Are 'great' tweeters born? Or can they be made? A conversation with Adam Feuerstein.
If you’re a drug development professional with ambition, you can’t afford to ignore Twitter. No matter your opinion of Twitter as a company, the act of tweeting is here to say: short, public, one-to-many communication is never being put back in the bottle. I’ve written about this issue before, offering a list of 300 accounts known to tweet biopharma-related news fastest. Maintaining a good list of followed accounts, consuming your news directly from the source, exposing yourself to a diversity of opinion outside your comfort zone: that’s BioTwitter 101, the minimum relationship a drug developer ought to have with social media. There’s no excuse to dismiss all social media with a wide brush of this doesn’t apply to me. You don’t have to tweet to be good at Twitter.
But being great at Twitter is an entirely different matter. To be great, you need to participate.
Being great at Twitter yields exponentially more benefits. You begin reaping network effects once like-minded professionals interact with you regularly. With no gatekeepers, the playing field of ideas is fairer and seniority matters less. Your Twitter starts showing up in the first page of your Google results—is there a better representation of your personal brand than your own words?
Being great at Twitter means sharing your ideas, and maybe even some of your personality. And it’s that last part that causes for anxiety for some, including myself. What if I don’t get enough likes? What if I say something stupid? Or worse: what if what I say isn’t good enough?
What if you’re an ambitious person who wants every benefit Twitter can afford a professional, but filled with anxiety?
Can good “tweeters” be born?
This question weighed heavily on my mind back in July 2015. It bothered me. Years of managing journalists, straight out of college to ones with 30+ years experience, only deepened my conviction that people who are great at Twitter are born that way. And I wasn’t born that way. So I went looking for answers: can people learn to be great?
I asked the one person in biotech who is feared, loved, viciously trolled, but above all else, followed and respected: Adam Feuerstein.
What follows is a lightly edited conversation we had about a year ago. Endpoints was just an experiment back then for 200 of my closest industry contacts. I had lots of ideas to test and refine, and our chat continued into other topics like his daily media diet and the role of readers in business journalism. It’s a revealing look into the work of one of our industry’s essential voices.
Arsalan: Who influences you on Twitter? And what kind of credentials does someone need before you consider them worthy of following?
Adam: I hesitate to single out individuals who influence me, or to say someone’s better on Twitter than others. I tend to follow people on Twitter for a reason, and I would encourage people to take a look at the list. Most have valuable insights into the news of the day, or are really fast with tweeting it. I don’t find a lot of value in following somebody who’s going to tweet every three months, waiting for some nugget.
Arsalan: What about people like Richard Pops, CEO of Alkermes? In person he’s incredibly smart and helpful but on Twitter, it’s platitudes. Yet he makes every single “people you must follow in biotech” lists. I find that unhelpful to folks in biopharma who just want to use Twitter as a primary news scan.
Adam: Rich gets on those lists because he may have been the first biotech CEO to get on Twitter. And at first he was pretty active. But hey, he’s the CEO of a publicly traded company. Compliance rules and lawyers means he can’t free wheel on Twitter, versus someone like me who basically has no filter and will say anything that he wants. Often to my own detriment, but I will do it anyway, right? Also with Rich, when they did their big merger with Elan, his Twitter activity fell off. It’s difficult because I think social media has moved way ahead of where Wall St. is in terms of compliance issues. You always hear about companies and investors complaining of handcuffs on Twitter.
But back to the core of your question is: yes, I follow Richard Pops. Do I look to him as an “influencer” or someone that I absolutely need to know what he’s saying on Twitter? Probably not. Versus someone — let’s just use [$CNCR ETF chief] Brad Loncar as an example — I definitely follow him, he’s got interesting points of view and I want to know what he’s thinking about certain things. And he’s very active, with daily presence, which is a good thing to me. Someone else who doesn’t care about day-in-day-out stuff may not find that as interesting or necessary. So I think it really is a sort of a personal issue like in terms of what you’re trying to get out of Twitter.
Daily media diet
Arsalan: What’s your daily media diet like? What’s a must-read for you?
Adam: Here’s how I start my day… like most people I go to sleep and my iPhone is never more than an arms length away. I usually get up at 5am, reach for my phone bleary eyed, and the first thing that I do on my phone is go to Twitter and check out a private list that I call Radar. It’s made up of about a dozen people who I know that if something was happening, they’ve already tweeted it. I may have to start doing something right away work-wise because of that news. So that’s the first thing. Then I’ll check any mentions of me, move on to my email. That’s the first media meal of the day, if you wan’t to talk about it as a diet.
Then I’m probably just like everybody else. I scan the wires. What’s Dow Jones saying? Reuters, Bloomberg? Anything in the New York Times? How about the WSJ? I try to read everything. Twitter is part of that tool. It’s rare to see a relevant biotech story that hasn’t been on Twitter.
Being a natural on Twitter
Arsalan: I think you’re a natural at Twitter. In your opinion, are good tweeters born or can they be made?
Adam: Well, in terms of being a natural, the way I think about Twitter is there’s different ways that you can use it. I view it as a way to communicate with people. Even before I got on Twitter, one of the most popular and regular things I do is my Friday mailbag column. I take a bunch of questions that I get from readers and I answer them. The idea is: “Hey, you have these people out there that they want to interact with you, they have questions for you, so answer them and be good to your readers.” Twitter is just another way of doing that.
Plus, you have to be kind of a human being right? So you want to joke around, pass along links to funny things, tell bad jokes, post pictures of your dog ….
Arsalan: (interrupts) …. yeah, but you’re a natural at that stuff. Most aren’t.
Adam: …. well, I’m a fairly outgoing person so that works well on Twitter. If you can project that on Twitter, use that as an extension of your personality, then it works. If you’re intensely shy, introverted, who doesn’t like to share anything, maybe Twitter’s not for you? It does work well for people like me who are natural sort of gossips. I mean, that’s what journalists are at the end of the day, right? We like to find and verify stuff, and then tell people about it. That’s what journalism is. That’s what I try to do and it resonates with enough people. For me it works.
Role of readers
Arsalan: That’s a great point, not only is Twitter is a natural tool in your reporting arsenal, it’s an extension of your personality. It was pretty interesting how you said it. No doubt I know writers who write as if they don’t have readers or act as if their reporting would be comprised if they dared considered what a reader had to say.
Adam: The days of not acknowledging your readership are over. There are so many different ways that people can reach out to you. I’ve been a journalist for 25 years and I’m sort of a dinosaur in some ways. [Editors note: Adam Feuerstein interviews Larry Page about a new startup named Google.]
I remember how you used to write a story and it would go in the newspaper (chuckles). And you had no idea who read your story, you had no idea whether somebody liked it or not. Maybe occasionally you’d get a letter in the mail a week later from somebody who read your story.
If you think about it now, it’s really weird. Like you’re almost like walled off, right?
Contrast that with today. When I write a story, I know in real time how many people are reading it. I know cumulatively how many people have read my story. I know how long they spent on my story. And you get instant feedback on Twitter. I get instant feedback by email. I get instant feedback from the comments that people leave under the story. So it’s just a totally different world today. Part of my job is to write stories that I think are important, that I think my readership wants. Why shouldn’t I write stories that I know that readers want to read?
Which brings up another way I use Twitter. If I see a lot of discussion on Twitter about a certain biotech stock or something that’s going on, that’s a pretty good indication that if I wrote a story about that it would have legs.
What if you’re not outgoing?
Arsalan: The crux of my question gets to the fact that if you were on Twitter and if you’re successful on Twitter, it really pays orders of magnitude on your career potential. It opens up a whole new avenues for you. But for the folks who are not so much a natural, can you add a little insight? Can they become great?
Adam: Look, this isn’t very good for Twitter as a business, but if you’re the kind of person who just really doesn’t want to interact and share, you can still find value in Twitter just by following people. Get a lot of insight, some new information, but maybe you’re not contributing. There’s still value in that. I think I contribute a lot to the biotech Twitter stream and I get a lot back. I learn things. There’s people out there who are really smart, who are on Twitter thinking about things in ways that I didn’t think about. They’re analyzing this in a way that I didn’t think about. I try to incorporate that into my thinking. To me that’s very valuable and you don’t need to participate to get that.