Reaching Out To a Wide Audience: A Twitter Case Study

Is Twitter useful for nonprofits?  It’s certainly been useful for Idealware. In this detailed case study, we talk through how we use Twitter, the results we’ve seen, and how it might be helpful for your organization.

Twitter has become a hot topic these days. Companies, nonprofits and government agencies are scrambling to put Twitter strategies in place, and businesses, consultants and bloggers alike are “tweeting out” updates on everything from marketing tips to the state of their children’s potty training.  

Despite its popularity, it can be difficult for the uninitiated to understand how Twitter can be useful. OK, so you can send out 140-character messages to people who follow you. Isn’t that similar to what you can do with Facebook, or email, or a blog—with the extra difficulties of length restrictions? Well, yes. But the unique culture of Twitter, which revolves around passing resources on to others, makes it really quite useful as an outreach and communications channel.

It could be an effective addition to your nonprofit’s current communication mix. It certainly has been for Idealware. We weren’t really believers ourselves when we first started trying it out last summer, but it’s proven to be a useful outreach tool that takes less time than a lot of other social media tools. This article walks through what we do with Twitter, and the lessons we learned along the way. 

Getting Started

Getting started with Twitter is easy. Simply go to and choose a user name. In fact, we found it a little too easy. Over the summer of 2009, we set up an Idealware account to see what Twitter was all about, with the intention of “listening” to what people were saying and getting a sense for the culture, without jumping in quite yet. Unfortunately, a number of people saw that we’d registered and started publicly lobbying, through Twitter, to “make Idealware tweet.” In the face of public pressure, we didn’t have much choice but to start tweeting. Lesson learned: you might want to start with a personal account or an alias before you join as a well-known individual or organization.

We use “Idealware” as our username, or “handle”. On Twitter, a username is frequently shown with the @ sign, so we’re @Idealware. Tweeting as an organization can be awkward at times, as the person-to-person culture of Twitter is geared more toward personal accounts. There’s two different people tweeting on our account, which we make clear in our Twitter bio, but there’s no obvious way for followers to tell which of us posted a given tweet.

There’s a negative side to tweeting under an organizational name. It’s hard for people to feel like they’re having a conversation with a logo. On the other hand, it makes it easier for people to share responsibility for the account and maintain a steady stream of tweets. It also keeps one person from becoming the “face” of the organization, which could be a positive or negative depending on your goals. 

What are your options, other than using an organizational handle?

  • Use your own name. For example, Wendy Harman, the Red Cross’s social media guru, tweets from @wharman. It’s fairly strictly a professional account (as opposed to including information on her social life), and she includes the Red Cross in her bio. This obviously puts more of a personal touch on the tweets, but it may not be immediately clear that you’re representing your organization. 
  • Use some combination of your name and your organization. Holly Ross, Executive Director of NTEN, tweets under @ntenhross. Her handle identifies her as an individual, using Twitter for professional purposes. In this way it’s clear who is tweeting, and that she is doing so on behalf of the organization. On the other hand, with this method it’s hard to share the work among multiple people.

You can’t change your Twitter handle once you’ve created it, so it’s important to think it through with care.

Once we set up an account, we chose a picture to be associated with the account, also called an “avatar.” This picture has to be square, which poses some issues when using a horizontal logo like ours, so we went with an image of the letter “I”… with which we’re only somewhat satisfied. The constraints are more accommodating for a picture of a person, or perhaps an image that represents your mission (for example, Charity:Water uses a picture of a child drinking water). You can change your avatar at any time.

Our profile also includes a bio that gives our location, a link to our website and a short description of what we do. Twitter bios tend to be less formal than what you might have on your website, and show a little bit of personality.


Despite our all-too-public introduction to Twitter, we still wanted to start mostly by listening to what people were saying about topics of interest to us. How did we find people and conversations? By searching for key terms, like “social media” and “nonprofits,” that were relevant to our organization. 

We searched—and continue to search— Twitter “hashtags” in order to see who is talking about things of interest. A hashtag is simply a keyword with a pound symbol (#) or “hash sign” in front it. People use hashtags to mark their tweets, which makes it easy to search by topic. For example, we follow the hashtag #nptech. 

As we learned who was saying things that were useful for us, we began to “follow” those people—basically, subscribing to their Twitter feed—to make it easy to see everything they post. These people often pointed us toward other people worth following. In addition, we follow people who are part of the core Idealware community, like our bloggers and board members. You can find people on Twitter by searching for them, or you can ask your contacts for their Twitter handles.

Joining the Conversation

As we felt more comfortable with Twitter, we started tweeting more.  What do we post?

  • Retweets: One of the most common things to do on Twitter is to “retweet,” or RT, a Tweet relevant to your community. As our mission is to provide  information to help nonprofits make smart software decisions, passing along resources that our audience might find helpful is a great adjunct to other information we provide. 
  • Posting links: Similarly, if we come across a resource elsewhere we’ll often post it via Twitter. We use to automatically shorten long link addresses into much shorter ones that will better fit within the 140-character limit. also allows you to track the number of people who click on a link.
  • New articles, reports, and blog posts: When we have a new article, report, or blog post, we Tweet about those.  For a big report, we might post a couple of times – for instance, to announce that it’s coming soon, then providing a link to the live report, then thanking people for retweeting it. 
  • News and promotions: If something’s happening that we’re hoping to spread the word about—for instance, a particular event or a program we’re trying to recruit people for—we’ll tweet about it.
  • “Behind the scenes” information: We regularly tweet information about what’s going on at Idealware, or about what we’re working on—for example, we tweeted that we were putting an upcoming report into layout. People responded that they couldn’t wait to see it, so it not only gave an insiders-view into our work, but it helped to increase excitement about an upcoming project.  This is an advantage of Twitter— it’s straightforward to keep people up-to-date on a project on even an hour-by-hour basis… which also keeps it at the top of your supporters’ minds.
  • Questions: If we ask a question, people will often respond. Often the actual questions relate to fairly obscure areas of software, and the quality and number of answers we receive depend on who happens to be on Twitter at the time. This is a great way for us to find examples and case studies of commonly used software, though.
  • Responses to other people’s questions or comments: It’s always great when you can start a relevant conversation.
  • Thanking people for retweeting our posts: People often publically thank others, using their handles, for retweets. We have kind of mixed feelings about this—it can generate a lot of noise on your account if a lot of people are retweeting you, but it does act as a nice thank you, as it could introduce your whole follower base to that retweeter’s account. It’s also a great way to keep saying things about something that you really want to promote the heck out of—for example, you can keep thanking people for retweeting info about a report… and keep providing the URL for other people to find the report.

In general, we try to post a couple of times a day. This takes about two-to-three hours a week to keep up with Twitter and remember to post. Unlike some other channels, a lot of volume is completely acceptable on Twitter—we could likely tweet up to 10 times a day or so if we had useful things to say (and had the time). Going a couple of days without posting is likely to make people wonder what happened to you. 

One thing we tried that didn’t work so well was a “Factoid” tweet. If we were doing research, we might tweet something interesting that we just learned. We have no idea if people found them helpful, but we never got any sort of response, and they were rarely retweeted.

Note that Twitter is a public venue. Everything we post can be seen by anyone who has chosen to follow us. We can send someone a “direct message”—a Tweet that goes only to them—but we can’t send a tweet to a select group of people or tailor a different message to target audiences. It’s also worth noting that tweets come up in Google searches.

Building Our Follower Base

We’ve gone from a brand new account to having around 1,350 followers in about eight months—interestingly, we have about four times as many Twitter followers than Facebook fans, though we started both in a similar  timeframe.We haven’t done any substantial promotion—rather, it’s been more of an organic process that incorporated the following steps:

  • Following people. We found it really important to start by following a number of people. In Twitter, most people will follow you if you follow them—it’s considered proper Twitter etiquette. This is a great way to seed your follower base with people you think might be actually interested in what you have to say.
  • Saying interesting things. For us, the most useful way to gain new followers is to tweet something that’s widely retweeted. When someone retweets our post, all of their followers see that we exist—and some decide to follow us. Our articles and report announcements get the most retweets by far.
  • Retweeting people. Retweeting other people is also a great way to get on their radar, and to encourage them to follow you.
  • Promoting through other channels. We’ve actually done very little promotion of our Twitter account to those who follow us primarily via email or our blog. There’s a link to it on our website, and in the standard footers on our emails, but that’s about it. We would likely gain some more followers by doing more cross-promotion.

We’re seeing steady, perhaps even exponential, growth over time, and a lot of retweets by prominent entities, like publications and prominent bloggers.

Managing Twitter

Twitter itself does not have a very user-friendly interface, leading several vendors to develop other ways to interact with Twitter. We use a tool called TweetDeck—truthfully, it’s hard to imagine being able to effectively keep up our Twitter account without it, or something like it.

You download TweetDeck directly onto your desktop, where it automatically alerts you to new tweets (with Twitter, you have to refresh your browser) and allows you to monitor different groups on a single screen.  For example, we monitor any mention of of the term “Idealware” on Twitter, and can see that in a column in the TweetDeck interface.

We also filter down the list of people we are following to create a list of people who generally tweet things of interest to us. If you’re going to follow everyone who follows you, as we do, this is a critical and common step to cut through the clutter. So how many of our “followers” are actually paying any attention to us? It’s impossible to tell, except by measuring who actually responds or retweets.

HootSuite is another common option. HootSuite is an online tool with a multi-column similar view to TweetDeck. HootSuite also lets you schedule tweets for the future, which might be helpful for a targeted campaign.  You can also have multiple accounts in one interface, and multiple “editors”—essentially, all the people you want to have tweeting from the same Twitter handle.

What’s the Bang for the Buck?

So is Twitter working for us? We think it is, in a number of ways:

  • It’s a great way to quickly spread the word about a particular resource to a much wider audience than our own list. For instance, we recently posted about the results of our Social Media Survey. It was widely picked up and retweeted by dozens of people, meaning it went out to all of their personal networks, including prominent sources like Harvard Social Media and the Foundation Center. It’s still circulating on Twitter as I write this, about a week later. It’s hard to track the exact number of click-throughs to actually view the report, but it’s more than 400 people just from Twitter alone.
  • It’s very useful for learning about new resources, and what partners and potential partners are up to—in general, just to monitor what’s happening in the community that we work in.
  •  It’s useful to reach a more-targeted audience than our email list. In general, those following us on Twitter are more likely to be tech-savvy partner organizations and consultants than those on our email list. This makes it a good place to promote opportunities geared toward these audiences (like licensing options and sponsorship opportunities). In fact, we made contact with a new client through Twitter with whom we did a substantial amount of paid work.

What’s the investment? All the tools involved are free. It comes down to the time invested. It takes about two-to-three hours a week for us to do the bare minimum of our strategy—keeping somewhat on top of what others are saying, and posting a few times a day. This doesn’t include actually reading the relevant resources that other people have posted. You could easily spend more time. 

A couple of times a day, Kaitlin, who was our Americorp VISTA social media specialist, scanned through what was posted, saw if we need to respond to anything, and retweeted or posted things of interest.  Laura, our Executive Director, was swooping in in a bit more sporadically to post something or see what people are saying -- she's now doing most of the posting, with the help of Andrea Berry, our development director. We find that it doesn’t take a lot of coordination between the staff, unless we’re trying to widely promote a particular resource with care. It is easy, however, to fall down the Twitter rabbit-hole—sometimes, when we need to get work done, we both need to just shut down Twitter to concentrate.

Overall, we definitely find it a useful investment for Idealware, and think it has real possibilities for a number of nonprofits. It likely will come down to your audience and your organization, though. Are there people you’d like to communicate with on Twitter, which tends to be a community of working-age tech- and media-savvy folks? Do you want to get the word out about things that are straightforward to share on Twitter? 

If so, we think Twitter’s worth a try. Define what you hope to achieve with it, start by listening, and then dive right in!



Incredible resource, wish I saw this earlier.

It's unfortunate I didn't see this earlier. I just gave a presentation to the rest of my office about why they should be on Twitter, and this definitely helps explain some more of the fine-tune questions they had. Those questions mostly centred around, "OK, so let's say I sign up. Then what?" I shared the same sentiment as this post but with nowhere near the same articulation. Great article Idealware!

Excellent how-to!

Wish I had read it before I stumbled around for months trying to figure out a Twitter strategy for 5 for Fairness.  Since we are such a tiny start-up, I am doing all the Tweets myself at the moment and there is no way I could do it without being able to schedule tweets in advance so when I found HootSuite, things really fell into place.

Would love more detail on how to track stats as I am clueless in that regard!




Thanks -- and metrics

 Thanks for the helpful comments, guys!  And yeah, to Beth's and Thomas' post, we're still experimenting with metrics.  We do some tracking of actual click throughs with the URL shorteners like and -- so to see who's actually viewing the resources we send around.  We don't do any formal metrics around re-tweets, though we certainly keep an eye on them to get a sense for what resonates with people.

I'm a big believer, though, that the key metrics, at least for us, need to be about tangible goals.  If we're trying to promote a report, then clicks through to the report are a key metric.  If we post about a seminar, then the key metric is how many people actually subscribe (interestingly, we find that seminars are often retweeted, and lots of people look at them, but comparatively few actually register, even for the free ones).  Engagement is interesting, but I think it's important to try to correlate it to key outcomes in the long run... i.e. retweets are great, and growing our community is great, but if none of those people are using our resources or contributing to Idealware in any meaningful way, than ultimately it's hard to say that it's worth the effort.

I'm actually in the midst of writing an article about measuring the effectiveness of online communications, talking through the different types of metrics you can track (i.e. views, followers, engagement, conversion)-- so more on this soon!

Thanks for this post. I have

Thanks for this post. I have been using twitter for a few months but kind of trying to figure the whole thing out. This article helped me make sense of some things.

An emerging "standard" for

An emerging "standard" for branded accounts with multiple staff posting is a 3-character signature, with a legend on your Twitter profile page. See @SupportVR as an example. HootSuite and CoTweet support it directly, but you could certainly adopt the standard with TweetDeck or any other client. The challenge is that you're very limited in the text you can post in your profile - you have to create an image with the information and use it as your profile background.

I would posit that a lot of your initial growth in followers had less to do with the specific content of your tweets that got retweeted than with the very high quality of your existing brand and the fact that you used your name as your Twitter username. So, fewer reactions of "Oh, some user named Idealware posted a link to a really good article about event management tools - I'll follow to see what else they post," and more of "Oh, great - Idealware is on Twitter. They generate really great content on their website and blog - I'm sure their Twitter stream will be awesome, too." If you'd started as @LQuinn or @LauraInME, I think the growth would have been much slower (though I think Laura's personal brand is pretty strong, too). You certainly needed to (and did) back up your existing reputation with quality tweets, but if you can make a Twitter username that's obviously tied to a well-liked brand, it helps a lot.

As you note, click-tracking is a little hard - it's best done through whichever URL shortener you use. If you set your tools up right to use a or account, or if you shorten a URL with a tracking code appended, you can get pretty good stats, except for if the resource or page gets independently tweeted by a third party, rather than retweets of your original announcement. The big thing to be aware of is that clicks from desktop Twitter clients <b>do not</b> register any referrer information in your website analytics, and clicks from web-app clients will register as being referred from the web app's domain, so your analytics count of traffic referred from is a very incomplete count of actual Twitter-driven content. 

PS: Twitter usernames can be changed at any time through Twitter's settings page. 


Tom, you mentioned in your last paragraph what i've been searching the web for but found very little or few people talking about and that is the referrer information is missing for desktop apps like hootsuite/tweetdeck and mobile apps like tweetie now twitter for iphone. This is a challenge because a when you look at your stats and you see 100 people land on a specific article on your site as the first page but only 50 have referrer info, where are the other 50 coming from? It is unlikely the other 50 "typed" the entire URL into their browser. The missing 50 can be tracked partially through tracking codes but what are other ways the industry is thinking about?? Thanks!

Twitter case study

Thanks for a great article. Very helpful to learn from others; this will help us assess next steps.

Great piece

one thing missing - the use of metrics to measure what is and what isn't working and refine what you're doing!   Some terrific plugins that can start to measure the conversions from Twitter to web site call to actions as well as engagement metrics.