I’ve been thinking a lot lately about twitter because, well… that’s what twitter users inevitably end up doing. Twitter is almost infuriatingly great. Infuriating because it doesn’t make sense to anybody when they first discover it. Great because, once you take the leap and start using twitter, it fits into your life so damn well.
Trying to explain what twitter is to a non-techie person is damn near impossible. You end up sounding stupid: “It’s like a weird hybrid Blog/IM/Facebook/Chat program with an arbitrary character limit for every post. You should try it!” They probably won’t. But the thing about twitter is that, once you do start using it, it’s remarkably easy to become utterly obsessed with it.
It happens organically. You sign up for an account. Start following some people. Maybe it’s only something you check a couple of times a day. But, soon enough, it takes hold. And you can’t get away.
I think Tim Bray pretty well nailed twitter earlier this year, when he wrote this:
I think that with Twitter, something important is happening. But I’m having trouble figuring out what.
So here’s twitter: a web application that doesn’t sound very appealing, but whose users are often obsessive about it. An internet milestone that no one can really define.
Does it have a legitimate business use?
This is the question that I’ve been turning around in my head. There are a few places where twitter has already had a sizable impact at the business world. In tech and design circles, it’s become an inseparable part of the conference/trade show experience. Having a dedicated backchannel is incredibly useful, and makes networking a snap.
Further, I’ve seen some stories of people using twitter as a successful marketing tool. (Here’s a good rundown of one example.) It’s a way to directly interact with potential consumers, and join the conversation. If twitter does nothing else, that’s valuable in itself.
Still, though, I can’t help but feel like twitter is still mostly untapped potential for business users. In terms of marketing, communication, promotion and brand, twitter offers something that no other social networking app has been able to before.
Twitter versus Facebook
Brief digression time: A lot of markets are focused on Facebook right now. And Facebook is a huge resource, especially considering its market penetration. But I’d argue that twitter is far more potential-laden. The differences between twitter and facebook are pronounced, especially when it comes to features. (Facebook has a lot of features; twitter has none). But the important differences may seem minor: Facebook is a closed system, twitter is open. Facebook is still very passive (You don’t need to contribute a lot to enjoy it), twitter is active, and requires you to be outspoken. Facebook users are generally either netural or wary of the service, twitter users are passionate.
Small differences, but incredibly important.
What to do with twitter in your business today
If I could tell you exactly how to use twitter as a business tool right now, I’d be in an incredible position. I could make tons of money if I had those answers. But I don’t, unfortunately. The exciting thing about twitter is that it’s all still kind of uncharted territory for business.
I can tell you what NOT to do, though, if you want to experiment with twitter. First, DON’T create an account that is just a feed for your blog. (The only case where it’s okay to do this is if you’re very clear that this is all your twitter feed is. You probably need to have an enormously popular blog to do this.) DON’T go out and follow 1,000 top users you don’t have an interest in, then get mad when they don’t follow you in return. DON’T send messages from the guise of some disembodied ‘company’ — be a real person. And, finally, DON’T expect success overnight.
The last one is key. The thing about twitter is that it’s virtually no risk. It costs nothing to join. It’s very easy to use with no learning curve. And, unlike a blog, you really can’t spend a whole day working on a post. Just dive in. And have fun.
Photo by Carrot Creative. Licensed Under Creative Commons.