Can You Use Twitter for Research?

Social media has transformed how many people get their daily news and how companies reach out to potential clients. Although limited to 140-character sound bites, Twitter is a valuable source of news and information. But you can also leverage the power of Twitter to connect with subject matter experts and conduct research. Here’s how:

Rethink hastags.

Hashtags are not just for trending topics and celebrities. Hashtags are a way of finding information on a specific subject and useful tools for researchers. Just type # and whatever you are interested in into the search bar and find all tweets and users that have recently discussed that topic. Let’s take one of my favorites: biofuels. If I type #biofuel into the search bar, I get tweets with links to reports on recent biofuel advancements, plus I can see who is tweeting about biofuels. By following those who have quality tweets about biofuels, I get information in my timeline that can inform my research. One word of caution: abbreviations are both good and bad. For example the abbreviation of waste-to-energy (#WTE) will bring up a mixed bag of material, some of which is completely irrelevant. Use the search bar to find hashtags if you aren’t sure what the Twitter abbreviation may be.

Utilize lists.

By using a tweet organizer such as Hoot Suite or TweetDeck, you can create lists of people/organizations you follow who provide content on topics you are interested in. You can add/delete tweeters from your lists as needed, but it allows you to search through relevant content in one easy column, instead of trying to sort through the fast stream of consciousness in your timeline. Maybe you are researching carbon capture, and want to create a list of folks that tweet about that topic. When doing research, having a handy list of relevant tweets/tweeters saves you precious time.

Host or participate in a Twitter chat.

A twitter chat is a scheduled cyber-meeting to discuss a particular subject. Your company can host the chat by advertising a time and topic and tweeting it to your users. An essential component of the Twitter chat is the hashtag. You can create a new hashtag to use specifically for your chat (especially if your company or twitter account hosts tens of thousands of followers) or you can use existing hashtags for the subject matter. Here’s a couple examples: the recent Power-Gen International conference in December utilized a #POWERGEN hashtag so that attendees and followers could tweet about the conference. I recently participated in a chat on #microgrids, which enabled me to ask questions of subject matter experts and connect with those experts offline following the chat. Here’s how it works: at the published specified time/date, pull up a search window for the hashtag for the chat in which you want to follow, and all the tweets that use that hashtag will show up. If you use Twitter’s search feature, click on “All” for Tweets. It will automatically refresh and show you the latest tweets. You find about upcoming twitter chats from those you follow, which leads to the next tip:

Make Twitter connections.

Anyone who has been using Twitter for promoting their business will tell you that its all about connections and this is true as well for research. Twitter is no different than other social media channels like LinkedIn, in that networking is the name of the game. By connecting with other people and companies that are interested or doing work in the same field, you can find some really valuable information and expertise. Start by following those who tweet about subjects of interest, retweet their content, and engage them in conversation. I have always gotten a response when I ask a question as a reply to someone’s tweet. In some cases, this led to continued interactions and eventually face-to-face, skype, or web meetings. A research goal is to engage the experts.

A final word.

Using twitter for research is not a quick, overnight cram process. You need to plan ahead and have time for making connections, researching hashtags, and participating in relevant twitter chats. Once you have been using Twitter to follow specific topics/people/companies of interest, you will have already laid the groundwork for your Twitter research.