Despite the seeming simplicity of a 140-character message, there are a variety of ways for your campaign to tailor a Twitter plan to fit your candidate and your objectives, and it’s more critical now than ever. In 2009, Twitter was a novelty in politics. In 2012, it’s a necessity. And as it continues to expand and evolve, the roadmap for political campaigns is much clearer.

First, let’s dispel a major myth: Your number of Twitter followers is the biggest requirement for success. David Leonhardt at the New York Times Magazine took a look at who scores high with Twitter influence and found that the celebrity with a bulging follower list is not always the one people pay attention to on Twitter. Rather, it’s the folks who understand how to use their 140 characters effectively to push their message out and get others to pass them along. That’s what creates a virtuous cycle of engagement and amplification—a recipe for success. In the context of political campaigns, the key to Twitter is to come up with a plan that fits your candidate.

Listen to what they’re saying in Whoville

Twitter isn’t a substitute for a well-executed poll, but it can give you a sense of trends and issues. If there’s an issue impacting folks in your community, chances are someone is tweeting about it. If you see the number of tweets on a certain issue spike or notice an overwhelming expression of a particular viewpoint, take notice. It’s the sort of info that can help your campaign understand what you should be talking about. Applications like Hootsuite and Tweet Deck are particularly helpful in setting up automatic searches and scans so you can easily follow the running snapshot of what folks are tweeting.

Follow Joe Friday

Every time you tweet, search engines notice. It’s easy if you just start with the facts. Tweet a link to each page you post on your website and to every event. Not every tweet needs to be clever—just a basic note and a link will work. If you don’t use one already when you tweet links, here’s where you’ll want to learn how to use a link shortener so you can fit everything into just 140 characters.

The blue bird sings

Twitter has become an important lead generation tool for bloggers and journalists. Press releases may still have a place in the world, but particularly for bloggers, the get-to-the-point nature of Twitter makes it easier to plant a seed that may grow into extended coverage. So don’t be afraid to connect one-on-one—your direct message on Twitter is less likely to get buried than a mass-distributed press release sent via email.

Safe tweeting with protection

Teenagers are pioneering the use of the “protect my tweets” feature to create closed communities that can share messages inside a circle of friends without the risk of anyone forwarding those messages outside the circle. With a protected Twitter account, you have to approve each follower, so you get to screen out trolls and troublemakers. For example, your volunteer coordinator could set up a dedicated account used for broadcasting messages and alerts to a pre-screened group of supporters. Think of this as a text-messaging program without all the hassle and expense.

Make a hash of it

If you want to experiment with expressing yourself in the world of 140 characters, follow the leaders in your community and see what hashtags they use. These #tags will link you to other conversation streams and suggest other individuals you might follow or conversations you might want to join. Just remember that anything you tweet might end up in the Library of Congress, or on the local news.

Paid promotion

Twitter is rolling out a number of advertising options for political campaigns this year. So far, this is still the province of national campaigns. Expect to see a lot more in this area going forward, but for now Twitter advertising is not something a local campaign should expect to undertake on a do-it-yourself basis. Whatever your plan for Twitter, make sure it fits the candidate and plays to your campaign’s strengths. If it’s not a natural activity, don’t force it and don’t let it distract from your overall campaign plan. #GoodLuck.

Steve Pearson, the president of CivicNEXT, is an expert in technology enhanced communication, outreach and advocacy. Ford O’Connell is the managing director of Civic Forum Strategies and the editor of the Political Quarterback blog.