How to use Twitter as a Powerful Idea Discovery Tool

Twitter can be a powerful tool for developing breakthrough ideas. In fact, it's one of the best tools for exposing you to new ideas, insights and trends. Unfortunately, it has gained a reputation as a place where narcissistic people talk about the glorious minutiae of their lives - such as, "Guess what I'm having for breakfast?" There is some of that, of course, but it is also a vibrant community where people share some amazing ideas and resources.

Here’s how to make Twitter work for you as an ideation tool (of course, you will need to sign up for a Twitter account to make these tactics work for you):

Step 1: Determine what you’re looking for

Brainstorm a list of keywords and phrases around the challenge you’re facing or  the problem you’re trying to solve.

Step 2: Listen

Monitor the conversations on these topics by setting up searches on your keywords and phrases in your Twitter program. For example, in TweetDeck, simply click on the magnifying glass icon in the toolbar and type your keyword into the search form. The program will create a new column containing a stream of tweets on that topic.  In HootSuite, another popular Twitter client that I use regularly, you can do this by clicking on the “add column” button, selecting the search tab and typing in your search term. Just like TweetDeck, HootSuite will create a new column dedicated to this search term. This is a powerful way to use Twitter, but my gut feeling is that many Twitter users never use this capability. You need to be deliberate, connecting yourself with the people and ideas you seek. Twitter searches are a key way to do this.

An alternative to these programs is to visit the Twitter search page and performing your keyword searches there. The disadvantage of this approach is that there is no way to store your searches. The advantage is that, by clicking on the “advanced search” link, you can conduct some very focused searches, based on words (multiple keywords, including and excluding specific terms, exact phrases and more), people, places, attitudes, dates and other attributes. Instead of storing your searches, the Twitter search page does enable you to set up an RSS feed to access them. So if you’re using an RSS reader to keep up with new developments in your industry or profession, you may find this to be a great solution for you.

As you monitor your new “tweet streams,” analyze what people are talking about. What do they seem to be concerned about? What’s challenging them? What problems or inconveniences are they facing? What “pain points” are they talking about? More importantly, what do their tweets imply about their needs? Making these inferences or connections can be a great source of new ideas.

Your tweet streams are also an excellent way to discover interesting new people to follow on Twitter. You can also use Twitter directories like Twellow and WeFollow to locate subject matter experts and add them to the list of people you’re following. Ideally, you’ve chosen these people because they appear to be thought leaders in the topics you’re most concerned about. What are they talking about? What important resource links are they providing to their followers? As time permits, visit their Twitter pages and look at the lists of people they’re following. This will lead you to even more interesting people and ideas.

A bit of advice about following people on Twitter: Don’t go overboard. If you follow too many people, monitoring your tweet streams will resemble trying to drink from a fire hose. Be merciless about culling your list. If someone isn’t adding value to you or is tweeting a lot about topics that aren’t of interest to you, unfollow them.

As the list of people you’re following grows, keep it manageable by creating a sublist of the very best people within your niche, so you can quickly skim a filtered list containing only their tweets. I call my sublist of thought leaders “rockstars.” A professional acquaintance of mine calls his the “top 100″ list. Do what works for you. The idea is to set up lists that enable you to focus your analysis on the best people and ideas that meet your needs. By all means, continue to monitor the overall list of people you’re following. Don’t overlook the serendipity factor – ideas can come from anywhere. But they’re more likely to come from the thought leaders in your niche, so focus your efforts on them.

Finally, as time goes on, look for other keywords to add to your stored searches, based on the tweets of the thought leaders in your niche. If you’re not getting enough useful intelligence, you may need to cast a wider net with additional search terms, or find more thought leaders to follow.

Step 3: Interact

Once you’re comfortable with using Twitter and have created a core group of interesting people to follow, get involved. Ask questions designed to solicit the underlying needs of people. What’s inconvenient? What isn’t as easy as it needs to be? What could be better? What sucks? Listen for people’s “pain points,” the problems or challenges that you could potentially solve. As you post questions to Twitter, be sure to include your keyword or phrase somewhere in your tweet, so it shows up on the radar of others who are following this topic. And don’t forget to answer others’ questions, too. Twitter is all about being useful to others – you don’t have to give to get, but it certainly helps as you begin to build relationships within this fascinating new social medium.

Conclusion

By following these three steps, you will be exposing yourself to new ideas and insights, which should provide you with a wealth of opportunities. Happy tweeting!

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