Twitter 101: beginners guide to twitter for freelancers and small businesses

You want to ‘be on twitter’ but don’t know where to start.  Who should you follow?  What are the rules?  Is it worth the effort?

Maybe you’ve spent the last few years avoiding twitter, secretly thinking it’s a bit pointless. When you think  of twitter, you might think it’s all a bit:


It is!

But it’s also a great place to promote your business.  There’s just one problem.  Where on earth do you begin?  Everyone seems to know what they’re doing and you’re worried you’ll get it wrong.

You may have read some social media books, had a nose through a few marketing blogs, looked up a training course or thought about using an agency.  Great!  They are all really helpful if you have the time and money, or if you’re thinking of a full-on social media marketing strategy.

But for many of us, just having a presence on twitter is enough for now.  Starting a business or becoming a freelancer can be challenging, and it can be easy to get distracted with social media.  (I speak from experience.)  But to ignore it is an oversight; a bit like setting up a market stall then not allowing anyone to see what you’re selling, or telling anyone that you’re there.

This simple guide will take you through the basics.  We’ll start from ground zero and get you tweeting in no time.  I promise you, it’s not as scary as it looks.

I’m going to assume that as you’re here, you just want to get started.  So let’s get stuck in.

How do I register?

Twitter has tons of helpful advice including this page on signing up.  Alternatively, if you just want to jump in and register, go here.  Think carefully about your name and your brand style.  As I produce my content, and I am my brand, I just use my name.  If you have a company, you should use your company name.  You may have a really colourful social life, but if you’re serious about using twitter for marketing purposes, calling yourself @DrunkStrumpet may not project the best image.  (Or it might!  Depending on your business….)


This is where you create your quick first impression, so you need to make it a good one. Social Media guru, Peg Fitzpatrick has some great tips on her blog.  If you are tweeting as a freelancer, consider using a picture of yourself here.  If you’re a company with several employees, then a company logo should go here.  For the header, again make sure it reflects your brand.  

An important point here is copyright.  Stock images on google are great, but you run the risk of copyright infringement if you use it to promote your brand. The best option is to use good clear images of your own.  If you want to use stock images, try Creative Commons where you can access shareable resources.

First tweet

Avoid ‘hello world’.  Unless you’re a megastar or world leader, the world is unlikely to notice you at this stage.  You could announce that your company website has gone live, or just get stuck in sharing some relevant content (see below).

Who should I follow?

  • Don’t waste money ‘buying’ followers – it just looks bogus, especially when people have a nose around your account to see who is following you.  Better to have a carefully cultivated community that will bring value to your brand.
  • Follow relevant regulatory/professional bodies/professional journals/government departments, etc.
  • Local business networks.  Look up organisations in your area aimed at nurturing small businesses and entrepeneurs.  Follow them, and see who is in their community.
  • Someone asked me recently if it was ok to follow competitors.  I say it’s not ok, it’s essential!  Know who is in your space and what they are doing.  Become part of your local community, find out what events they’re attending, share their content, retweet and acknowledge their contribution.
  • Follow media organisations for breaking news and stay topical in your tweets.  If a relevant news story breaks, incorporate that into your twitter feed.  And know when not to (see below).
  • Friends.  I think it’s fine to include friends in your professional twitter world – after all, if they aren’t going to big you up, who is?  If they get a bit too raucous on your timeline, just move the conversation into a private sphere.

What shall I say?

The best advice I can give is to have a nose around your twitter community and see how it’s done.  Just imagine you’re part of a big conversation and follow the same rules of politeness.

I like the 5-3-2 rule from Pam Dyer.  If you post 10 tweets a week, consider this approach:

  • 5 – relevant content from others (eg, a competitor has published a ‘how to’ guide on an aspect of your profession – share it, saying what helpful/great advice it is.  Your professional body has published some new guidelines – share them, with an appropriate comment.)
  • 3 – content created by you (eg, a photo of an event you’ve organised, your professional blog post, your own ‘how to’, etc.)
  • 2 – personal, humorous content, showing the human side of your brand (eg, have you done something fun during the work day which is shareable?  Has your favourite coffee shop just given you a free coffee?  Take a pic and acknowledge them.  Is something fun happening in your workspace?  Tweet about that?  Or if it’s a Friday afternoon and a funny Buzzfeed list has caught your eye, share that.  (Just watch out for anything that might offend).

Note: If something tragic has happened in the news, you don’t want to appear insensitive by firing off zippy tweets with smiley faces.  Neither should you try and capitalise on bad news.  You’ll just look heartless.  Here’s an example: when Bowie died, lots of brands were quick to send RIP tweets with his iconic red and blue flash emblazoned across their products.  The twitter-verse did not like that.  It was bad taste, and said brands were called out for it.  And rightly so.


Be polite.  Be generous.  Be kind.  Be helpful.  Always.  

If someone criticises your work or brand on twitter, your response is crucial.  Don’t ignore it, say you’re sorry to hear it and send them a ‘DM’ (Direct Message) out of the public eye.  

If it is a malicious tweeter with no contact with your business, report / block them.  Never get in to an argument on twitter.  

I don’t speak twitter!


To get you started, here are a few essential phrases.

  • You’ll see a lot of these #.  All a hashtag does is bring together all tweets around a topic.  So if you type something about tax, you might type – ‘important info re #tax. Don’t sprinkle hashtags around like confetti, just in front of the relevant topic.  If you search for #tax, you’ll see your tweet along with any other mentions of it.
  • RT = retweet.  Here are some tips on retweeting.  The new option to ‘Quote tweet’ mentioned here, gives you a great opportunity to add a little of your brand essence.
  • DM = Direct Message.  If you want to take the conversation out of the public gaze, then DM someone.  Look for this symbol:  Depending on the person’s account, you may need to be following each other to do this.

Get in and stay in

If you’ve taken the plunge, don’t leave your followers hanging.  Remember, this is your shop front.  

What’s your special sauce?

Twitter is a crowded market place.  Always try and remember your USP, or ‘special sauce’ when tweeting.  

Know your audience

Are you a cocktail start-up or financial advisor?  Always put your reader at the heart of everything you write.  (For more on this see this excellent writing guide by Ann Handley.)  

Know yourself

If you have a brand style or personality, carry that through to your tweets.  Twitter may seem informal, but it is all part of your brand communication strategy.  

So, now you’ve got the absolute basics to get you started.  Have a play around and get familiar with the twitter-verse.  You’ll read lots about social media strategies, content creation/curation, SEO, ROI, platforms and so on.  But really, in the early days, if you just want to ‘be on twitter’ this will keep you going for now.  When you’re ready to step it up, here are some great resources:

There are A LOT of social media bloggers out there, giving free and helpful advice.  I especially like Peg Fitzpatrick’s blog.

If, like me, you’re still partial to a spot of paper, then here are a couple of easy-to-follow books:

500 Social Media Marketing Tips, by Andrew Macarthy

The Art of Social Media, by Guy Kawazaki and Peg Fitzpatrick

Have fun!  But be warned, twitter can be addictive…..

Do you run a small business or work freelance?  What would you suggest to those starting out on twitter?

©Jo Higman

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