A Journal Register Co. editor mentioned a common challenge in a newsroom trying to master social media. How do you build an engaged audience on Twitter? My answer to the editor (expanded some as I’ve thought more about it):
Engaging followers is largely a result of two factors: following people who care about your community and conversing with them.
How many people follow you (and how many you follow) are not as important as identifying the people who share your interests and engaging meaningfully with them. So don’t get hung up on numbers, though you do want your engaged community to grow steadily.
I know of three tools that would be useful for building an engaged Twitter following. Enter your community(ies) in Twellow or Nearby Tweets and they will show you Twitter users in the community. Twellow shows you users (largely businesses) who have registered with Twellow, using that location. NearbyTweets shows people who are tweeting right now near you.
I would not make these sites a one-time visit either. Advanced Twitter Search and Nearby Tweets especially are places to visit occasionally, because different people will be tweeting each time. When a breaking news story or community event might be generating Twitter discussion, those are excellent places to connect with that discussion.
In any of these cases, if you follow people in your community (or people who show their interest in your community by tweeting about it), you will get quite a few who will follow you back. And if you retweet, reply, mention or direct message, you will be more likely to get deeper, lasting engagement.
However you find people tweeting about your community, the key to engaging them is conversation. If your Twitter feed is a one-way stream of self-promoting headlines and links, people are not likely to engage with it. But if you answer their questions, ask them how they know newsworthy information that they tweet, retweet their observations about community life, they will engage with you.
If you’re listening to the community conversation on Twitter, you will find people to engage with. Search occasionally for the name of your community or for keywords relating to community news and events. If someone is tweeting about local events or issues, click on the usernames of tweeps they are conversing with. See if they are local, too, and follow them or reply (retweet, etc.) to them, if you have something to say about the topic. (Mandy Jenkins, my former TBD colleague, has some excellent advice on channeling the news brand on Twitter and Facebook.)
You can also find local people to engage with by checking the followers of local tweeps and checking whom they are following. You can check lists they have made to see if they have lists of local people (or you can check your community on Listorious).
You also can set up Tweetbeep alerts for mentions of people who tweet about communities in your coverage area or about events or other keywords of local significance. Don’t reply or contact people as an autobot (automatically following or replying to anyone who mentions your community in a tweet, for instance; or automatically sending the same message to everyone who follows you). But when you see people tweeting about local news, follow them. If you are congenially joining the local conversation on Twitter, you will find people want to converse with you and follow you.
Trendsmap is another tool for finding people tweeting in your community, but it doesn’t let you pick any location, only major cities. The editor who asked isn’t from a community you can choose for localized tweets on Trendsmap.
And you shouldn’t forget simple things: prominent display of social media buttons on your home page and sharing buttons on your story pages and blog posts. Curate social media content in your news coverage, and people will tweet links to your stories and their followers will start following you