How to: Build Relationships on Twitter

(Originally posted on Sisarina as part of our February blog series.)

Building relationships online is about more than just being “present” in social media - it’s about having a strategy that will influence and engage people. It’s about taking the time to reach out to people individually, to make them feel heard, appreciated and part of your mission. But how do you go about building relationships online (especially on Twitter)?

Start with who you know


To get started, you need to establish who your online stakeholders are. A great way to get started with this is to take your existing donor or membership database and find those people online. It sounds like an overwhelming task, especially if you aren’t already collecting your supporters’ Twitter handles (and now is a great time to start, if you aren’t), but there are services that will automate this process for you (feel free to reach out to @SmallAct to learn more).

In addition to your database, if you’ve been on social media for awhile you probably already have a short list of believers - the people who retweet (RT) your content regularly and respond to your questions. Build a list of these people and start categorizing them with appropriate tags that show their relationship to you (donor, volunteer, advocate, etc.) and what is most important to them (i.e. which topics they are most passionate about from your organization and also online in general).

Then start engaging

Once you’ve got some of those folks tracked down, you can begin listening to what they care about. What are they posting? Whether it has to do with your organization or not, this information is valuable intel that can help you cultivate a relationship, so keep track of it in a spreadsheet or with a social CRM tool. For instance, if you find out someone loves tigers, on their birthday you could send them a tweet with a link to a cute tiger picture. It shows you’ve been paying attention and that you care - and will both surprise and delight them.

The tiger picture idea is an example of building whuffie, or social capital - a concept pioneered by Tara Hunt in her book, The Whuffie Factor. Tara argues that before you can ask someone to do something for you online (or elsewhere), you need to accrue whuffie (or in other words, social capital) by doing things like thanking people individually, retweeting their content, seeking feedback, responding to questions and requests for help. After all, aren’t you more likely to do a favor for somebody who’s already helped you?

Ultimately, seek to build relationships with people one-on-one. How you do that will vary from person to person and depends largely on your style and your organization’s culture, but be creative and find ways to engage with people on a real, human level.

Won’t that kind of engagement take a ton of time?

In our experience, you get the best results by gardening the most fertile soil. In other words, focus your time on people who are the most responsive to you. Even if that’s just a handful of people to start, those individuals can then influence their own friends and followers, which is ultimately how your outreach pays off.

What’s the value in cultivating such deep relationships?

At the end of the day, of course you’re going to be asked about the return on your investment of time and energy into cultivating these relationships. Your value can be measured in many ways:

Promotion: People sharing your content with their networks. This is a free way for people to start getting more involved and help you on a regular basis.

Action: People taking action on behalf of your organization, volunteering and signing petitions, and defending your organization in the face of negative publicity.

Membership and Donations: People joining your organization and donating more money, more frequently. Ironically, by focusing on fewer people, you can actually reach more. Because for every new “true believer" you create, you effectively gain access to their entire network. And that is social media power.