Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
October 22, 2008 1:02 PM

Why You Need To Be Looking At Twitter

Twitter is becoming ever-more powerful. You can tell when businesses, brands and governments start putting skin in the game.

Were you just as shocked as I was to see the attention that the general election in Canada was giving to Twitter on the night that we chose our government? Every so often, the TV hosts would shift over to this huge plasma screen and pull up quotes from across the country to get a gage of what Canadians were thinking on Twitter and how they were feeling as the results unfolded live.

If you don't know what, exactly, Twitter is, think of it as permission-based stalking. Much like any other online social network, Twitter enables you to set up your own profile for free (a fairly simple and painless process). Once your profile is set-up there's a big white box at the top with the question: What are you doing? With only 140-characters to answer (about the length of a very short sentence or a SMS text message) you can say whatever you want. It could be as mundane as, "taking the dog out for a walk" or as interesting as, "McCain finds solutions in what hasn't worked in the past (oil drilling, diplomacy by force). Obama finds solutions in new ideas." Much like life, the messages you see posted from others on Twitter (also known as "tweets") can be ridiculous, useless, fascinating and down-right compelling.

The true power of the Twitter network is in how many people you follow (you add the people you are interested in receiving tweets from) and - more importantly -how many people are following you (just how interesting are you... really?). It turns into a difficult balance. The kind, humane thing to do may seem to be to add anyone who is interested in following you, but that can quickly lead into a constant flow of tweets from people you don't know and can't relate to. On the other hand, part of the fun of Twitter is in discovering new people and creating newer online relationships. Just like Facebook and MySpace, you're going to have to find your best balance.

There's been a lot of back and forth online about whether or not Twitter is a powerful tool for businesses to embrace or just another shiny object that winds up being more time-suck than anything else.

It's a common debate. It's one we've seen take shape on anything and everything. This includes the Internet - in general. Think back to when the Web was first commercialized... all of the same articles and editorials we're now seeing about Twitter and business are (almost) word for word the same articles people had in the early 2000's about whether or not the Internet is a valuable business tool or a huge productivity killer. The same debates raged over the mobile phone, BlackBerry, email, Blogs, telephones and the list goes on and on.

All new technologies that cause some form of disruption are open to this type of conversation and criticism. As the technology takes hold in our day to day lives, it becomes even more apparent. These changes usually cause discomfort and uncertainty. So, how do you decided if something like Twitter is a valuable tool for your business or not?

One of the easiest ways to see if there is a business value to Twitter is to see if someone (anyone) is talking about you in that environment. Summize was a website that would search all of Twitter's tweets based on keyword queries. It was such an efficient tool that Twitter acquired them earlier in the year. Over at http://search.twitter.com you can do a quick search to see if you, your companies, the brands you represent or even your competitors have any form of conversation taking place around them.

The other reason to take a serious glance at Twitter is the community. It is quickly becoming a more mainstream form of communication and content. Companies like Dell and Comcast have made serious in-roads by having some of their marketing and communications staff engaged in one-on-one contact on everything from customer service issues to new product launches to generally just being a "friend" in the community. Seeing unbiased information about laptops from a company like Dell makes me increasingly more interested in trying their computers out - specifically when their competitors are nowhere to be found and obviously not listening to the conversation.

The Twitter fascination has to do - in part - with the speed and size of the content coming through as well. Increasingly, some of the bigger named Bloggers are abandoning that platform in lieu of Twittering their life. It's much easier to scrape together 140-characters than a semi-well thought-out Blog posting. The content is much more snackable, digestible and portable to the community users as well (you can even get Twitter on your mobile device).

Just this past week, Britney Spears (and her marketing entourage) announced that she is on Twitter (http://twitter.com/therealbritney). Though it's doubtful we'll get a moment-by-moment personal account from her during court proceedings, it does speak to how she will be marketing herself going forward. Twitter enables Britney (and your business as well) to create direct relationships and communicate in the exact same way with people who either care or are just curious about what is going on.

CNN also got into the Twitterverse in a big way when anchor, Rick Sanchez, not only joined the platform but is encouraging his audience live, on-air, to join, take part and share their thoughts. Through Twitter, Sanchez's reporting is becoming more and more conversational with his mass audience. As of this writing he has nearly 27,000 people following him.

The overall verdict on what Twitter is doing for communications is still out.

It's a relatively new platform and it is still showing signs of growth and development (as both a viable business and as a new form of communication). Ultimately, Twitter is another new tool that may be of value to your business toolbox. Take a look, try to wade through the nonsense and find the diamond's in the rough. Like all new digital platforms, my recommendation is to not dive on in and commit yourself unless you're really able to dedicate the time it will take to truly derive value from the channel.

If you want to just be a Twitter voyeur for a bit to better understand the type of content and people, be sure to check out their U.S. election feed. This web page is grabbing all content that has U.S. politics-related terms in Twitter, and dumping them into a centralized live stream of conscience feed.

How do you feel about Twitter having the mass media, brands and government joining in the conversation?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation, that will be published tomorrow. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

- Montreal Gazette - Why you need to be looking at Twitter.

- Vancouver Sun - Why you need to be looking at Twitter.

By Mitch Joel


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