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The twitterbot experiment, or how to get 128 followers in 6 days

October 28, 2009

@lltrial tweet

The story: On Wade on Birmingham, I write about issues affecting the city and state. Mayor Larry Langford went on trial Oct. 19 in Tuscaloosa, and several media outlets planned to live-tweet from the federal courthouse.

The challenge: Develop an easy way to follow all of those tweets at once. Not everyone is on Twitter, so ganging them together into one stream could be a time-saver.

The solution: A twitterbot, an automated Twitter profile that would retweet these outlets automatically. I chose @LLtrial, instead of something like @LangfordTweets, so the keyword “Langford” wouldn’t continue to dilute the #langford hashtag search.

The method:

1. Select the sources. I chose @1055WERC, @BhamWeekly, @CBS42, @JohnArchibald, @Langford_trial, @LangfordCourt and @LangfordTrial.

2. Build the bot. I followed the steps in “How to make a Twitter bot with no coding” carefully. It took several tries to get it right, especially when using the terrific Yahoo! Pipes service (in which I have some experience) and Twitterfeed (zero experience).

Especially frustrating was the fact that Twitterfeed had a severe service outage during the testing phase, making it impossible to move forward. The first three days of the trial passed before this bot was running.

(By the way, I haven’t forgotten my original advice to “Ditch the Twitterfeed” in the 30 Twitter tips hath September series. I made it clear in the set-up that this was strictly an automated feed. I also made sure that it retweeted with full credit to the original media Twitterer.)

3. Do minimal promotion. Once I knew it worked correctly 99 percent of the time, I tweeted about it once a day early in the morning. The other self-fulfilling promotion was the proper use of hashtags. When the bot retweeted any update with “#langford,” it would show up in everyone’s hashtag search and hopefully pique their curiosity.

FYI: I set Twitterfeed to send five updates every 30 minutes (the maximum). So while it wasn’t a live feed, it kept the number of tweets manageable for followers.

I also included a promo for the bot in my daily recap blog posts about the trial.

The results: In six days, the bot gained 128 followers.

LLtrial stats

I also had the profile page link back to my site, and left contact info in the bio.

I learned how to build a bot and could do it much more quickly in the future.

Possible applications: Clearly, a bot can be a great way for people to follow a specific subject or hashtag without running searches. You could set up a bot around an event, like this trial or a conference. Or you could set it up to follow and retweet based on specific topic keywords or brand names, such as “health care reform” or “Allstate.”

Tip: It’s all in how you set up the Twitter search and RSS feed. Pick the right words and location, and you’ll create a very valuable bot.

I’ve seen some pretty obnoxious bots that are triggered when you hit the right keyword. (Just try tweeting “Spanish inquisition” and see what happens.) But maybe, just maybe, you could come up with a clever bot that engaged Twitterers mentioning your trigger words in a fun or meaningful way. Just a thought.

And beyond bots, you could also use it to enhance your Twitter feed, but I would be very careful. I’d use it sparingly, making it clear which ones came from Twitterfeed and which ones from you. But just spitting out your RSS feed into your tweets? I’d pass.

• • •

What are some ways you could use a bot to do research? Or extend your brand? Or annoy other Twitterers? Comments, please.

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