s outreach for its communications, Palosky said. She explained that due to the amplifications originating on Twitter, a single tweeted message from the commission reaches not only its 13,500 direct followers but also can reach up to 1 million readers on the Web by being repeated and broadcast by third parties.

Scott Horvath, Web and social media chair at the U.S. Geological Survey, recommended that official agency Twitter accounts follow all business partners and cooperative partners. “These are people you have a relationship with already,” he said.

Horvath also said he also uses his personal Twitter account to occasionally communicate with individuals in private messages on Twitter, especially when the matter involves identifying an expert for a specific inquiry.

The Web Manager University event also featured Justin Herman, a social media consultant to federal agencies, and Tammi Marcoullier, program manager for the Center for Excellence in Digital Government at the General Services Administration.

The Web manager university events are jointly sponsored by the Federal Web Managers Council and the GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

Other Twitter tips shared at the seminar included:

  • It helps to “have a little bit of personality” on Twitter by adding some personal interests to your profile, using a profile photo and a custom background, Herman said. “The more you customize, the more you look like a legitimate person and not a spam account."
  • Expand your reach on Twitter by using not just an official agency account, but also agency employees’ personal accounts, said Marcoullier. “We have seen how that amplifies our messages really well. Using the personal networks quadrupled our reach,” she said.
  • Piggyback on “trending” hashtags on Twitter to gain extra reach and followers, suggested Horvath. That is what the geological survey did recently by using the trending #Muppets hashtag to introduce messages about oil and gas drilling. A drilling-related story line was featured in the recent Muppet movie.


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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