Twitter — an online presence application that has been called anything and everything from microblog and social network to the ultimate time waster — describes itself a "real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices." The latter is about right.
Of course, I've also likened this presence application to non-linear chat (in that you can respond to people in real-time or several hours after the fact) across multiple networks. It's not the perfect definition. But as Web producer Eric Berlin, frames it up better: "the 'best thing' about twitter is that there are a lot of best things, remarkably flexible service."
Is it so flexible that it translates into a business communication tactic?
Hmmm ... it depends. It can, because it already does. But if you simply use it to as a tool to inflate the illusion of popularity as Guy Kawasaki of all people recently advised, you'll likely end up spinning your wheels and wasting your time. (Pretend to have relationships with people you don't know? Come on Guy ... that suggestion truly flies in the face of operating with authenticity).
Aaron Uhrmacher does a much better job keeping it real. Twitter can be applied as a tactic to the communication strategy of a business, depending on the company and whether or not the people it wants to reach exist there. While there are other ways to use it, including for real time reporting, there seems to be six prevailing external communication approaches.
1. Individual Participation. The most common participation is simple enough: an individual from an organization, but not necessarily representing the organization, happens to participate on Twitter. People like Geoff Livingston, Ike Pigott, Bill Sledzik, Christy Season, myself, and many others, would all fall into this category. If there is any business benefit, it's accidental and ancillary to another intent. For businesses, it's always smart to have some semblance of a social media policy when employees are engaged online.
2. Representative Participation. The second most common participation is similar to the first: an individual from an organization, who is present and primarily represents the organization. Allan Sabo, Shashi Bellamkonda, Ann Handley, David Meerman Scott, and Robert Scoble might fall into this category. While some participate just like individuals, they also represent their companies or themselves as authors and consultants. For businesses beyond the individual professional or personality, representatives are best chosen much like spokespeople — with extreme care.
3. Group Participation. While there are many examples, Zappos, Forrester, and Cisco have all established a company hub with several representative participants, each with their own voice. For some businesses, it seems to work. However, organizations that employ group participation (many employee accounts) need to remember that it only works when the tactic is backed by a strong internal communication plan. Without one, the company could dilute its message or even contradict its position.
4. Brand Characters. Not all characters are always representative of the organization, but some are, like Ms. Green. Others have been assumed by loosely related sites like Captain Picard and, perhaps, Mia Cross. While it might be an entertaining way to establish presence, it's hard to imagine someone developing a real relationship with a fictional character or every company developing a fictional spokesperson to represent the organization.
5. Brand Presence. The media was one of the first to adopt a push communication model on Twitter, with The New York Times and CNN being among the first. Primarily, news organizations feed headlines and breaking news, sometimes with links, which does add value for people who want an easy way to track the news. Some organizations do it too, including Woot, Engadget, and the Los Angeles Fire Department.
While the model dispels the myth that all social media is about a conversation, brand presence works well enough, provided the organization is large enough to have its own following (or maybe open to internal communication made public).
6. Brand Participation. Other companies and organizations attempt to blend representative participation and brand presence like Jet Blue, Q1Labs, GM, and Starbucks. While it works, it's also kind of weird. The basic concept is that the company brand is monitored by any number of faceless online team members who push communication and engage the community.
Weirder, some social media "experts" praise companies for the practice because it proves to them that companies take Twitter seriously despite the fact that these same "experts" denounce the concept daily with theoretical rhetoric that everyone needs to be genuine online. (I'm not speaking against the brand participation idea. I'm just pointing out one of the growing number of irritating inconsistencies among some "experts.")
So what it the bottom line for business on Twitter?
Like all social media tools, it's best to put the communication strategy before the tactics. Assuming a social media tool like Twitter has some value to the business, organizations are best served when they balance their objectives with an ability to lend valuable insights or information to conversations that are already taking place on that service. A real estate agent or broker with inside industry or market knowledge, for example, fits the bill.
In most cases however, it starts with an individual or company blog and then expands to include any number of social networks where the people they want to reach already participate. For example, Twitter participants drink Starbucks coffee so it makes sense for Starbucks to be there. While my communication colleagues sometimes cringe when I mention business objectives and outcomes, there has to be some tactical measure or the company will simply be investing time and money that is best spent elsewhere like within the communities they operate. Seriously, a shotgun "join every social network" approach will fail.
Here are some other voices on the subject of Twitter for business. Just be careful not to drink not the "Kool-Aid," or "Cool-Aid" as I like to call it.
• Twitter With A Testimonial From 37 Signals
• Twitter: The Next Small Thing for Business?
• 11 Reasons To Use Twitter For Business