The Twitter Phenomenon

How Tweet it is! Has Twitter become an essential part of life as we know it or is it simply the latest Chia Pet of the Internet? Twitter, a quirky online social networking community, is the hottest thing on the Internet right now. Essentially, it allows people to publish and read microblogs from PDAs, cell phones and other mobile devices, as well as computers. According to the Twitter website, these microblogs, called Tweets, are supposed to provide the world with an answer to the burning question: “What are you doing right now?”

However, we’ve come to realize that it’s also a useful medium for obtaining and sharing industry best practices, new approaches to overcoming business challenges, and in general, having your mouse on the pulse of opinions by true (and sometimes would-be) thought leaders. After being around for several years with relatively few subscribers and little notice paid to it, Twitter has become a phenomenon largely thanks, initially, to a few of the glitterati (or twitterati as they’re now inevitably referred to) signing on and being followed by their adoring fans and, secondarily, to the development of third-party applications that allow individual members to customize how they use their Twitter accounts.

Yes, the jury is very much still out on whether Twitter will be a permanent part of online life or just a flash in the pan. Fully 60 percent of users abandon their Twitter accounts within 30 days of signing up. That’s not a good sign for the longevity of Twitter mania, but true believers say the quitters just don’t get it. Regardless, of whether Twitter stays or goes, it’s here now, it’s big now—in April, Twitter surpassed both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in unique visitors—so marketers ignore it at their peril. Therefore, here are a few thoughts on whether and what you should be tweeting if you use Twitter as a business tool. First of all, unless you’re rich, powerful and famous, no one with any semblance of a life, with the possible exception of your mother, cares what you’re doing right now. If you’re going to use Twitter for business development or customer service or relationship marketing, the question you need to answer for your audience is, “What are you doing for me right now?” (To find out our own answer, start following us: In other words, Twitter may be a new communications channel, but apply the same sound messaging principles that you do for your other marketing communications. Or at least to the degree you can with Twitter’s 140-character limit on the length of each tweet.

A branding medium it’s not – at least in its current form. Being limited to only very small messages is a double-edged sword. In theory, it should help you stay on message—after all, there’s no room to digress. However, this forced brevity, combined with the spontaneity inherent in being able to send messages at any time from virtually anywhere can also work against message discipline. When sending messages is so quick and easy, it’s tempting to send too many about things that really don’t further your cause. Another danger of the anytime, anywhere, quick-and-easy nature of Twitter is falling into the trap of sending juicy info you just heard about without verifying its authenticity. Viral dissemination of urban myths and just plain inaccurate information on the Internet has become one of the banes of our lives, and Twitter has already earned a bad reputation in this regard. Want proof? If you have a Twitter account, search “swine flu.” By the same token, the swine-flu outbreak illustrates the positive power of Twitter.

Probably the best example so far of Twitter done right is the Centers for Disease Control’s campaign to inform the public about swine flu. The CDC has been using Twitter to disseminate timely, accurate information (in half a dozen languages no less) as it becomes available—and only when it becomes available. The takeaway here is that if you want to be followed, be the authoritative source for important information about your company and industry – and share relevant and useful information. Most importantly, don’t fritter away people’s Twitter time with information that’s neither important nor time-critical. (In other words, PR 101.) Another PR best practice that applies to Twitter in spades is never let your stakeholders first learn about your next big thing in the newspaper . Twitter is unsurpassed in its ability to give your stakeholders a heads-up before your news is available to the general public. Recently, Florida Governor Charlie Crist held a press conference to announce that he would run for the U.S. Senate rather than for a second gubernatorial term. Before he did so, however, he Tweeted the news. You’d better believe that any political reporter who didn’t already have a Twitter account or didn’t already follow Crist on Twitter does now.

For more on leveraging social media with PR, click here. These are a couple of examples for using Twitter proactively. It also can be a great reactive communications tool. You can search the Twitter universe for Tweets that mention your company and its products, personnel and events—and those of your competitors—regardless of who is sending and receiving the tweets. There’s no faster way than Twitter to find out how you’re doing, squelch rumors, manage unpleasant truths or identify opportunities. A final thought: Many companies have rightly concluded that they can benefit from a social networking strategy. By their very nature, however, these programs, if sufficiently comprehensive, are time-intensive. To work to full potential, they need regular attention — and they need to be but one aspect of your integrated marketing plan. Before you jump on the Twitter bandwagon, think through what you expect to accomplish and establish some benchmarks for measuring ROI. Otherwise, all that tweeting could be coming from a wild goose chase rather than the bluebird of happiness. Happy Tweeting – @MeritMile !