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At 326 Million monthly active users, Twitter may be the most underrated and misunderstood channel in the digital landscape.

Let’s set some context here: Twitter has roughly 326 Million monthly active users, and about 24% of online Americans. What’s more interesting than the straight numbers (Facebook has 6x more users) is the utility. In other words, what are people using Twitter for?

When you log into your Twitter account the first thing you’ll notice at the top is a not-so-subtle prompt that asks you “What’s Happening?”

Facebook asks us “What’s on your mind?”, Pinterest asks us to “Search”, and Linkedin prods us to “Start a post”.

That initial prompt is telling about what the core functionality of the platform is, and for some of the most impactful people in the world Twitter quite literally is an account of What’s Happening.

And that’s where things go horribly wrong for most accounts. The industry-standard method for branded social media goes something like this: Create some content (photo/video/blog post), write a clever caption, then schedule it for distribution. You may even put some ad budget behind your piece to make sure that it gets jammed in front of the maximum number of people.

But that’s not What’s Happening. It’s What Happened Yesterday, or worse, What Our PR Team is Pitching.

Examples of Twitter Done Well

Contrast that with the way that Twitter is being used by the most impactful accounts. We all know about Wendy’s and the Las Vegas Golden Knights (examples included, in case you’re new here).

Maybe it’s easy when your subject matter is hockey and hamburgers, but some of the greatest impact right now is coming from people in a position of real authority. It’s coming from accounts whose work is serious, and whose profession is massively unpopular.

Some of the best Twitter work is happening in politics, and not because the authors are writing up clever comebacks, but because they’ve fully embraced the What’s Happening nature of the medium — People like the newly-elected congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib. Let’s put aside the fact for a second that both of them are incredible women of colour who have inspired millions of people in their respective runs for office. What these accounts have done on Twitter that they could not have done as effectively on any other channel is combat the criticism and take controversy head-on that would have done significant damage to most other elected officials.

Just this week, Ocasio-Cortez has been pushing for tax reform, a topic that’s always controversial and commonly misunderstood. When the press and her opponents latched onto an overly-simplified talking point, she took to Twitter to set them straight.

And when Tlaib was quoted using profanity to call for the impeachment of the sitting President, she owned the message by framing it not as un-American dissent, but as a powerful truth.

There is no other platform that can provide the type of access and control of the message that Twitter does. It’s not just a news source — in many cases, Twitter is the news and that’s what many marketing departments struggle with. Trump’s account’s power comes not from his ability to drive traffic to his press releases, but to own the conversations, to write, to Retweet, and to provoke in the place that the conversation is happening.

But My Audience Isn’t on Twitter

I think a lot about the strategy meetings that must have preceded the Trump 2016 campaign. There would have been talking points, target audiences, and tactics discussed, and at some point someone would have brought up the best way to target their core voter base.

We’ve all been in conversations like those, so I’m sure you can imagine it yourself. At some point someone would have suggested: “Our primary audience (which is roughly 45-65, white and rural) just aren’t big social media users, and when they are, it’s certainly not on Twitter.”

Here’s the thing: That person was right. Most middle aged southerners aren’t tweeting, but the people that they get their news from certainly are. What Trump did that was so effective was to build support among the people who have access to those voters. He built relationships with Breitbart, Infowars and Fox & Friends. He retweeted YouTubers and gave political bloggers material to write about.

All of that was accomplished because he was tweeting about What’s Happening. He owned the conversation and presented exactly what he wanted when he wanted.

So What?

Consider these three cases the next time you’re planning out your social media strategy. When the question of Twitter comes up, and the conversation inevitably turns to: “We don’t have anything interesting to tweet”, or “our audience just doesn’t use Twitter” remember that @AOC was able to turn tax-rate debates into a trending topic, @RashidaTlaib turned an offensive quote into a point of pride, and a reality TV star was able to use Twitter to mobilize millions of people from small towns with slow wi-fi in 140 characters or less.

Final note: I couldn’t possibly wrap this post with at least some mention of one of the most incredible uses of Twitter I’ve ever seen: When an old video surfaced showing Ocasio-Cortez dancing with her classmates, this is how she responded.