The anatomy of Twitter: an 8 point strategic guide

Foreword: August 2011 – I noticed that this post from August 2009  concerning Twitter strategies continues to attract about 100 hits a week and decided to review it. Times change. The examples cited refer to the ‘old style’ Twitter format, and the presentation of both of the accounts I feature (Novartis and Boehinger) have changed somewhat. However, rather than update the examples, I thought I’d leave them as they were in order to allow us to reflect upon what has and has not altered in the intervening years. Your comments on the matter, as always, are most welcome.

I was inspired to compose this post having reviewed the stunning Pharma Twitterama, Shwen Gwee‘s comprehensive introduction to the effective tactical use of everybody’s favourite status updating platform, and a recent post about how to manage Twitter by Chris Brogan.

Spend half an hour reviewing the above, and you’ll have just about all the skills you’ll need in order to begin to realize Twitter’s tactical potential as a key driver of your interaction with the communities you work with, and within.

Think of them as the keys to the car.

However: do you know how to drive?

Even the sleekest, best-crafted, most finely honed tactical activity isn’t going to amount to a great deal if you’ve given insufficient thought to your social media strategic plan.

If this plan includes using Twitter as a showcase for your credentials as an authentic, committed, transparent, reciprocal and relevant social media voice (and in my opinion, it should), it’s nothing short of essential that you get the fundamentals right.

Picture 2As AstraZeneca demonstrated last week, just turning up doesn’t cut it. You need to turn up with a plan.

It is scarcely credible that a company such as AstraZeneca with so many marketing resources at its disposal should mistake Twitter for a broadcast medium in the first place. That they should compound the error by going on to present themselves within a social media setting in a way that conspires to suggest that they’ve really no clear idea what they’re doing there is nothing short of inexcusable.

The roll-out of AstraZeneca‘s Twitter account, and the way its strategic purpose, such as it is, was explained by AstraZenecaUS (who were kind enough to respond, but really, shouldn’t AstraZeneca have been doing that?) demonstrated some of the perils and pitfalls that await the enthusiastic but under-prepared corporate Twitter account manager(s).

To that end, I thought it would be useful to spend some time considering the variety of subtle and rather more obvious uses your Twitter homepage can be put to in order to reinforce its enduring strategic value to your activity.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’d like to state that I am not currently working with Boehringer, Novartis or AstraZeneca. I’m not here to pillory or praise any one of them, merely to highlight what I like and dislike about their Twitter presences.


1. What’s in a name?

Give some thought as to how you are going to name your account. Be aware of the fact that you get to choose both a username (15 character maximum; the name that appears next to your avatar) and a name (20 character maximum; the name that appears at the top of the right-hand column) as separate fields, and consider what you are saying about yourself if you choose to enter the same content in both of them.

Assuming it is still available, I think it is a given that you will want to grab your definitive username. However, there is no reason why the name you enter need be your corporate identity rather than your personal one. The Twitter settings page is explicit about why entering your own monicker in the name field is a good idea: ‘Enter your real name, so people you know can recognize you’.

It sounds obvious. It is obvious.

It is a great way of placing your commitment to transparency front-and-centre.

It lets your followers know who you are in order that there can be no misunderstanding as to whom the voice behind the tweets you publish belongs.

Why, then, do so few Twitter accounts take advantage of this simple potential strategic benefit?


Even Boehringer‘s John Pugh, who in many ways I would hold up as a model of social media best practice for pharma, enters his company’s name rather than his own in the name field, despite the fact that he often ‘signs’ tweets as ‘John’ (see the three separate references (1) in the image above), which is a practice I like but which is also a protocol that could (and indeed should) be made redundant.


Well, at 20 characters in length, the text ‘managed by John Pugh’ would fit into the name field, as would the even better option, ‘managed by @johnpugh‘. The latter not only freely states the identity of the employee(s) responsible for maintaining a company’s corporate Twitter account, it also releases that individual from the tyranny of having to sign every tenth tweet or so in order to prove their ‘human’ credentials. Finally, it allows the individual in question to lead, as it were, an independent life elsewhere on Twitter, leaving them at liberty to tweet responsibly about interests which they are in two minds about associating with the corporate account they maintain.

2. Get the picture

Be aware of the fact that your avatar says something about you. Mine may speak to you of the fact that I consider myself to be a pensive individual with an eye for an arty monochrome self-portrait, or perhaps be suggestive of my having accidentally glued my fingers to my head (which I haven’t, so don’t worry).

The Novartis avatar needs psychotherapy for an underlying metaphysical failure of self-recognition. It’s on Twitter, so it presumably wants people to like it, talk about it, and interact with it. However, the sober austerity of the corporate headquarters avatar currently being used presents the company as Fortress Novartis, unapproachable, unbreachable, faceless, and cold, which is surely the antithesis of what the company has set out to achieve in creating a Twitter account in the first place.

The Boehringer avatar is a little kooky. A kid. A fishtank. I’m still not sure whether it’s the product of a $50,000 PR consultancy project, or a candid photo of a family member, but either way I like it even though I’m not sure why. It’s human. It works. At a stretch, I’d say it is in keeping with the aesthetic of the company’s corporate homepage, although this is a matter of little import on the basis that the latter does not link to the former. Perhaps there are plans afoot to rectify this?

3. Foreground the background

Align your background image and design colours (Settings > Design) with your strategic goals. Again, Novartis is currently failing to optimize the strategic potential of its Twitter design by having elected to opt for nothing more engaging than a wash of block colour.

Boehringer, on the other hand, have taken down the background image from the ‘success in serving patients’ campaign that they launched their account with and replaced it with a clever collage of symbols that says positive things about their brand. The double helix and microscope connote the conjunction of contemporary and traditional scientific method; the globe signifies the worldwide communities the company serves; the family and ‘heart-in-hand’ icons remind us of the concern for patient health we hope is at the core of Boehringer and every other pharma company’s activity.

Comparing the two pages, we see an opportunity overlooked contrasted with an opportunity perceived and executed. Make sure your presence resembles the latter rather than the former.

4. Know where you’ve come from, know where you’re going

The location field has a generous 30 character limit, so there is plenty of room to say something here not only about where you yourself are based, but also about the geographical areas you are setting out to engage with.

Just saying ‘global’ is not only tamely anonymous, but also confusing. It neither tells your followers where you are, nor does it enlighten them as to whom you’d like to connect with.

State your location with intent. Be aware of the fact that it says something about your purpose.

5. Think before you link

What value are you adding to your followers’ engagement with your brand on Twitter by merely adding the URL of your homepage to the web (see 5 above) field? Again, the settings field corresponding to this element of your Twitter homepage encourages you to add ‘more info [to your] URL’, so take Twitter up on its invitation.

For example, I link to a page describing STweM’s social business development services rather than just my blog homepage, because if you’ve been kind enough to take the time to visit my site by clicking through from my Twitter page, I don’t want to leave you in any doubt as to what it is I do. I hope that everyone that visits my site via this link gives at least cursory consideration to one of the productive ways in which we could work together.

Remember that you can change your web link as often as you like. If you’re running a particular time-delimited campaign and tweeting frequently in support of it, you may wish to link straight to it from here for the duration of the activity.

Be creative. Take your followers to interesting places.

You wouldn’t just leave a guest on your doorstep. Make them feel welcome. Invite them in.

6. Your bio: your mission statement

Your bio is your mission statement. Give a great deal of thought as to what you say about yourself in the 160 characters you are allotted, and make sure you use every last one of them.

Not only will your bio be crawled by Google, as well as specialist Twitter search engines such as Twellow, but a great deal of your social media credibility hinges upon what you say here, as well as what you don’t say.

Show, don’t tell.

Don’t self-promote.

Don’t call yourself a guru (unless you are a practitioner of eastern mysticism). Same goes for self-identifying as a pirate, ninja or expert. Just. Don’t.

Don’t say you’re ‘passionate’. That’s taken as read, or why would you be doing this in the first place? Also, it is increasingly taken to be a signifier of your being ‘passionate about acquiring your clients’ cash’. The more earnestly you attempto to convey your sincerity, the more of a fake you’re going to sound. Just be you.

Don’t offer an account of yourself so bland as to be universally applicable, and therefore of interest to nobody in particular.

Don’t be cheesy. Variations on the whole ‘father..  son… husband…’ forumula in a Twitter Bio or anywhere else on the social web don’t make me well up with a feeling of Universal Love towards the individual in question, they make me want to throw up.

Do shine a light into the niche you’ve chosen to inhabit.

Do explain how you can add value to a potential follower’s experience of Twitter.

Do say something upbeat, positive, human and engaging.

If you’re a pharma company, don’t say something that could be misconstrued for your having mistaken Twitter to be a broadcast medium such as ‘Latest Novartis news and updates from Novartis Communications‘.

Do say something inspiring, agreeable and brand-boosting such as  ‘We want to improve the health and well being of people and animals through being an independent, innovative, research and development driven company‘.

7. Look over your shoulder; hold out your hand

Be aware of who is following you. For all the reasons I stated here, keep your doorstep clean and do not allow spam followers to be associated with your account. Review and block inappropriate accounts regularly.

Just as importantly, make sure you follow each and every relevant follower who follows you back. For me, a low following-to-follower ratio suggests that the account in question isn’t walking the walk when it comes to interaction.

If you’re not on Twitter to connect, what are you there to do?

If you’re a pharma company, you don’t have to block or reciprocally follow individuals who have no obvious association with healthcare but who may have chosen, for whatever reason, to follow you. However, there is no reason why you should not follow each and every health care professional, patient advocate or group, health care provider, or medical content provider who has taken the trouble to seek you out.

Anyone with an adjacent interest in health who follows you, you should be connecting with – and that means critics, as well as advocates.

Failing to reciprocally follow relevant followers (i.e. having a disproportionate number of followers relative to the number of people you follow) bespeaks a fundamental misunderstanding of Twitter’s function as an enabler of dialogue rather than a channel for your monologues.

You’re here to listen.

You’re here to talk.

You’re not here to clap your hands over your ears, screw your eyes tight shut, and start shouting.

8. Is your tweetstream an echo chamber?

If you can only hear your own voice and see your own content in your tweetstream (no @replies, no interaction with your followers, slews of clipped messages with truncated URLs), then you’ve misunderstood what you’re here for.

If all you want to do is issue corporate declarations and broadcast news, then set up an RSS feed.

But why would you bother?

Practically no-one will read them there.

Practically no-one will read them here.

An increase in your RSS subscription feed statistics is neither equivalent nor proportional to customer engagement.

An increase in the number of @replies your Twitter account receives is both explicitly equivalent and directly proportional to customer engagement.

If your feed looks like this, be aware of the fact that your followers are only hanging around in the forlorn hope that you will one day find something to say to them personally.

When you start interacting with them, you give them a reason to continue to follow you. If you don’t, you give them no reason to stay.

If your feed looks like this, (lots of interaction and engagement, plenty of evidence of your interest in and interaction with emerging communities) then you’re doing a better job of managing a key element of your corporate social media portfolio.

It’s great to talk to people who have found their own way to you and are interested enough in what you do to ask you about it.

It’s better still to discover that they are talking to other members of their community independently about what you do.

When a follower becomes an advocate, you’ve demonstrated to your own satisfaction as well as everyone else’s that you’re doing something right strategically.

That’s why your here.

Isn’t it?

13 thoughts on “The anatomy of Twitter: an 8 point strategic guide

  1. Wow, Andrew,

    what a great post to kick off the day. Very insightful analysis and advice for our favorite pharma twitterers.

    It also points to the limit of what some pharmacos might be able to do with twitter at this moment:

    If you cannot get legal approval to reply even to a friendly innocent, straightforward question,

    If you are uncomfortable to let your company’s twitter account have a soul managed by the caring hands of a single, or a team of passionate employees,

    If your whole twitter presence smells stiffling fear of potential legal consequences,

    If you end up creating a cold, arrogant and condescending image of your corporate brand because of this

    You just achieved the opposite of what you set out to do when you ventured into social media. You are not ready to realize twitter’s potential.

    My Grandma always says, you have three options in life: you take it, you change it or you leave it.

    As you point out Andrew, we, the twitter community will not take this for much longer, we are getting already bored with the disengaged push machines some pharmacos set up. We all still hope for change, but it is starting to be a long wait…

    It will be interesting to see, if any companies choose the latter options -“We leave it for right now and come back to it, when we have our act togehter internally.”

    Note to pharma: If this will be the case, PLEASE let us know, we understand. Do not just let your twitter account sit there like a dead duck in the water. That feels like starring at the telephone all day in the hope you might give us a call…

    I also have to disagree with you on one point. I am not so sure about having to put one person’s name and connection to the account. I am all for having twitter souls driving the discussion, but some companies have shown that this can be skillfully achieved also with several or rotating twitterers.

    It is about promoting the corporate image and I feel several people or a team can do this as well as a single person – provided they are personable, reactive and relational about it.

    Finally, you touch on the reciprocity of the conversation. I would go one step further on this. The @replies are essential, but also: Please pick and choose your conversations! What #hashtags do you want to be part of (#hcsm, #hcsmeu,#pharma, #healthcarereform)? What social causes do you want to support (see I love NHS campaign or green for IRAN for example)? Please chose the communities you want to reach out to and DO, make the effort! Use twitter to shape and drive the conversations we need to have to create better patient outcome, reform healthcare and drive research.

    • Your Grandma certainly tells it like it is. 🙂

      Thank you for having put together such a comprehensive response to this post.

      I think we need to continue discussing how best to identify the voices responsible for the content with the corporate account ID itself. I understand your point, and yes, by their very nature these accounts are often (and perhaps should always be) team-written. However, I still want to know that.

      Anonymity and social media mix like oil and water.

  2. Great stuff, Andrew. Only a few pharmas so far have embraced the fact that Twitter is all about being human. We can find press releases anywhere. We want to see some humanity, some personality. J&J, Boehringer, and Roche do this well. Encouraging inside people like @bradatpharma (a Novartis employee) to be present as unofficial ambassadors is also smart.

    • Hi Steve – thank you for taking the time to leave a comment.

      The frustrating thing ‘from the outside’ is that anyone participating in the health care social media space will have come across enthusiastic, knowledgeable SM advocates who work for the companies who are under-performing so woefully in SM spaces and whose talents they would seem to be squandering.

      We know they know that, of course, and that they’re trying as hard as they can to push water uphill. Ultimately, if a disinterested observer winces when they look at @Novartis, imagine how @bradatpharma must feel.

  3. Solid article. We are also unsure of the best way to set up a corporate account that is shared by many Twitterers. The best I’ve seen so far is by the Bing team (

    An easy solution would be for Twitter to set up a corporate account option. Under this corporate account you could assign multiple Twitter user accounts. All posts made by any of these user accounts would be automatically re-tweeted by the corporate account. A reader would then have the option of replying directly to the user account, or they could reply to the corporate account (for all to see).

    • Hi Gus

      Thank you for stopping by.

      It’s hard to believe that Twitter isn’t working on some sort of pay-for parent-child account options in order to meet corporate customers web requirements.

      Not only would it be a compelling business model (and eager funders or not, they could use a few), it would also cleave the heads of Yammer and their ilk clean off their shoulders, IMO.

  4. Not only corporate entities can benefit from your Twitter anatomic dissection, Andrew. Staff here at our (anonymous, please) medical society struggles to use Twitter as more than a push technology for news and press releases. It’s the old “We don’t know what it is, but we gotta have it” mentality. Thanks for these tips.

  5. Hi MAB

    Thank you for leaving a comment. Having IDd your not-to-be-named society using an IP look-up, I think you’re being a little harsh on yourself.

    You’re closer than you think to achieving a functional portfolio of SM presences serving all the needs of your community with regards to the qualitatively distinct forms of interaction they wish to engage in with you.

    I think you have all the pieces in place strategically (your site features clear links to T, FB, YT et al). However, you’re clearly not yet getting the sort of value that you could be as I don’t get a sense that you have a clear definition internally of the use-value of each of the presences you maintain and the characteristically different interactions they invite your members to engage with you in.

    I can see that you do have some tactical issues within each of those presences. Some are fallow, others are blooming. I also get the sense that you’re not quite sure how to hook up your portfolio of SM presences in order that they mutually support each other.

    If you need some more help to iron out the kinks, let me know.

  6. Pingback: Sunday Wash-Up 23rd August « Shack's Comings and Goings

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