April 13, 2009, 10:47 AM — Like it or not, the emergence of social networks, the proliferation of mobile devices and the ubiquity of the Web has blurred our personal and professional lives. This has been particularly true on Twitter, the social networking service where users share short messages with one another.
Twitter holds inherent value for both your personal and business life. As a business person, building a presence on Twitter helps you connect with customers and peers, and perhaps get feedback on your products and services. For your personal life, Twitter can create what social media experts call an "ambient awareness" for the people important to you in your life - while each message might not be hugely significant, taken in total people can piece together you as a person or at least see the things you value.
But this inevitable blurring between the personal and professional life creates perils for Twitter users. Sharing a tweet (a message on Twitter) that has certain personal information could cause you to lose your "followers" (people who subscribe to your Twitter messages) or, worse, get you into trouble at work.
"If you want to use Twitter for both personal and business, then you have to be very wise about the type of information you are displaying," says Dan Schawbel ( @danschawbel), who authored the new book Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success. "Either way, your updates are all crawled by Google and can hurt your reputation if they negatively portray your brand."
CIO talked with some social media and experts in online reputation management about how to find the right balance. The best strategies will differ from person to person, based both upon the type of business you're in and the audience that follows you on Twitter.
Get Personal To Show What You Have in Common
Contrary to conventional wisdom - created via horror stories of people getting fired for outlandish Facebook or Twitter messages - sharing personal messages (intelligently) can be advantageous to your business. You should not be afraid to do it.
When people can relate to you, or find common themes, then they will be more likely do cut a deal or do business with you, says Laura Fitton ( @pistachio), who runs Pistachio Consulting, a firm that helps companies utilize Twitter.
"The more human you are, it's harder to vilify you or your brand," Fitton says. "Twitter isn't as much about 'what are you doing,' as it is 'what do you have in common?'"
Perhaps the best example of this strategy has happened with Frank Eliason, a customer service representative from Comcast who runs the @comcastcares page. Because he has injected a genuine and personal tone into his tweets, he has likely changed some minds of people who love to hate the big cable company.
"Ultimately, people do business with people," says Kirsten Dixson ( @kirstendixson), a reputation management and online identity expert. "You don't need to hide behind a company brand to interact with people. In fact, that might not be the best thing."
Know Your Twitter Audience
Before you can build a content strategy around your tweets, you must examine the people who follow them. While it might be a diverse group, you should be able to find some common themes that will guide your decision about what to focus on in your messages.
If many people follow you because of your profession, then you will want to populate your Twitter stream with many business related messages. But you shouldn't be afraid to hit on themes in your business life that intersect with the personal, says Dixson.
"If your brand attribute is that you're very global, talk about a trip you're going on, or you post a picture of a neat place you've just visited," she says.
You can also hit on universal themes that many people can relate to, such as family life, says Fitton. The key, she says, could be in frequency. "Talk about your kids a little bit, but don't bore people to death with messages about them."
Remember Personal Is Different Than Private
The dreaded "too much information" tweet can be avoided by understanding the difference between personal tweets and private information that shouldn't be published anywhere.
If you're fighting with a significant other, or you have just carried out a nitty-gritty task involving your children, then you want to exclude that information from a Twitter stream. This can also be avoided by emphasizing important events in your life instead of the trivial, says Dixson.
"As an example, you don't want to write that you're 'going to the gym,' but it might be nice to say, 'I just set a goal to run a marathon,'" she says.
If You're Worried, Make a Blanket Disclaimer
For many people who work at big scary companies, the decision to inject personal information into their Twitter stream can be especially agonizing, especially if your Tweets express opinions about business, politics and other hot-button issues.
As a result, experts say you can put a disclaimer in your Twitter profile, noting that the Twitter stream reflects your opinions, not your employer's. To be clear, you can still be up front that you work for that company.
Dixson provided this sample:
This is a personal Twitter feed. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. No warranties or other guarantees will be offered as to the quality of the opinions or anything else offered here.