When to give yourself a tweet

Hardly a day passes without a Twitter-related story in the news, but how much should web managers read into the buzz about ‘microblogging’? asks David Bowen

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More about Twitter. I won’t apologize, because I know it’s the subject everyone (including newspaper-reading bosses) wants to know about just now.
Having immersed myself in studying it, having talked to real experts about it, and even having used it, I am edging towards grasping its use – or lack of it – for people who run the group web estate. If you don’t know what Twitter is, it is a ‘microblogging’ service – you send and receive messages with 140 characters or fewer, from your computer, phone or whatever. Wikipedia explains it well.

Office stationary

I have three main points. First, I had presumed that Twitter was used mainly on mobile phones, because 140 characters is close to the maximum allowed for SMS messages. That may have been true originally, but I now know that most people use their computers, probably with a helpful interface such as Tweetdeck. Others use mobile e-mail on the likes of Blackberrys or iPhones. But unless you are in the US (or, I think, India), you can no longer receive tweets by SMS, because they cost too much – though there are stories that it may be reinstated in some countries.

Know or never

Second, should the web manager have anything to do with Twitter – that is, is it his or her responsibility to know about it and set up a strategy for using it? The answer to the first is certainly yes, you do need to understand it, if only to be able to explain to your bosses why you are not going to use it.
Should you be in charge of the strategy? Well, some US companies have appointed ‘social media managers’. Ford has one, Scott Monty, and he is clearly a Twitter wizard – I wrote recently about how he managed to tweet his way out of a reputation mess by convincing other Twitterers that they had got the wrong end of the stick.
I don’t know what relationship Mr Monty has with the people who run the corporate website but it should be close, if not intimate. Read his tweets (the noun for that which is twittered) and you will see that he regularly points us to more information on the Ford site. The URL may not look like a Ford one, but that it because it has been magically shortened by something called TinyURL – now that is clever.

One, maybe the same

The website is not an irrelevant brontosaurus in the Age of Twitter, it is the increasingly important source of The Truth, at least as seen by the company, and so the target for many corporate tweets. Social media managers and web managers should be as one.
Whether they should actually be one person is of course another question. I think they should be two, but rather than having one person who runs the web and another who runs social media, they should both do a bit of each. It depends whether you favour division of labour or flexible multitasking (the original Ford manufacturing model versus the Toyota model now – I know which I prefer).
This leads on to the need to break down the barrier between marketing and comms. That is something I wrote about in my last column and it needs to be tackled.

Only connect

Third, what should Twitter be used for? Once again repeating myself, its key role is as a ‘connector’. Senior managers do not in general read Twitter, nor do they read blogs, but they do read newspapers and watch the television. Because mainstream journalists follow blogs, they pick up stories from them, and transfer them to their own media. And because bloggers follow Twitter, they pick up stories from it, and transfer them to their media. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but the principle is right.
Therefore, you should use Twitter to tell bloggers (and the odd journalist) to look at your website – and others – for stories, which they will feed into the system. That is why I am cheered when I see Mr Monty and his like peppering their tweets with TinyURLs.

Cut the cornflakes

I am much less convinced when I read a tweet that tells me what someone I don’t know has had for breakfast or how bad the traffic is. There are people who can get away with this, but they are celebrities. When Stephen Fry, the British comic and genius, got stuck in a lift. I and his 50,000 other followers knew because he was tweeting from the lift, and even sent a picture from there.
But with all due respect, you are not Stephen Fry (unless you are). I do not want to know what you are doing, I want to tap your expertise. At least part of the problem comes from Twitter itself. On its site, it asks ‘What are you doing?’ – type into the box and that is your tweet. This makes a tweet look like a status update on Facebook, rather than simply a short message. Change it to ‘What do you want to say?’ and we may get less information about cornflakes.
Of course, it may be me. Perhaps you do want to know what your tweeting partners are up to. Perhaps I am just a misanthrope. Which of course I am – but I don’t think I am alone.

First published 04 February, 2009
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