Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Writing and tweeting tips: Hootsuite troubles

 You’d think I’d have learned by now: whenever you try something new, test it to make sure it works. But though I know that rule, I ignore it. I have all sorts of good reasons: lack of time, lack of attention ... and every time, it comes back to bite me in the ass.

The lesson: when you start using a new system, such as one that will automate Tweeting for you, test it before you trust it completely.

I’ve been using Hootsuite for a couple of weeks now to schedule most of my daily tweets, and while it’s pretty easy to use, it was botching the links. For I don’t know how long now, nearly every link I had tweeted through Hootsuite (hooted?) did not work.

But I didn’t check, so I only found out when Twitter followers started notifying me that “the link in your Tweet is broken.”

The first time I saw that, I thought that I had inadvertently deleted one character from the abbreviated link address. The second time, I thought maybe that follower had some kind of browser incompatibility. But when I started getting three or four of these each day, I knew something was wrong. (They don’t call me Sherlock for nothing ... or actually, ever.)

I went to the Scheduled Tweets panel in my Hootsuite screen, and clicked on every URL. None of them worked. Each time, I got an error message that the URL did not exist.

Then I looked at the stream of sent Tweets in Twitter, itself. And I saw something strange. Where I had used Hootsuite to shorten the URL, which results in a link that starts with “”, Twitter showed a Twitter abbreviation that starts with

Getting to the bottom of it

I’ve been using SocialOomph to schedule Tweets for a few months, now. The system works well: it will shorten URLs like Bit.Ly does, and allow you to write and store tweets in advance. Tweets can include both #hashtags and @Twitter handles.

I’ve found SocialOomph to be reliable and robust: I have not yet found and instance where a tweet I scheduled did not go out, unless it violated some Twitter rule.

But the free version is limited. You cannot send out too many automated tweets with a Twitter handle (@Name) in a short time span. With some experimentation, I found that the time span is about an hour, so I restrict myself to scheduling one Tweet with an @ handle per hour. Also, you cannot repeat the same URL more than once per day. However, I found that I could send to the same URL within 16 hours.

The free trial version does not support creating a spreadsheet to schedule tweets, and I found I was spending a lot of time each day scheduling tweets one at a time. On the other hand, the “Professional” version, which does support mass uploading, costs $35 per month. That’s a little rich for me.

I investigated a couple of other services. Gremln is cute, does the same things as the other services, and it’s relatively cheap at $6 per month for a basic account that allows bulk updates. Hootsuite charges a little more: $9.99 per month, but it takes fewer clicks of the mouse to accomplish the same things. Some of my Twitter friends had run into glitches using Gremln. So, Hootsuite it was.

Solving the problem

It seems that Hootsuite developers have the same mentality as Microsoft Office programmers: they like to help you without letting you know they’re helping you, like the way that Word used to make the entire document bold when you bolded one word.

Hootsuite’s bulk tweet scheduling instructions tell you to create a spreadsheet with all your tweets in advance. You create a .csv (comma-separated values) format document. Each line should have the time, the tweet, and an optional URL link. Each of these fields, say the instructions, must begin and end with double quotation marks.

I use a spreadsheet program (either Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice) to create a .csv file. The program creates a raw text file, putting commas where the cells end. But it seems that the program also adds the quotation marks.

After I create the file, three processes affect it beyond my control: first, the spreadsheet program saves my content and formats it the way it sees fit; then Hootsuite uploads it, analyzes it to ensure it meets its standards, and then sends it to Twitter.

There are at least two conversions happening in this process: spreadsheet to .csv, and Hootsuite to Twitter. There may be more within Hootsuite and Twitter, too. Somewhere, the URLs I abbreviated through Hootsuite software get changed again.

The solution

I removed the quotation marks that I typed in around the Tweet text and the URLs. Then I tested that, scheduling four tweets just a little in advance (Hootsuite requires at least ten minutes notice). That worked — the shortened links took me where I wanted to go.

So the second lesson here is: when you’re creating a .csv file with a spreadsheet program to schedule your tweets for Hootsuite, do not add double quotation marks before and after the Tweet content or the links. If you want a quotation mark within the tweet, use single quotes.

I did leave the double quotation marks around the time, though, and that seems to be working.

Source: Creative Commons
The real lesson: whenever you decide to automate any process, test it first.

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