Twitter Changed Its DM Rules – Here’s What It Means, and Why You Should Care

A few weeks ago, Twitter introduced some big changes to the way its Direct Messages (DMs) work – and it can affect your social marketing and customer service routines in a big way.

Just not necessarily for the better.

Because as we’ll explain, the changes to Twitter’s DM system can give you a lot more power as far as contacting people goes, and vice versa, but with great power comes great…how does that go, again? (We’ll think of it eventually.)

So, what’s different?

First things first: let’s cover how DMs used to work.

DMs are Twitter’s private messages, and their policy until a few weeks ago was that you could only send a DM to a user who was already following you. This meant that if you were following Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, he could send you a DM personally thanking you for downloading his hit single with Wyclef Jean on iTunes – but you couldn’t DM him to ask for an autograph unless he followed you back.

It Doesn't Matter music video

“It Doesn’t Matter” was a bit ahead of its time.

While this was a great system for preventing harassment – The Rock can only sign so many autographs, after all – it presented a potentially huge roadblock for anyone trying to provide customer service. If a customer wanted to DM you with a private question, they couldn’t do it unless you followed them.

Not anymore.

Now, on your Security and privacy settings page, you can opt in to receive DMs from anyone on Twitter, whether you follow them or not – and other users can do the same.

You should go ahead and enable this feature.

New Twitter DM Security Settings

The default setting is “off,” so unless you go in and change it yourself, you still won’t be able to receive DMs from anyone you don’t follow. While this may make sense for a personal account, when it comes to your business, you ought to go ahead and switch it on – all it does is make it easier for your fans and customers to reach you, and that’s rarely a bad thing.

I automate my social media – should I automate my DMs, too?

As more and more users opt in to this feature, you’ll theoretically be able to send DMs to a much wider audience.

Did you catch that “theoretically” in there?

Sending too many DMs is a classic blunder, and a surefire way to alienate your fans. There are programs and apps, for example, that allow you to auto-DM Twitter users – and with this policy change, there are sure to be more popping up – but that doesn’t mean you should do it.

Twitter DMs Unfollow Statistic

Convinced it’s a bad idea? You should be.

Sending automated DMs to anyone – follower or not – is spammy and insincere. DMs are for genuine, one-on-one communication, not robo-messaging, so don’t abuse your new ability to message way more people than you were once able to.

That means no skeezy sales stuff, either.

Email marketing’s value to both businesses and consumers is pretty well-documented at this point. Generally, consumers are accustomed to receiving lots of marketing emails, and those emails can pack serious ROI for the people who send them.

The same cannot be said for private messages on social media.

DMs are generally reserved for private, personal conversation – and until recently, the fact that you couldn’t send them to non-followers was the perfect demonstration of that. They aren’t the preferred method for marketers to send their promotions, and such being the case, they aren’t the preferred method for consumers to receive them, either.

DMs are poorly suited for marketing your brand. Like cold-calling someone on their home phone, an aggressive, one-on-one tactic like this demonstrates that you’re more interested in seizing opportunities than in respecting someone’s boundaries.

So what ARE DMs for?

DMs are perfect for providing social customer service – they allow you to engage with someone discreetly, making the conversation more private and organic than a series of updates tagged with each other’s name.

Among other things, though, providing customer service means engaging in a way that suits the customer, and that means deferring to their terms.

While you can invite someone to DM you, leave the decision to do it up to them.

For example, if you need details that a customer might not feel comfortable sharing out in the open on Twitter, you can suggest that they send you a DM. (Remember, too, that your customers might not be as well-versed in social as you are. They may not have realized that DMs were an option.)

Twitter DM Invitation

DMs are perfect when you want to protect someone else’s privacy.

Not only does this leave the ball in their court and give them the freedom to choose how best to contact you – they may decide to email sensitive info, instead, for example – but it also shows other users that the situation is being handled.

Because Twitter exchanges are visible to anyone, a back-and-forth between you and a customer that suddenly ends without explanation may seem as though you left them hanging. If it ends with you inviting that customer to DM you, it demonstrates to any observers that the issue was resolved privately.

If a customer service inquiry doesn’t require the sharing of private information, though, and the customer chooses not to seek support via DM, that’s their prerogative. It’s the same reason you should opt in to the new feature in the first place – allow your customer to reach you on their own terms, rather than trying to force them off the path they chose.

The way that marketers use Twitter DMs could change in a big way.

Twitter DMs capabilities will undoubtedly impact the way businesses use social media – potentially in ways both good and bad. As with any tool or feature, the important thing is to take advantage of it without taking advantage of it, because the temptation to overstep your bounds will always be there.

  • Tom

    I have hated these auto dm’s and never used them. The first thing that pops in my head with this change is we can actually use Twitter DM’s as part of an a marketing automation sequence and leverage another channel to reach people. Will be interesting to see how many people turn this on and how we will know if you can message a person or not.

    • Tom | Team Edgar

      It’ll definitely be interesting a few months from now to see what the optin stats are for this feature!

  • Just adding to the helpful tips above. If you haven’t already make sure you sync your Twitter to your customer service tool (like HelpScout or Groove). It’ll help you manage your replies so much easier 🙂

    Thanks Laura!

    • Tom | Team Edgar

      Yes – don’t let those CS inquiries slip through the cracks!

  • Thanks for the thorough article! I wasn’t sure I wanted to enable the DM feature but I see now I need to give it a try since I’m on Twitter partly to attract fans to my new youtube lesbian comedy channel.

  • I have never been a fan of auto DMs. I have received far too many offers to buy, demo, signup, try, like, etc. If there is ANY request in the DM it’s an instant unfollow.

    I am OK with ‘Thank you for following’ but it still bothers me.

    Here’s the rub. If you do email marketing, when someone signs up for your list, aside from the confirmation email, do you also send a thank you follow up a few days later? Maybe you offer to give them something a few more days later.

    How is using DM’s this way different? List signup vs Twitter follow? Maybe it’s our perception of how we use them? Signing up for emails is asking for it?


    • Tom | Team Edgar

      This is a really useful thing to be thinking about, Robert, so I’m glad you mentioned it! I think you’re 100% right that more than anything, it’s a matter of expectation. Like you said, when you sign up for an email list, you expect to be emailed. It’s intrinsic to the nature of that transaction. When you follow someone on Twitter, though, your purpose isn’t to be contacted privately – it’s only to see what they publicly post. Receiving a DM isn’t necessarily part of the equation, so it can seem a little invasive, or annoying. (You already get promotional messages in your email inbox – do you really want them showing up in every one of your other inboxes all across the Internet?)

      As for the question about email marketing/thank-you messages, I think that depends more on how you use your list, and what the people subscribed to it should expect. (A newsletter? Special offers and promotions? Etc.) For what it’s worth, we’ve had a lot of luck in the past with sending a welcome email to new subscribers!

      • Tom,

        Thanks. I’m always testing conventional wisdom, even when I agree with it! DM’s are so maligned because of how they have been / are being used but they hold quite a bit of potential value as a direct communication tool.

        As much as I hate receiving them, I still have to wonder if there is a good way to use them.


        • Tom | Team Edgar

          We’ve definitely found that they’re great for providing customer service! Especially whenever a question is posed on Twitter, but doesn’t easily lend itself to being answered in 140-character snippets. The important thing, in our experience, is checking that it’s okay to move the conversation to DMs before you do.

  • I agree with Robert. DM that spam offers on me is a put off. Auto DM reply the first time is fine if it dun contains any affiliate links or so.