twitterI admit I was very skeptical about Twitter at first. I just couldn’t see the point in ultra short messages sent out to people who might find and follow you. Why would they? Where would they come from? Getting RSS readers was hard enough, plus I’m not known for my brevity when I write. So what was the point? Besides, the web interface seemed clunky, like a 1st generation webmail client. But what the heck. I created an account last summer and setup my blog to tweet my new posts, hoping it might bring in a few readers. I didn’t expect much.

When you blog in a niche area, you often feel like your talking to yourself. I remember Googling ‘Youth Soccer Blog‘ years ago when I first started, and laughing at the results. I often wondered if my niche was an island. 17 million kids play youth soccer in the US and I was the only one blogging about it? Niche blogging is tough. You get a comment and it’s a big deal. You get linked from somewhere that brings in a spike of readers and get excited, but they’re often gone as quickly as they arrived. You have a small group of readers who seem to like what you write, but bringing in new readers is hard. You keep churning out quality content (well YOU think it’s quality) because all the SEO experts say that’s what works. You comment on other blogs, scour ProBlogger for the latest tips, mess with your SEO plugin settings like a ouija board, and hope the Gods of Google will raise your PageRank to help bring in more readers.

Yet your website traffic graph is still flat lining. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

But you soldier on, because you love what you do and writing about it.

I checked my Twitter account sporadically, but didn’t tweet much. I was still struggling to understand how it would be useful and was still hating the interface. Then I caught a tweet, I think from Darren Rowse (aka @ProBlogger) about a Twitter client called TweetDeck. I had been trying out twhirl, and it was OK, but I still wasn’t seeing the value in it all. I wasn’t tweeting all that much, but enough to catch tidbits of useful info that came through from the few folks I followed. Yet finding folks to follow was proving difficult.

One of the interesting things about TweetDeck is the ability to have a tweet feed based off a search phrase or keyword. Every time a tweet is made with that keyword, it just showed up like magic. So I created two columns, one for ‘soccer’, and one for ‘youth soccer’, then sat back and watched the tweets flow in. That was the day I realized I had unlocked the secret to Twitter.

Tweets came in from all sorts of people about all sorts of soccer topics. Some weren’t interesting, but many were. I started to notice youth soccer coaches and parents talking about their teams, ideas, and experiences. So I started to follow them, and many would follow back immediately. I started to tweet people from the search feeds out of the blue with information, thoughts, and occasionally a link to my blog that had relevant information. I wasn’t shilling – I was trying to be helpful. I had people tweeting me thanks for following them because they had discovered my blog and found it useful. As I combed through the search tweets closer, I began to find a gold mine of potential article topics as well. Maybe this Twitter thing was worthwhile after all!

Because I was using TweetDeck, I really didn’t know how many people were following me. I wasn’t all that worried about it. Then I visited TwitterCounter for kicks and my jaw dropped. I had around 200 followers, more than I had ever had reading my RSS feed. I couldn’t believe it. So a few weeks ago, I really started to engage my followers more and also those popping up in my search feeds. The results were nothing short of astounding. My followers went through the roof:

SoccerDad's Twitter Followers

I was floored. Yes, I know a few hundred followers isn’t a big deal when some people have tens of thousands. However, for someone stuck with an RSS readership of less than 100, that follower count was amazing. What had I done to increase my pool of potential readers? Then it hit me. I had been proactive.

As I noted above, attracting readers when blogging in a niche can be difficult, and is somewhat indirect and passive. You rely primarily on Google for referrals, but most bounce away after they read what they may have been looking for. Making a blog ‘sticky’ is the subject of many an article online – yet nothing I did seemed to lower my bounce rate. So I would write and wait. I also suffered from the problem of being in such a small niche at the time, that there weren’t many peer sites to serve as potential sources of incoming links. There was a time where I really was the only regularly posting ‘Youth Soccer Blogger’. So I felt trapped.

Twitter allowed me to reach out directly to potential readers based on similar interests. I’d see a tweet about youth soccer, bring up the author’s other tweets, and know quickly if they might be interested in what I had to say. If so, I’d follow them. In doing so, I was building a network of potential blog readers who have interests similar to mine, which means they were more likely to be returning readers. Instead of the very random nature of search engine referrals, I was building a network of people that definitely had something in common with me and my site: youth soccer. 

From the beginning of 2009, when I became more active on Twitter, my number of followers has far out stripped my number of RSS readers, which have remained stuck around 100 for months. My page views are trending significantly higher compared to the glacial growth I had seen in previous years. I set all time highs for traffic three times in as many weeks, after never getting near a high I set last summer. I’ve had more comments on posts in the last few weeks than I had had in the previous three months combined. One month doesn’t necessarily mean a success story, but the impacts have been significant. Twitter is having a profound effect on my blog. Suffice to say, I’m no longer a skeptic.

I’ve also found the Favorites feature an excellent way of bookmarking tweets on topics I want to write about in the future – though like my draft queue – the list has gotten big in a hurry. 

I have no idea if the good times will continue, but I hope so. I’ve met some amazing people already via Twitter, and look forward to meeting many others. 

I’ve installed a few plugins here at On The Pitch that will not only integrate the site with Twitter more, but also help followers who read and comment to get more exposure:

  • Twitter Tools by Alex King (@AlexKingOrg): I’ve had this installed since I first joined Twitter, mostly to auto tweet my blog posts. It also has a very useful feature that will create a blog post out of recent tweets. I may enable that shortly now that I’m tweeting so much more.
  • Automatic Twitter Profile URI by Benjamin Wittorf (@bwittorf): This plugin allows commenters to automatically include a link to their Twitter profile along with their comments. Just be sure to include the email address tied to your Twitter account when you comment and it’ll automatically appear.
  • Tweetmeme Button by Tweetmeme (@tweetmeme): This plugin includes a handy button that will allow readers to easily retweet an article while reading it and also show how many times an article has been retweeted. I see this as Digg 2.0. Digg tries to highlight thousands of articles in a handful of categories. Retweets allow popular content to be shared among an extended social network of people who likely have a similar interest, no matter what that interest might be. That’s a powerful concept. I try to retweet interesting youth soccer info as well for my followers, which would make the blog post of tweets I mentioned above even more useful. I’ll digress by sharing another interesting look at Twitter and it’s impact on Digg. H/T @zaibatsu

My next project is to create a nice background for my Twitter page. TwiTip is a new site from Darren Rowse that has a ton of useful Twitter information including details on how to design a good Twitter background and where to find some existing background images.

I have no idea what the future holds, or if Twitter will have a lasting impact on my site. Yet even if it doesn’t, the people I’m meeting and the information I’m finding make it well worth the time I spend ‘tweeting’. If my site’s readership increases along the way, even better. I hope you’ll stick around for the ride as we find out! Twitter really has opened up uncharted territory for me as a niche blogger.

Now I just need to figure out how to jump start my site’s associated forums. Small steps. Small steps.

Adding: Too funny. I publish this, only to have ProBlogger highlight this excellent article by Kristi Colvin a few hours later that says many of the same things I mentioned above, plus a lot that I didn’t. All with a Twitter Count chart to boot. Swear I hadn’t seen this when I wrote mine.