November 11, 2008, 4:30 PM — Imagine a business tool that lets you broadcast information about your company, listen in on discussions about how people are using your products and what they think of them, and get involved when one of your customers -- or one of your competitors' customers -- has a problem.
Imagine a tool that lets you have a conversation with early adopters and influencers who are eager to share what they learn with their friends and followers. A tool that offers something even the best focus groups cannot: genuine interaction with the people who choose to use your products.
You're probably already familiar with Twitter, the "microblogging" platform that allows you to create a stream of very short posts, or "tweets," that others can follow and reply to. But what you might not know is that Twitter is much more than just a way to tell friends what you're doing.
That business tool I just described? That's Twitter. If you put all of your ducks in a row, you can tap Twitter to be a direct link between your company, customers, clients and colleagues.
Twitter isn't just a tool, though; it's a community -- one that will stop paying attention if it feels like you're exploiting it. One way to make Twitter users feel exploited is to open an account and immediately start blasting out your latest press releases. That kind of headlong behavior could conceivably strike back against you, leaving your brand and your reputation in tatters.
That's why it's wise to devise a strategy before you jump in. To help you do that, we talked with two of the top Twitterers out there: Laura Fitton and Robert Scoble. Fitton, of Pistachio Consulting, helps companies develop social media strategies using Twitter, and is one of the leading Twitterers with more than 7,000 followers (@pistachio).
Scoble, of FastCompany.TV, is not just a popular figure on Twitter; he's been one of its most avid evangelists and has almost 40,000 followers (@scobleizer). He also writes Scobleizer, one of the most popular tech blogs on the Internet.
Here are the five ways they advise business users to get the most out of Twitter.
1. Decide what your purpose is.
Have a clear purpose in mind to guide your use of Twitter. Do you want to reach key influencers in your field? Or are you trying to engage end users of your products? Your use of Twitter -- whom you follow, what you tweet and how you interact with other Twitterers -- will be different for each.
Remember that you're creating an online persona for your brand or company. Trying to be all things to all Twitterers will come off as inauthentic, and it will offer little value to your followers. That's why Scoble recommends creating separate Twitter accounts for separate purposes: "Use one account to get news out, one to respond to customer complaints, and one for taking part in the conversation."
2. Follow the right people.
Both Fitton and Scoble agree that the key to using Twitter effectively is to listen more than you talk. "You should be reading tweets," says Scoble, "not writing tweets."
Use the search tool at search.twitter.com to find people who are tweeting about you, your competitors or topics germane to your business, and watch how other Twitterers respond to them. Eventually, you'll want to join in the conversation yourself, but first follow the people you've identified as key commenters.
Following customers, clients, colleagues and thought leaders in your field not only shows that you want to hear what they have to say, it also encourages them to follow you -- and it lets them contact you privately if they choose. (Twitter allows members to send private "direct messages" only to their followers -- that is, people who are already subscribed to their posts.)
3. Be interesting.
The key to gaining business advantage with Twitter is to offer something of value with every tweet, whether that's news about your company, advice for using your products, insight about your niche or even just a laugh. Twitter users, at least today's early adopters, are very sensitive to attempts at manipulation, so don't flood your tweet stream with spin, ad-speak or empty self-promotion.
The secret, according to Fitton, is to "be unselfish. The one thing that fails every time on Twitter is being selfish."
Keep in mind that the central function of Twitter is to give people a chance to talk about themselves, to tell the world what they are doing. Encourage your followers to talk about themselves by asking them questions related to your mutual interests that they'll want to answer.
Or, conversely, talk about your followers -- by name. Show interest in the people who use your products. If you're interested in them, they'll be interested in you, advises Scoble.
4. Engage the conversation, on Twitter and beyond.
What makes Twitter work, and what makes it so special to its users, is its potential for human interaction. "I think the question that Twitter's really asking and that all our tweets are asking is 'What do we have in common?'" says Fitton.
People show a tremendous loyalty for companies and products that they feel represent people "like us" -- witness the community of Apple users. Being genuine and forthcoming, as well as taking part in the natural back-and-forth of conversation on Twitter, goes a long way toward showing people what you have in common.
And it doesn't stop there. Although Twitter itself is a finite community, there's no reason the conversations that start there need to stay there. Twitter should be just one part of your social media presence, says Scoble. "Don't just Twitter. Do blog posts, post pictures on Flickr, put videos on YouTube, list events on Upcoming.org [an event guide that defaults to the San Francisco Bay Area but that you can set to your locality when you join], quote Twitterers in your blog posts," he says. What you want to do is create ties between your Twitter presence and the rest of the Web.
5. Use the right tools.
Twitter's Web interface can be somewhat confusing and ill-suited to some tasks. Fortunately, a wide variety of alternative tools for Twitter have been developed for just about every platform. Some simply make it easier to perform common tasks such as sending direct messages. Others add new features like automatically updated keyword searches, easy URL shortening or marking tweets as read or unread. Finding the right tools for your particular personality, needs and Twittering style can be a challenge, but here are a few recommendations to get you started -- and they're all free.
At your desk
Both Scoble and Fitton agree that Twitter's built-in search function is the single most important tool. Using the advanced search options, you can find tweets with specific keywords or phrases; those written by or for certain users, on particular dates; and so on. You can even subscribe to any search as an RSS feed.
The desktop client TweetDeck goes a step further, allowing you to run multiple searches that are updated in real time as your keywords are mentioned on Twitter. (In other words, it integrates search feeds directly into the interface.) TweetDeck also allows at-a-glance access to your direct messages and replies, as does another popular desktop client, Twhirl. Running on Adobe AIR, TweetDeck and Twhirl are both Mac- and Windows-compatible. Both of these clients are powerful alternatives to the Twitter Web site, although some users, including Fitton, prefer to use Twitter's home page.
A number of Firefox extensions let you do things with Twitter directly from your browser. For example, if you see a Web site you want to share with your followers, Shareaholic allows you to tweet it with one click. And TwitBin puts Twitter into your browser's sidebar so it's always at your fingertips.
Another tool worth mentioning is FriendFeed, a service that lets you consolidate updates from more than 40 different social media and social networking sites -- including Twitter, Digg, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Delicious and Flickr -- and create threaded discussions. "FriendFeed gives people a place to talk about your tweets," says Scoble, and can be an important extension of your online persona.
On the go
Finally, you can take Twitter with you when you're away from your computer using any number of clients on your smart phone. There are dozens of Twitter apps for the iPhone, but the one getting the most attention at the moment (and Scoble's favorite) is Twinkle, which includes a location feature that allows you to find other Twitterers nearby (it's available from the iTunes App Store).
On the BlackBerry, TwitterBerry is your go-to client; Twitter fans also recommend TinyTwitter on Windows Mobile and Java-based cell phones (including the BlackBerry), and MoTwit on the Treo. All of these are solid apps with strong followings.
Try one on your mobile device and keep tabs on your Twitter account during those moments of downtime between meetings, standing in line, sitting in the back of a cab or waiting in a plane on the tarmac for two hours, and you'll start to see why Twitter is much more than meets the eye.