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9 Ways to Improve the Signal to Noise Ratio on Twitter

Even at 250 million Tweets per day in addition to the updates across Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, and every other feed that we willfully subscribe to, information overload is in of itself a fallacy. But the feeling the overload of information is very real and a reflection of our inability to pull the levers necessary to decrease noise and improve signal. Doing so, requires some very blatant actions that don’t simply reduce the volume of the information we don’t care to see as often, it requires disconnecting from human beings. Whether we’re severing ties with individuals or those representing an organization we once supported, it’s emotional. It’s an action that carries an element of guilt knowing that at some point, our action will cause an incremental blow to the psyche of the individual we’re unfollowing.

I know…so what right?

It still is what it is. Yet, we don’t unfollow or unlike as often as we should. So by not reminding people to not be more thoughtful about their posts and updates, we are by default enabling their objectionable 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 await or anticipate 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 at the same time, we are also guilty of contributing to the noise. The truth is that it’s easier to blame others than hold up a digital mirror.  But now, some very interesting reports are substantiating what we’re feeling. In one such study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, MIT and Georgia Tech, 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. It’s not a surprise of course that a well-received Tweet is not all that common.

So, what makes a Tweet worthy of response or sharing? The team is currently studying the specifics, but initial findings point to tweets that included questions, featured curated/relevant information with added personality, and 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, 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 ourselves, the research team documented nine best practices to use as an editorial guideline of sorts. While the information is drawn from insights on Twitter, 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…

9 Ways to Improve the Signal to Noise Ratio in Social Networks

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 will to express your views. It is the difference between who you know you are and who others think you are that is fortified through your words.

3. K.I.S.S.: 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 K.I.S.S. where simplicity is replaced with significance and short is substituted with baked-in shareability (Keep It Significant and Shareable).

4. Don’t #geekout with @’s and #Syntax LOL <-This!: 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 syntax might make you seem cool, but these tweets are harder to read, interpret, and by default, are unshareable. However, syntax can be helpful when context is inherent in 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 debilitates 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 such as Qwitter.

6. Context is King: As discussed early with K.I.S.S., 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 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 of you or of your perspective.

7. If You Don’t Have Anything Good to Say…:  This is interesting to say the least. 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. Coincidentally, we are also learning that by taking to Twitter to vent, it’s both becoming the quickest path to resolution and also the act of expressing frustration proves cathartic. The 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 followeres. 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. The idea is too 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, like news or professional organizations that want readers to click on their links, 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 lend to the brand they wish to portray. Sounds incredibly commonsensical, but it’s not as it ties to several of the bullets above. People often say things that erode the mystique or the grandeur of a persona by measure of the expectations of the community.  As the authors of the 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 technology to introduce the importance of self-control and governance. But that’s part of the marvel here. We may in fact need tools to do what it is we cannot, tune out people en massé or withhold from expressing what we think in the moment or only say the things that reinforce the “personal brand” we envision. Whatever it is we do moving forward, what’s clear is that, according to research, 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.” And 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.”

45 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “9 Ways to Improve the Signal to Noise Ratio on Twitter”

  1. Good day, Brian, and thanks for your post.  You have some good points.  This reminds me of the concept that people are afraid to start a conversation with someone new because they think they have to say something socially relevant and meaningful to the person they’re about to talk to, when in fact if you start a conversation with seriously significant conversation, the person will likely think you’re nuts and probably run from you. Whether or not someone’s tweet is relevant depends completely on who their audience is and why that audience is following them in the first place.  For instance, I’m not a fan of Howard Stern. To me, he is noise. But, there are millions who don’t feel the way I do — he’s relevant to them.

    I agree with your point regarding business and major brands. They likely have an image they’re promoting and they’re tweet policy should consider that, but they’re still connecting via twitter with people, so if they’re too aloof, IMHO, they’ll lose that connection.  My own tweeting is very social, upbeat, fun, sometimes goofy.  I’m a positivity guy.  There are many who think my tweeting is noise , that positive mental attitude is huey. They think I’m noise, and that’s okay, but there are a bunch others who are waiting for me to come on line so they can interact and feel better about their day, to laugh and lose some of the seriousness the world heeps on them. I’m not noise to them — twitter syntax and all.

    So it’s like television, radio, cable.  They all have noise; you just have to tune in to what you want, and out of what you don’t want. Learn to change the channel 🙂 As I like to say, it’s ‘a matter of mindset, and once you master your mindset you’ll master your life.

  2. Ryan Kurek says:

    Thank you. This is why I developed the ROT METRIC (return on tweet). It measures your followers per tweet, providing an analytic value to your tweeting. For example, I have 255 followers from 195 tweets. Therefore my ROT Value is 0.765. I rarely retweet a comment if it had been already retweeted more than 5 times because my tweetmosphere has most likely already seen it. More important, I almost always try to provide primal insight and perspective on trends, behaviors and business activity. Cheers to ROT and the statement, “when to be relevant.” @Ryan_Kurek

  3. Mark Stonham says:

    So, we need to become better at creating pithy sound-bites.

  4. Chuck Frey says:

    Part of the problem is that some people follow thousands or tens of thousands of people on Twitter. Inevitably, most follow them back, inflating their follower count. In the process, however, Twitter becomes virtually useless to them, as their tweet streams become filled with useless crap that has no relevance to them.

    A much better approach is to slowly, deliberately build up your list of followers, only adding those people who have insights and perspectives you find to be useful or valuable, and culling them if they turn out not to be so. Twitter is SO much more useful when it’s employed in this way – it maintains a much better signal-to-noise ratio!

    • Iamscottpage says:

      I am a new guy to twitter and glad you made this comment. Its one I have been wondering about. It seems like common sense but you see so many folks building followers for the sake of followers.. Question would it make much sense for a newbie to to follow a lot of though leaders and then thin them down based on how they far out over time to get the cream of the crop??

    • Chuck Frey says:

       I would follow a handful of them to start, but then take a look at who THEY’RE following. Those will typically be high-quality folks, too. I find more cool people that way!

      You can determine whether or not to follow these new prospects by looking at their Twitter summary and their last 10-20 tweets. Click through to their websites. Are they focused on topic(s) that are of interest to you? Or are their tweets all over the place? Find like-minded folks via the thought leaders you follow, and build your network in that way. You can also use services like Twellow to find people who are tweeting about topics you want to know more about.

    • briansolis says:

       @chuckfrey:disqus’s advice below is solid. Welcome to Twitter and thanks for the comment.

    • Chuck, I think you are exactly right. I believe we should curate our followers, and appreciate the good ones, and dump the frivolous ones.

  5. Tim says:

    That sounds about right Mark! The worst part about Twitter is definitely the regurgitation of common information, but just because somebody’s tweets have value for their readers, doesn’t necessarily mean they will get lots of followers. Ryan, many of the people I’ve unfollowed have thousands of followers because of their position (newsperson, business exec, etc) but tweet nothing of value.

  6. davinabrewer says:

    Today my stream is hit w/ the news of Donna Summer’s passing; I put “listening to this song…” as my status update to mourn her passing. Is that less ‘noise’ than just a ‘news’ RT? I think that’s up to who’s on the receiving end. Which brings up point #5 – sometimes these ‘pedestrian’ updates can be great conversation starters, and that mileage may vary. I don’t want to share nothing but deep thoughts or pithy quips cc @markstonham:disqus – so the occasional shallow cheer for my teams or fave TV show works for me.

    Point #2 is why I can’t ‘set and forget’ this – I almost always add my take on any tweet or status update. Agree w/ judicious use of hashtags, though I do use some of the texting shorthand to make tweets fit (guilty as charged). Point #7 – too much griping is a downer, but I’ll also call a spade such – negative or not. Sometimes the ‘good thing to say’ is pointing out the bad, sharing a mistake from which others can learn something.

    You’re right: this is of our own making. @chuckfrey:disqus mentioned slow, organic network development; even doing that I know I can’t manage it all, so I don’t try. There are tools and filters; I block tweets automated from ‘noisy’ apps like Foursquare or Triberr; and it’s up to us to decide what is noise, what is significant and shareable, who to follow – and unfollow. FWIW.

    • Chuck Frey says:

      I have my tweetstream divided into rockstars (the people whose opinions I really have come to value over time – and which I look at first) and then topic-specific searches that help me stay up-to-date on what others are asking about, tweeting about and linking about in areas like innovation, design thinking, visual thinking and mind mapping. Segmenting your tweets is a must to keep Twitter manageable!

      Learn your Twitter client’s advanced search syntax. In Hootsuite, for example, you can search for tweets that contain your keyword AND a question mark but NO links – so you can identify those people who may have questions you can answer – a good way to engage with people and establish your own thought leadership on Twitter.

    • davinabrewer says:

      Just tried HootSuite (since TD refuses to schedule tweets for me?!), learning how to set up columns – so I’ll have to look into that ‘no link’ filter, great tip. Also trying to follow Lists rather than individuals, unsub from feeds, etc. That cuts noise on the the receiving side.. now on the sending, I don’t tweet a lot (IMO) and do engage w/ others, but still want to improve. I’m making an effort to send more linkless tweets, more thoughts rather than posts, jump into more relevant conversations. Work in progress, always.

    • Chuck Frey says:

       Sounds like you’re on the right track!

  7. Liza Pierce says:

    This is why I use Twitter’s tool LIST.  It helps me filter the noise – I go to a specific LIST depending on what I need/want.  I still like browsing through my home stream and love checking my  @

     (or shall I say replies). That aside, these 9 ways you’ve share are very helpful guidelines – thank you.

  8. Daman Bahner says:

    It’s a tough balance to strike – raising your influence is good, but as Chuck Fey says once you start follow a ton, it’s hard to sift through the crap.  I started using conversocial and it helps a bit (not affiliated) – I still use Hootsuite primarily, but I’m always looking for tools to drill down and focus.

  9. Signal/noise has been a huge theme for 2012. I wish each platform had more robust filters & that we tagged the data with better metadata. My goal of late is to be audience appropriate. I’m using lists & sending some info further than others because I’m trying to imagine what a constant stream of my content looks like to the users. Not everyone cares about everything & until the tools evolve it’s the poster’s responsibility to build not ruin the relationship.

  10. Becca says:

    This is an awesome post. You have really layed out your points in great details. Being a part of this real world society we must learn how to take control and be responsible everytime we share our insights or opinion. We are living with freedom of speech but we must know how to take this responsibility.

  11. WiseStep says:

    these signal to noise ratio is going on increasing by all social networking sites 

  12. John Paul says:

    Very nice Brian.  I have been working on A post about talking TO MUCH on Twitter. People who tweet 100 – 200 times a day.. this is ridiculous. Your not giving each tweet the time to work for you when you are tweeting every 2-5min.


    Problem is just like it is easy to geek on Twitter, it’s just as easy to over share because you see a little success and think..”hmm I need to share even more to get more results” the reality is that’;s not usually the case.

    I think the sooner people realize they are not that important and people don’t want to hear from you 300 times a day the faster they will see success from the few things they share.

  13. Lrk4Now says:

    A useful list of ideas.

  14. Brian,
    Thanks for this article-really well said! 
    It’s true most people on Twitter appreciate real-time info, and it’s also true that some people tweet the same old, same old too often. However, some content, especially the didactic stuff (this post included) is close to evergreen, and can (should?) be posted about once a quarter, to help educate the new users who are always coming onboard.  I suppose it depends on whether it’s more important for you or your business to be considered “leading edge” and “thought leaders” than educators.

  15. Rachel says:

    Thank you for this article, chuck. It is only recently that I have taken to twitter as I had one of my team do it up until now and it has been a steep learning curve! This is sound advice and I like the tip to check who the person you have just followed follows themselves- so simple but a great tip!
    I would love to know how to get more clients and people within my niche area of pharma recruitment following, hopefully if I follow your advice, I will achieve this in time!

  16. Yes, we need more Signal and less Noise, and we are each responsible for that ratio. One way to stay close to the signal is to focus on the conversations/discussions where there is typically a higher level of engagement. Twitter unfortunately hadn’t done a good job at surfacing and organizing these threads. Engagio, as a social conversations inbox lets you do that well.

  17. Justin says:

    It still is what it is. Yet, we don’t unfollow or unlike as often as
    we should. So by not reminding people to not be more thoughtful about
    their posts and updates, we are by default enabling their objectionable

  18. Anonymous says:

    What is signal to one audience is noise to another. Try to appeal to everyone and you may end up appealing to no one.

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