Other than the 140 character count limitation, Twitter is largely free from the structure of social networks like Facebook and Linkedin. In this sense, Twitter is very much the “choose your own adventure” of social media websites.
Though the virtually limitless possibilities of Twitter can be exciting, they can also be daunting for those mostly experienced with traditional social networks. Furthermore, the lack of constraints can be conducive to unwitting violations of widely-accepted Twitter norms and best practices. After months of witnessing both confusion and missteps by fellow clinical research professionals, I decided it was time to write a comprehensive Twitter guide to ease the Twitter learning curve.
If you are a clinical research professional who is new to Twitter, read on for information about important Twitter concepts, best practices, and more.
Understanding Twitter’s Value
The most common criticism of Twitter is that it is for inane and unproductive conversation. It certainly can be, but Twitter can also be much more. Because Twitter is so flexible, it is really up to you to determine your Twitter experience.
Fully articulating Twitter’s value is challenging, but thankfully, someone has done that job for me.
Though this post describes the experience of a media relations professional, everything he says can be applied to clinical trials. If you question Twitter’s value, I highly recommend that you read this excellent post on the topic:
Among other great insights, the author of the post described Twitter in this way:
…it’s like the most interesting room in the world, because the whole world is in the room – and you can hear the conversations you want to, talk to the people you choose.
In many ways, Twitter’s potential is only limited by your goals and imagination, but here are some possibilities for clinical trials:
- Network – Meet new people in the clinical trials industry and keep up with those you already know.
- Stay Current on Hot Industry Topics – Stay current on important clinical research topics and hear the opinions of others.
- Find Opportunities for Collaboration – Regular contact with other clinical research professionals makes it easier to identify collaboration possibilities.
- Research – Understand patient attitudes on various topics, which can be useful for gauging protocol feasibility, informing patient recruitment campaigns, etc.
- Patient Recruitment – I personally don’t think Twitter is the ideal venue for recruitment, but it can be done on a limited scale.
- Patient Awareness – Raise awareness and demystify clinical trials by tweeting general trials information of value to prospective patients.
- Company Branding – Build brand awareness for your clinical trials company with others in the industry.
- Attend Conferences Virtually – Though not as valuable as attending a conference in person, you can learn some tidbits by following people attending or by searching for the conference hashtag.
- Thought Leadership – Establish your expertise around a particular trials-related topic by tweeting information on that subject.
- Drive People To Your Website – If your website is updated frequently with new content like blogs, videos, or white papers, you can use Twitter to drive readers to those posts.
- Monitor Your Brand – Monitor mentions of your brand to understand what people are saying about it.
- Find the Lighter Side of Research – You came up with a great GCP knock knock joke, but even your closest loved ones roll their eyes when you try to share it. No more. Twitter can help you and fellow professionals find humor in research.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should give you a good taste for Twitter’s potential.
Deciding on a Twitter Presence
If you are considering a personal Twitter presence, the thought process for that decision will not be particularly complicated. Sign up and see if you like it.
But if you are considering an official company presence on Twitter, that decision will require more thoughtful consideration. In a previous post on social media, I identify 3 fundamental questions that clinical research companies must answer before committing to an official social media presence. They are:
- How much can your clinical trials company engage?
- Will my clinical trials company show up?
- What are my clinical research company’s goals?
The full article explains why these questions are important and how you should go about answering them.
Regardless of whether your new Twitter presence will be personal or official, please keep in mind that Twitter requires consistent participation over a period of time to realize the benefits. Do not expect to be impressed by its value right away.
The First Rule of Twitter Club
Before you read further, please understand that the guidelines I describe are just that, guidelines. For every suggestion I make, you can certainly find exceptions as well as other experienced Twitter users who will disagree with me. Of all the social networks, Twitter is where you will find the most disagreement on best practices. The first rule of Twitter club is that there are no rules.
This post is intended to help clinical research professionals who are new to Twitter, but it is not, by any means, an authoritative resource. Once you get more experience with Twitter, you’ll form your own opinions and settle on a tweeting style that is comfortable for you. And with this experience, you will also be capable of identifying potential exceptions to the guidelines I discuss.
Getting Started: Essential Steps
Before you do anything, check your clinical research company’s social media policy and get clarification as needed. The importance of this step should be self-explanatory.
In addition, I’ve identified 5 areas that require attention before you start following people on Twitter. Twitter has a major spam problem, and tending to these 5 areas properly will help others identify you as a real person capable of valuable contributions, which will ultimately make it easier for you to engage with others.
- Pick a Username – You may have a hard time getting the username you want. If your desired username is taken, be careful about tacking a series of numbers onto your desired username. Because spammers often use numbers on their usernames, experienced Twitter users tend to be wary of usernames with numbers.
- Complete Your Bio – What you put in your bio will largely be dependent on your goals. For instance, if you want to network with other clinical trials professionals, I highly recommend including something about clinical trials in your bio. Regardless of your bio content, make sure to put something.
- Upload an Avatar – Upload an avatar immediately after signing up. If your Twitter presence will be personal rather than official, a picture of your face will probably give you the most credibility. But just about any avatar is better than the standard avatar given to new accounts.
- Identify Your Location – Location is not especially important for large international corporations but it is important for everyone else. If you are a research site, in particular, location information is a must. Put something descriptive rather than something cutesy like “earth.”
- Start Tweeting – When people decide whether to follow a Twitter user back, they often look at that user’s previous tweets to gauge whether the content is likely to be of interest in the future. I recommend sending at least 5-10 tweets before following users you do not already know.
What Should I Tweet About?
This question is difficult to answer because it depends on a variety of variables, including your goals, individual Twitter style, and potential constraints. Regardless of these variables, you should always keep the Twitter Golden Rule in mind:
Tweet others as you would like to be tweeted.
Yes, this rule is a horribly cheesy adaptation of the Golden Rule, but it is true and should guide many aspects of your Twitter presence. In particular, be mindful of the Twitter Golden Rule when determining what content your followers will find valuable and as you socialize with others.
Tweet Items of Value
Take some time to think about who you want to follow you. What kind of information will these people find interesting and valuable? The answer to that question will vary, but it will rarely include content such as company press releases, self-serving promotional information, or statements about how awesome you are. If your plan is to get on Twitter and start broadcasting a self-serving message, you need to adopt a new strategy or reconsider whether Twitter is the place for you at all.
Certainly, it’s acceptable to tweet some self-serving information, but the vast majority of your tweets should provide readers with value. As a general rule of thumb, self-serving tweets should comprise no more than 20% of your tweets.
One way to provide that value is to tweet links to articles, but I’ve noticed that people who are newer to Twitter often only tweet links to articles, essentially making their Twitter account a news reader. Though links can make great content, I suggest also offering commentary, opinions, and observations as well. And when you do tweet links to articles, consider taking the time to rewrite the headline or draw attention to an interesting tidbit, rather than always pasting the headline as your tweet.
You have a unique voice, informed by your perspective, expertise, and personality. This voice is a valuable contribution to the Twitter community, so don’t be afraid to express it. Infusing a Twitter profile with a unique voice is more challenging for large CROs and sponsors, but individuals and small businesses (like research sites) have a lot more flexibility. If you have flexibility, I suggest using it.
Also keep the Twitter Golden Rule in mind as you socialize. This socialization can take many forms, including:
- Talking to others and retweeting content that you think your readers would find interesting
- Offering help when you have the appropriate expertise
- Welcoming and helping new Twitter users
- Listening to and learning about what others have to offer
- Congratulating people on their accomplishments
- Making people laugh
These examples are a small sampling of different ways to be social on Twitter. But you don’t necessarily need to adopt all of them. Being social will mean different things to different people, just as it does in the offline world. With time you’ll adopt a Twitter style that is comfortable for your personality.
Quantity vs Quality
As discussed previously, you should be prepared to make frequent and consistent contributions to Twitter in order to realize its full benefit. However, do not interpret this statement to mean that you should tweet all day every day about every thought that enters your head or clinical trials news item you run across. Few people have the resources to devote to having both a high quantity and high quality tweet stream. Unless you do, quality should always be prioritized over quantity.
The meaning of quality can vary widely, encompassing tweets with information, links, a unique perspective, humor, insightful commentary, subject matter expertise, and more. You will have to determine what, exactly, quality means to you and the kind of followers you want to attract. But once you’ve made that decision, your tweets should be consistent with that quality ideal.
In short, aim to be a content curator rather than a news feed, providing readers with more signal and less noise. By earning a reputation for consistent quality, you give people a reason to consistently read what you tweet.
On that note, a variety of third party tools use bots to scrape content and “auto tweet” that content. In a thirst for Tweet quantity, users often abuse these tools, essentially turning their twitter feed into a glorified news feed. I find that these tools lower tweet quality and depersonalize Twitter streams, and their use is very obvious to experienced Twitter users. Needless to say, I am generally not a fan, and I do not allow bots to curate content that I tweet. Use these tools with caution.
Regulatory Issues with Patient Recruitment
If you plan to use Twitter for patient recruitment, it’s important to be aware of relevant IRB and regulatory constraints. You can find my post on that topic here:
Twitter for Clinical Trials Professionals – Part 2
To continue your introduction to Twitter, read part 2 of this Twitter for Clinical Trials Professionals series. I discuss other important Twitter topics for clinical research professionals, including methods for finding fellow professionals and descriptions of key Twitter features and concepts.
If you have questions about Twitter, have expertise to offer fellow clinical trials professionals, or disagree with me on suggestions I’ve made, please take a moment to share. Put your comments below. You can also tweet me here: @RebarInter.