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About Twitter

September 26, 2009

Brevity might be the soul of wit, but it’s also the heart of social networking phenomenon Twitter.

Twitter is built around the concept of micro-blogging, that is allowing its members to post just about anything as long the post sticks to a 140 character limits, the same amount as a standard mobile phone text message. You can follow other Twitterers and respond to their posts with your 140 character posts called Tweets.

 The effect is similar to a page of nothing but Facebook status updates, where the author can share with the world their thoughts, feelings, links, products and just about anything in between…as long as each individual update sticks to the 140 character limit.

This seeming limitation is in fact its strength. It’s blogging for the time poor, the online equivalent of sending a text message rather than a lengthy phone call. Celebrities, CEO”s, Politicians and Journalists who might never have the time to maintain and update a traditional blog have embraced twitter and provide updates several times a day.

The fact that people can update their Twitter from their mobile phone has only added to its popularity and it’s not unusual for people to provide hourly updates.

Similarly, at only 140 characters long a tweet can convey a message to an audience of readers who would be unlikely to read a full blog post.

Essentially Twitter is fast, simple and easy real time communications tool, and one that’s proved overwhelmingly popular.

Twitter is currently ranked as one of the 50 most popular websites worldwide, and is the third most popular social networking after stalwarts Facebook and Myspace.

Twitter for business

So what does this mean for business? According to Twitter”s own business guide, Twitter 101, businesses  “can use Twitter to quickly share information with people interested in your company, gather real-time market intelligence and feedback, and build relationships with customers, partners and other people who care about your company”.

Already thousands of businesses have embraced Twitter as a way to communication with their customer base in a fun, fast and non-intrusive format.

The key here is communication. Twitter is not a one way street. Just as you can post your tweets, you also have the ability to follow other users and read and respond to their tweets, forming a relationship with your customers.

The Twitter Business Guide site provides some good case studies of companies that have used Twitter to engage with their customers and grow their business and customer relationships.

A worker in the Empire State Building tweeted about ice cream company Tasti D-lite, and the fact building management wouldn’t allow food deliveries, not realising that Tasti D-Lite had an outlet in the Empire State Building which was exempt from delivery restrictions.

Tasti D-lite tweeted the worker about their delivery services and adding signage about delivery at the ESB location, which led to increased awareness and sales and also framed Tasti D-lite as a company which makes a genuine effort to converse, not just communicate with its customers.

Similarly Dell Computers uses Twitter to post coupons and special deals for their refurbished equipment division. Because Dell needs to turn over the inventory quickly it wasn’t considered viable to engage a costly ad agency. Instead, they used Twitter to advertise their specials and reach out to their potential customers direct.

The key here is that Dell and Tasti D-Lite monitored Twitter, engaged with people interested in their service or product and provided information that was of value. They didn’t just push something, they actually offered something, and in turn strengthened relationships with their customers.

Twitter allows you to search by keyword. If your company has an unusual name, search Twitter and see what other people are saying about it. Maybe they’re giving your product rave reviews. Or maybe they’ve picked up faults and deficiencies you may have overlooked. Either way, it’s valuable feedback that can be used to strengthen and grow your business.

What not to do

It seems simple, but consider how your business uses Twitter carefully. The very thing that makes Twitter great, speed and global communication also means any miscalculated efforts on your part can come under critical review from the Twitter community, who at times aren’t slow at grabbing their ‘twitchforks”.

Amazon discovered the power of Twitter in March of this year when writer Mark Probst found his book ‘The Filly” had lost it’s previous high sales ranking on online bookseller Amazon. Further investigation revealed The Filly was no longer showing up for key words on searches. The explanation? The Filly, a gay romance novel had been reclassified as ‘adult material” and removed from the rating system.

This was not an isolated incident, with it soon coming to light that thousands of books has lost their rankings after reclassification, with books classed as “gay”, “lesbian”, “transgender” no longer showing up on search. For authors this meant potentially missing out sales, and for the wider internet community it was seen as an attempt by Amazon to censor homosexual content.

The backlash, led by Twitter users, was swift and concentrated, with thousands of outraged users employing the ‘amazonfail” tag in their tweets.

The damage to Amazon”s reputation was immeasurable.

Within hours Amazon”s reputation had plummeted amongst the online community who saw their categorization of gay and lesbian material as arbitrary and potentially discriminatory.

Amazon later stated the entire episode stemmed from an error with the coding used to sort search terms, and did not reflect an attempt to censor or suppress gay and lesbian literature. The damage was done however, with the episode demonstrating the power of Twitter as a new form of online protest, and one that can gather momentum with incredible speed.

While Amazon”s failure to communicate and engage with the Twitter community at the earliest opportunity may have helped fuel the backlash, another company found out that it’s no good trying to engage the Twitter community if you don’t do in the appropriate way.

Hashtags are ways to mark popular words within your tweets, to make it easier for people to search. For example, if I was present at the Ashes test match between England and Australia at Lords and I wanted to make it easier for people to find my tweet, I might tag it with the search term #ashes. Someone searching for information about the ashes would be more likely to find my tweet, and perhaps follow me.

Habitat UK committed the cardinal twitter sin of employing false or misleading hashtags to attempt drive traffic towards their tweets. The keywords they used included #iPhone and #Poh, a Materchef contestant. The most jarring misuse was the hashtag #MOUSAVI, in reference to the Iranian election candidate, which was seen in particularly poor taste given the tumultuous events surrounding the Iran elections.

Criticism from the Twitter community was swift and vitriolic, with Habitat”s actions seen at best as a misguided and lacking an understanding of twitter etiquette.

A spokesperson for Habitat UK later blamed the error on a rogue intern.

“The hashtags were uploaded without Habitat”s authorisation by an overenthusiastic intern who did not fully understand the ramifications of his actions,” a spokesman said.

“He is no longer associated with Habitat.”

It could be argued Habitat failed to use Twitter correctly not once but twice. There’s little doubt there use of hashtags was misguided and demonstrated a complete misreading of the situation. There are no shortcuts with social media.

The second error was in their apology. Rather than issue an official press statement blaming a subordinate, they could have sent direct messages to everyone who had posted critical tweets and attempted to clarify the situation.

It’s not only companies that have fallen victim to misuse of Twitter. Recently the English footballer Darren Bent and the Australian cricketer Phil Hughes both made comments on Twitter they later may have regretted.

Bent, tweeting about a potential transfer away from his currently club Tottenham Hotspur wrote “Do I wanna go Hull City NO. Do I wanna go stoke NO do I wanna go sunderland YES so stop f****** around levy .”

Levy is Daniel Levy, Tottenham chairman, who responded by reportedly fining Bent £80,000.  Bent’s comments did not endear him to supporters of Hull or Stoke, and also may have harmed his reputation with his current club.

Australian cricket player Phil Hughes made a similar error of judgement, when he revealed he’d been dropped from the Australian team via his twitter, before the decision had been officially announced by the Australian selectors.

“Disappointed not to be on the field with the lads today, will be supporting the guys, it’s a BIG test match 4 us. Thanks 4 all the support!”

A public space

Twitter is incredibly powerful if used correctly, but misuse can easily backfire. In many ways Twitter appears to be a very personal tool, but the reality, especially for a business or celebrity is that their every online move is public and open to scrutiny.  The key is to carefully consider your use, deal with your customers or potential stakeholders with respect, and offer value.