Back to Basics: How Does Twitter Work?

What is Twitter?

Twitter is social media platform which is based around conversation topics rather than connections. Anyone can post their opinion on any topic by simply using a hashtag (#) to categorise their message (eg #Cats).

Unlike other social networks, connections on Twitter are essentially one way. Each user on Twitter has a feed, which contains posts from accounts they ‘follow’. A Twitter user writes their message and those posts go on the feeds of their ‘followers’.  Any user can choose to follow another user if they find them interesting, but no reciprocal relationship is required.

Users can tweet (post) as often as they like. However for text messages only 280 characters are allowed at a time. This limit was increased in 2017 from the previous limit of 140 characters. Users can also post videos, polls, and images.

In general, Twitter has become a high-speed opinion mill which can be used to gauge public opinion in real-time. This can be useful to see what people think of an event (such as an election or live TV show) as soon as it happens.

As well as members of the public being on the platform, celebrities, politicians, and businesses also often use Twitter to talk to their followers. This high-profile user base is what gives the platform such value despite being much smaller than Facebook.


Back To Basics: How Does Twitter Work?


How do I get started?

Sign up for an account at and choose a username. You can change your username later, but it’s best not to as that will confuse people. Therefore try to choose a username you can live with in the long-term. This username can be tagged in people’s tweets by putting an @ sign in front of it (eg @adguider).

Fill out your profile as much as possible. This is so that Twitter know who to promote your tweets to. You should also add your header picture and profile picture, as profiles without these two items are not considered trustworthy.

After that, start following people you are interested in. If they say something you find interesting, retweet it, like it, or comment on it. If you have something to say – say it! It may take a bit of time for you to find your best Twitter voice. This is especially true if you’re tweeting on behalf of a company. This means tweeting even when no-one is listening so you can practise writing concisely and interestingly. Also – it is important that your account is active otherwise no-one will follow you.

The important thing when you are just getting started is to understand that it will likely take a while (potentially years) for you to gain real traction. This means you should check in regularly, be interesting, and don’t get put off by lack of replies to your tweets from people you don’t know in real life.

You should also add hashtags to your tweets so that others can find them. Twitter will suggest popular hashtags when you start typing after a hashtag (#), so use this system to find your most relevant hashtags.

Top Tip: Don’t add hashtags to your profile if you are posting professionally. Hashtags are links to Twitter category pages, and if you want someone to stay on your profile page, then adding links to other pages just like yours is not the best idea.


Engagement Rate DefinitionClick to enlarge


How do I gain followers on Twitter?

When you first start, there will be lots of accounts which follow you in the hope that you follow them back. Some of these accounts will unfollow you when you follow them back so they can increase their ‘Follow Ratio’ (see below). Some friendly accounts will also follow you, as will some odd accounts. It’s likely that your first 100 followers will be a strange collection of people you know in real life and accounts you have no-idea what their interest in you is.

To increase your followers, you should tweet using appropriate hashtags. Three hashtags per tweet is probably a reasonable amount, although there is some debate over this. Using hashtags will make your tweets be seen by a wider audience than just your own followers. This means they can be very helpful to new Twitter accounts.

You should also join in conversations when you can. Tagging people you are talking to or about by using the @ sign then their username helps your tweets get attention too.

While every account is different, the advice every account should follow is to be interesting. This may seem self evident, but the prevalence of people posting images of meals they are eating demonstrates it is not always followed.

Top Tip: On social media the most popular items a professional account can tweet are new research, white papers, stats, infographics, and video. Basically anything that is easily digestible and new. If you post items like this, your tweets are more likely to be retweeted, which in turn will probably drive more followers.


Calculator IconWork out your Twitter Engagement Rate with our Twitter Engagement Rate Calculator >


Who can see my tweets?

Messages (known as ‘tweets’) posted to Twitter can be read by anyone. This includes people without a Twitter account themselves.

The exception to this is for locked accounts (where only followers of an account can see their tweets). When a user locks their account, it means that they must approve people before they are allowed to follow them.

There are also direct messages (known as DMs). This is essentially Twitters internal emailing platform. There are rules around who can send Direct Messages to, which essentially boil down to – you can message anyone who follows you. To send a direct message, click the envelope icon at the top of your page.

Note: DMs are ignored by the vast majority of users due to the vast amounts of spam that is sent on the platform.


You can embed Twitter feeds like this on any website by simply going to


When and how often should I tweet?

The general wisdom is to tweet 3-5 times per day. With these tweets you should try to ‘give’ 90% of the time, and only ‘ask’ 10%. This means you should only have one in 10 tweets be about getting people to do something (such as buy a product or sign up to a newsletter).

Most people also recommend that you retweet someone else at least once per day. Retweets are essentially the currency of Twitter, so by retweeting others you are somewhat encouraging retweets of your own tweets. Retweeting your customers, or your company is generally a good idea.

The timing of your tweets is up to you really – when is your preferred audience online? If you’re tweeting for business, then perhaps 9-5 is the best time frame for you. If you’re tweeting about sports, then perhaps the weekend is best. You’ll have to do some testing to work it out for yourself.

To stop yourself from going insane, you should definitely use some sort of social media scheduler. These programs (some free, some not) mean that you can set tweets to go out in the future.  This can be incredibly convenient.

Top Tip: Ideally you want your social media schedule to be consistent. This helps your followers know when to expect your tweets and improves that relationship. This means that you should plan a weekly schedule of when you will tweet and stick to it. In order to be able to stick to it, you need to not be over-ambitious.

It may be ideal to post 100 times per day, but unless you have (and will always have) enough time to devote to this schedule then it’s a bad plan. Make sure you can fit your social networking into your existing schedule for the long-term, and you will be much more successful.


How do I know how well I’m doing?

Like most social networks, the main metric for gauging success is Engagement Rate. On tweets you have posted you can click the little chart icon in order to find out the results for that tweet.


Twitter Stats
This bar appears under your tweets. Click on the three lines for stats on that tweet.


Alternately you can go to to find out more complete stats about your Twitter account. Like all social networks, Twitter counts any interaction with a post as an engagement. Therefore you should make sure to look at what engagements actually occurred.

For example ‘Details expands’ are when not all of your Tweet was shown on someones screen, so they had to click to see the end. While it does mean that someone was interested enough to read your whole tweet, it’s not nearly as valuable as a link click. Similarly ‘likes’ are nice in that they help you understand if your tweets are interesting at all, but that is the entirety of their value.

Top Tip: Don’t be distracted by the stats Twitter provides. If you are there to drive sales, and you are not driving sales then it doesn’t matter if your engagement rate is high. Focus on what is important to you.


Twitter Engagement Rate EquationClick to enlarge


What shouldn’t I do on Twitter?

Don’t ever forget that everyone can see your tweets, and always will be able to. Therefore you shouldn’t imagine that you have the anonymity of the internet on your side when using Twitter, even if you aren’t using your real name. You should only say things on Twitter that you would say out loud in public in real life.

This isn’t a call for self-censorship, only for understanding that Twitter is public. If you are tweeting for professional reasons, keep your tweets on topic. Perhaps you have strong political views, but your professional account isn’t the place to air them. There is no need to generate negative feelings towards your business by expressing opinions entirely unrelated to it.

Also keep in mind that Twitter is a private company and they are allowed to ban you from their services. So follow their terms and conditions if you want to be allowed to keep using it.



Twitter Definition