5 Ways to Use Twitter to Promote Good Food for All

Winning friends and influencing people on Twitter is about earning. not winning, influence.

Can food tweets go viral amidst COVID-19?

#coronavirus has been teaching us what viral means in terms of a scary communicable disease, not just the communicable media scene we’ve grown comfortable with.

But a hyper-modern pandemic requires hyper-modern communications. The Twitterverse has come through the #COVID-19#CoronaVirusUpdates experience with flying colours — providing a communications universe where health experts have unfiltered access to inform and engage those of us who want to be proactive.

I am concerned, however, that food champions and advocates have mostly been at the margins of the action and need to get up to speed on Twitter.

When the prospect of supermarkets running out of toilet paper gets more attention than people running out of food in a long-distance food system, we know we’ve haven’t made the case for food security.

When local food producers have to scramble to find ways to make direct links with their customers, we know that producers and consumers haven’t been as connected as they need to be in a relationship-based and people-centered food system.

We shouldn’t be doing catch-up during a crisis.

I’m proposing five guidelines for food enthusiasts who want to use this global a-ha moment to discuss how a good food agenda fits into the big picture. I hope that by increasing our influence on Twitter, we can create conditions that allow food organizations to do direct delivery or establish virtual hubs where people can buy or share fresh, local and nutritious food.

The gist of my argument is that we have to make an abrupt about-turn in our use of Twitter.

At this point, most people in food organizations are taking their lead from their alligator brain. They are using Twitter for its lowest and least productive purposes. They are either using it to sell their product or cause based on their virtues and needs. Or they are selling their messages about what is going on. These choices are based on self-centered survival thinking and a fundamental misunderstanding of social media — which is not a forum for mass advertising.

Instead, leaders of food organizations need to become other-centered and figure out how to serve people in one of two ways. One is to add value to links and messages by revealing distinctive food-related ways of seeing their meaning. Another is to use the Twitter connection to develop two-way and mutually beneficial communications and relationships. If you don’t think there is something to be gained from a two-way relationship, you shouldn’t be on social media. When you use social media to add value and develop relationships, you may or may not increase donations or sales. What you do is brand yourselves as thought leaders and contributors rather than needy organizations.

If food-related causes and businesses don’t rise to the occasion, be assured that the likes of Monsanto, Nestle, McDonald’s, and Microsoft will be going flat-out to shape the teachable moment that a viral episode in Disaster Capitalism brings us. We need to be planning ahead just like they are.

Knowing that #CoronaVirusUpdates will have a continuing and ideological outcome makes me grateful that good food activists and actionists have access to social media and Twitter to correct misinformation. That’s why I’m writing to offer five tips people can use to increase their impact, starting today.

Before laying out my five approaches, spare me a moment to tweet my own horn in terms of credentials I bring to the task.

Here I am, keeping up with my tweets from my attic!

 

I’ve paid my dues in the food movement; as former manager of the widely-respected Toronto Food Policy Council for a decade, past and current board member of about a dozen food security organizations, and a coach for several foodpreneurs and social enterprises. You can check out some of my food exploits on Wikipedia. I’ve also written hundreds of articles and three major books on food.

I’ve earned my spurs on Twitter as well, sending out 28,000 posts to 102,000 followers. I had two terrific coaches, @JimHarris and @hypenoticbam, and have worked for over a decade to apply their teachings on behalf of good food for all.

 

 

 

Here are five guidelines for making the best of Twitter I’d like to share. As you review them, I hope you’ll recognize them as habits you already practice in your work on behalf of public outreach, public education, and public engagement.

The starting point is to understand that tweeting should not be extra work that you don’t normally do. It is simply a tool that enables, extends and leverages your work as leaders, organizers, animators, and communicators — as you reach out to an audience of some 255 million active Twitter users generating 500 million posts a day, according to one estimate.

Social media requires some special technical skills, but it should not require special outreach and communication practices — though it may quickly reveal any shortcomings in these practices.

So let’s tweet butt!!

 

ONE:

If you already practice servant leadership, you understand that your primary task is to empower and enable the people you serve — a task identified as the cornerstone of modern public health since 1986.

Providing information and context to people who need help solving a problem just happens to coincide with the central function of content marketing, which has come to the fore as a result of social media.

It’s no longer good enough to blast out sales messages. Post-internet organizations need to provide customers, clients, or supporters with the information they need to decide on meaningful action. As a result, many social media “hacktivists” provide an “information potlatch” — gaining stature and prestige on the basis of the information they share.

In return for providing relevant information, an organization earns credibility and trust. Then the “sales” work of persuading people to adopt a particular course of action begins.

This sequencing — win my trust first, try to persuade me later — is very human. As in traditional societies, there need to be some reciprocal and human relationships before goods are exchanged. That’s why the division of the world into buyers and sellers, or producers and consumers, was such a wrenching change during the 1600s, according to one classic book that belongs on the shelf of all serious food system analysts.

Content marketing is the social media version of “earned media.” One marketing guru, Seth Godin, calls this turning of tables — from yesterday’s audiences compelled to listen to ads before receiving the rest of the program, to today’s audiences who grant permission to an advertiser — permission marketing.

So, my first Twitter hack is to self-define as a person who will earn the trust of followers by emphasizing “shareworthy” information that meets their needs. Advertising your own organization comes a distant second.

 

TWO:

To provide the quality of information required on a quality Twitter site, a content provider needs to have a specialty and be a subject expert, if not a thought leader. Otherwise, it’s impossible to keep up with breaking news, day after day, week after week, or to be credible with followers.

A specialized provider needs a target audience of people who are looking for specialized information and context — nothing less, not much more.

When I started my career in the food sector during the mid-1990s, it was almost possible to be well-versed in a wide range of food topics. By 2000, when I started at the Toronto Food Policy Council, I narrowed down to a full range of city-related food topics. Today, urban agriculture would be too huge a file for one person or small group to handle.

The Internet-inspired exponential increase of 24/7 information on every conceivable topic creates a huge range of opportunities on social media. Instead of one expert who can dominate broad sub-topics such as urban agriculture, for example, there’s plenty of space for someone who does one of the following topics — community gardens, school gardens, indoor agriculture, green roof agriculture, backyard gardening, pollinator gardens, forest gardens, container gardening, vertical agriculture, rain gardens, greenhouse gardening, season extension gardening, world crop and exotic gardening, gardening with kids, horticultural therapy, composting…. and on and on.

A specialist on each of these topics can now curate a dedicated food-related Twitter site in most cities, bio-regions or gardening zones.

My second hack is to self-define as a person who will feature information and context on a specialized topic. Find ways to connect with a “niche” audience committed to learning about and discussing this specialized topic, willing to follow a dedicated Twitter site, and able to support the site by donating to the organization sponsoring it or by purchasing products promoted by it.


THREE:

In 2001, Jim Collins wrote the business bestseller, Good to Great, which analyzed the differences between companies that were merely good and companies that were astonishingly great. Companies that were great, he argued, differentiated themselves, among other things, by building a flywheel.

flywheel, common in mass production factories, is a device that automatically and relentlessly drives activities down the line. A successful organization adapts this model to as many tasks as possible, Collins argued.

Running a successful Twitter site requires someone who can organize time and tasks with the same kind of flywheel discipline and regularity. There may or may not be automation, but some things should be done automatically.

Hashtags were developed in response to this discipline. No-one can scan 500 million tweets a day to check for relevant ones, so hashtags were developed to perform the function of automatically filtering out superfluous information.

The hashtags keep getting more specific. At the same, the connections among items identified by a hashtag keep getting broader.

Let’s take #localfood as an example. Hashtagify.me identifies me as the second most influential Twitterer on #localfood, beating out the well-funded United States Department of Agriculture. Hashtagify.me also reveals #localfood as the sun in a solar system of hashtagged words that include farmer market, real food, foodies, and organic. In other words, a hashtag exists in an orbit of related words and concepts.

An effective tweet logically includes two hashtags — one to identify #localfood and another to specify, say, #farmermarket. There should be two hashtags in a tweet, no more, no less. Featuring two hashtags attracts more readers, whereas hashtagging three words reduce readership.

An effective Twitter curator needs to know how to couple hashtags automatically, without spending 20 minutes researching allowable connections on Hashtagify.me. The curator’s mind needs to automatically trigger an algorithm that’s equivalent to automation.

There are a series of similar things a curator needs to do automatically.

Curators need to know the 5:3:2 ratio, for example. The 5 is 5 tweets a day sharing info from other sources, such as a newspaper. The 3 is information generated by you or your organization. The 2 is the stuff that is quirky, amusing, heartwarming and humanizing; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made, as they say. Both 3 and 2 stuff can be banked and be at the ready for an ultra-slow news day or ultra-busy workday.

Curators must also know which days and which weeks are special. Farmers market week, for example, happens from August 22 to 28, which calls for a week of heavy-duty tweets, hopefully, adapted to attract media coverage. The day before and day of the farmers market require special tweets, which include, among other things, special pictures — because good pictures may double the impact of a tweet . You have to think in a variety of ways most people don’t stop to think about because they don’t have an appropriate Twitter flywheel for expanding influence.

There’s a lot to think about, but a lot to do without thinking about it — because it’s embedded in your calendar — today’s flywheel.

My third hack means Twitter becomes part of a managed work schedule. Some tweets can be banked for slow or busy days. All tweets provide a consistent level of quality content. Twitter is treated as a core function of the organization, and its functioning is routinized.

Ah, tell me again was I trying to accomplish

FOUR:

When you’re in a social media bubble, it can be hard to remember what it was you were hoping to accomplish, way back when.

So you need to have an exercise period every day where you stand back and ask: why are we doing this. Having a flywheel is one thing, but the purpose of a flywheel is to free up your mind to do the things a mind does best.

It’s crucial for food organizations to think hard and clear about the purpose they have in mind.

You need to have an age group in mind because Twitter is more popular among some age groups than others, as shown here:

Statistic: Distribution of Twitter users worldwide as of January 2020, by age group | Statista

Find more statistics at Statista

Maybe that’s not your group of good followers? Maybe that’s not your group if you’re thinking of fundraising as a primary objective?

The 5:3:2 rule means that Twitter is helpful if your organization is on a campaign, or has a major event coming up. You can space out your daily 3 organization-based tweets linked to those objectives. The 7 other daily tweets keep your followers happy; the three keep you in business. The three can also feature material inviting people inside your organization, letting people know your staff and what they do on any given day.

To me, part of having an organizational strategy for Twitter is to have a ladder of engagement, a way of engaging with people in your universe. In some ways, this turns social media into a very personalized medium.

As part of the social media, Twitter works in two directions. It is not just you sending messages to the outside world. The outside world is sending messages to you. They like your post, they disagree with our post. Why use a tool with this capability, and not take advantage of the two-way communication? If someone likes or retweets your post, why not check that person’s posts and see if there’s a way to reciprocate? That starts to build a relationship.

One of the nice things about Twitter is that many people describe themselves in ways that organizers find useful. They describe their interests, ambitions, and occupation. When you review the people who like or retweet your items, for example, you have an opportunity to assess the possibility of broaching an invitation to subscribe to your organization’s newsletter.

My fourth hack means that Twitter has to pay its freight in terms of meeting organizational goals and missions. All tweets further the general missions of the organization and approximately 30 percent of tweets contribute to specific campaigns, functions or fundraising goals. This ensures that work on the organization’s Twitter account is treated as seriously as any other essential function in the organization.

 

FIVE:

This will sound a bit like zen, but to lead, you must follow.

Unless you’re a celebrity that people are excited to be connected to, or unless you keep batting your tweets out of the ballpark, the rate of growth of a food-related site can be glacial. Twitter has more than 145 million daily users, which is a huge pond to fish in. But the pond is filled with bright and shiny objects, and you need to do something special to stand out.

If you want people to follow you, you need to follow them. When you follow someone, there’s a possibility that the person will feel flattered and check to see who followed them. If your site looks interesting to them, there is about a 10-20% chance that the person will follow you back.

You need to follow with a lot of mindfulness because you want to attract the right kind of followers. Most people have heard of the Pareto Principle, one version of which is that marketers spend 80 percent of their time catering to customers who provide them with 20 percent of their sales. If your followers are “chosen” randomly or simply make their own random decision to follow you, they will eat up 80 percent of your time and give you very little in the way of reward.

So you need an “avatar” of your ideal follower. Fortunately, Twitter’s 144-character profile provides you with a snapshot of people that allows you to make decisions about whether any particular person matches your ideal follower. If their best 144 character effort to portray themselves to the outside world makes them look like they’re all about themselves — takers, not givers, for example — they’re not ideal followers for a food-related cause. Choose the followers you deserve and who will make use of your best offerings.

The bad news, or rather the realistic news, is that growing the influence of a site is hard work. There are said to be seven “touchpoints” on a customer’s journey from “never heard of you or your cause” to “I bought your product and am so pleased that I’ll tell all my friends.” Each of the seven points takes time and attention.

That’s good news for hard workers because they have 90 percent of the competition beat coming out of the gate. People who are lazy will quickly drop out, leaving the field open for you.

There was a time when it was fairly easy to follow a lot of people on Twitter and wait until the next morning to count how many had followed you back.

That’s a lot harder to do now, for two reasons.

One is that most people are much more stressed by information overload than they used to be, so the number of people who are hunting for more people to follow and more tweets to read is dwindling.

The other is that Twitter is clamping down on people who did a churning trick. These people would follow 400 people one day and delete the 360 people who didn’t follow them back a few days later. By the end of the week, they’d have 200 new followers, and their friends and clients would be impressed by how quickly they were growing.

Twitter now puts a stop to such churning. Twitter also puts a stop to people whose following patterns suggest they are doing a churn.

To follow people these days, you have to be discrete, which is a good thing.

(Twitter’s policy is explained here.)

To lead, you must earn your following. Start by seeking them out.

I suggest two methods of following people.

One, start with excellent tweets that get retweeted. When someone retweets you, there’s a good likelihood that your tweet will reach people who don’t already follow you. Among them will be people who click “like” on your post. Given how busy people are, the likelihood is high that people who like one of your posts won’t automatically follow you. But if you follow them, the likelihood is that many will follow you back.

I estimate that I grow by about ten people a day following that method.

My other method is more productive. When I see a good tweet from someone else, I retweet it with a comment. Then I check the other people who retweeted or liked that item and I follow them.

I estimate that I grow by about 20 people a day using this method.

I’m happy with that rate of growth, and I don’t see a lot of value to shooting much higher than that. Adding 30 people on 200 working days a year leads to 6000 new followers a year.

Bill Gates takes a long view of that lesson in life. “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” That’s 60,000 new followers in a decade, he would say.

That’s Hack 5. Like any good organizer, identify and find your followers and woo them. Don’t wait for them to take the lead in finding you.

Growing the number of your followers on Twitter is good for you and hopefully for your followers. Over and above that, it’s good for the good food cause and for the information commons because a rule of a commons is “the more the merrier.”

 

IT’S A COMMONS OUT THERE!!

We don’t celebrate often enough what social media — notwithstanding their private owners of great wealth and unregulated power — represents on a historical continuum. The great media historian and analyst Harold Innis, often identified as the forerunner of Marshall McLuhan, wrote an important book, Empire and Communications, about the paradox of new communication technologies.

When humans communicated strictly by speech, the person speaking was face to face with the person hearing and could be challenged immediately. Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle hung out at the farmers market in Athens and spouted their theories and could be challenged by any passerby in this marketplace of ideas.

That direct feedback system disappeared with more modern technologies. An author wrote a book that was read by thousands or millions of people who couldn’t ever challenge the author face to face or hear the author challenged face to face. This was even more true of newspapers, radio, films, and television.

Over the past century, people appearing on the mass media spoke to tens and hundreds of millions without ever being faced by face to face accountability.

But social media disrupted that pattern. Social media allows people to communicate with one another directly, and people can reply directly, without any gatekeepers. Accountability has been restored without any loss of immediacy or reach.

The potential of the information commons and of common knowledge has been much enriched.

We have overcome that social distancing between producers and consumers of information and ideas.

I hope that people in food movements and independent food companies make the most of this opportunity.

 

— Wayne Roberts

 

Wayne Roberts blogs regularly on medium.com. He also produces a free newsletter for food activists and actionists. See past issues and sign up for new ones at http://bit.ly/willworkforfoodpolicy

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