A cute bluebirdLately I’ve been using Twitter in an attempt to connect and communicate about relevant, real-time information about some of the things I’m interested in – project management, PMP certification, the cities of Charleston (where I currently live), Ottawa and Toronto (where I’m from), and electronic music, to name a few. It’s a fun and addictive microblogging tool experiencing huge growth in adoption and usage. And now that I’ve used the service in earnest for a couple of months I have a few thoughts about using Twitter as a business tool, how the system is both great and broken, and some possible ways to overcome some of the service’s flaws.

Following people, and being followed

In my opinion, the concept of followers as it is being used on Twitter today doesn’t work very well. There is a huge subset of people online today whose goal it is to amass as many followers as they can get, regardless of whether or not they share their interests, or in fact are even interested in reading what those users have to say at all. This turns Twitter into a popularity contest of sorts where the goal isn’t to interact or communicate, but to “win the game”. That being said, I myself will follow people who have followed me, and read their tweets, even if I don’t share their interests, and I’ll interact with them as appropriate; if they’re reaching out to me for whatever reason, I’ll reciprocate. If I follow someone and they don’t follow me back, or unfollow me for whatever reason, I’m eventually going to unfollow them. I’m firm in my belief that Twitter should be a two way street; if I want to read information about a particular individual without the two-way communication there are better ways to do that.

I have somewhat around 450 followers on Twitter, which isn’t a heck of a lot and not even in the same ballpark as what some people have – tens of thousands of followers. But I do notice that even 450 people is way too many to keep up with. Whenever I check my Twitter page, or Tweetdeck on my phone, I’ll catch a glimpse at what’s going on at that very moment, but when I’m not checking Twitter the rest of the stuff that’s going on out there is lost to me.

This is okay for me, as I’m an individual, and it doesn’t matter too much to me why people are following me, or if I miss something that someone says about me, or don’t reply to someone who has messaged me within a given period of time. But these misses can become problems for businesses whose reputation is built on the way that they communicate with their customers. When a business first signs on to Twitter it is making a commitment to forge relationships with its clients, and there is a very real possibility that by doing it wrong they could make things worse.

Using Twitter as a business tool

If you’re a business, you want to promote your Twitter account as a means of opening up your business to Twitter users. When someone follows your business on Twitter, it’s key to follow them back – consumers are used to their showing an interest in products and services being a one-way street; if you follow them back, it may surprise and even delight them, and show them that you care about their interest in your company. If you send them a message, or interact with the things they say even when they don’t address you directly, you will be sending a very strong and powerful message. It’s one thing to be a tea company that automatically friends anybody who mentions “tea” in their tweets (this happened to me), but to actually comment on the tea mentioned in the tweet, or to suggest a cake to go with that tea, is truly going the extra mile. It will shock your customers, and in a good way.

The problem here is that it’s very hard for your business with its single Twitter account to scale properly when it comes to interacting with the potentially large masses of people who may be interested in your product. If you have 30 or 40 followers that’s one thing; it’s pretty easy to interact with them. But if you have tens of thousands of people following you, it’s hard to go that extra mile; most businesses simply don’t have the time or resources to respond to tens of thousands of people in a personal manner.

One way to solve this problem is to tweet as an individual working at an organization, rather than as “the organization”. That way, if you aren’t able to keep in touch with your followers 24 hours a day, you will be given some leeway – after all, people do have to sleep, eat, and take time away from their computers. The downside to this is that if the person tweeting from your organization leaves the company, his or her raft of followers will be leaving too… it will be the character recognizable to people on Twitter rather than the company itself. Plus, your business reputation will be tied to the actions of the individual or individuals who tweet on behalf of your company, and what they say on Twitter. In contrast, corporate Twitter accounts can be puppeted by many behind the scenes, and rules can be set regarding what or what not to broadcast.

Using search and hashtags in Twitter

The most obvious method to wade through the sea of tweets you face every time you log on is to use Twitter’s search feature. You can search on anything, and you can use the AND and OR tags to help you. Searching for “international AND business” will bring up tweets with both keywords in the tweet; “international OR business” will bring up tweets with one or the other, or both. The default is AND; if you type “international business” you’ll get tweets with international and business in the tweet.

The problem with this is that what you’re looking to communicate about may be vague enough that searching on that term will not provide valuable results. Soft drink makers searching for “drink” may find tweets about people drinking coffee or tea or going on late-night benders. Searching for “soda” will result in people talking about soda, but what if the tweet uses the term “soft drink” or “pop”? It will take some careful crafting of search phrases in order to achieve valuable results.

Mobile TwitterHashtags (placing a # before a word in your tweet) make some sense of the spam, but only for those people who know to use hashtags when they’re making a post about something. If you’re looking for real-time information and you use a hashtag to find information, you’re only finding real-time information created by people who use hashtags. If someone’s complaining about your company on Twitter you’re going to want to know about it and respond to it whether or not the user has included a hashtag before your company name.

Some possible improvements for the future

As Twitter grows and evolves, there are several ways that I can imagine the service being improved.

  • A filter bar along the top of the page to filter out probably spam, links, retweets, etc, to get at different reported views of the information you want to see.
  • A list of people you are interested in (an easier to read version of the list you see when you click the link to see who you are following) so that you can easily see what they’re up to.
  • A way to mod up and down comments, and to see only comments that are modded up (a certain star rating, etc). One similar method currently being implemented by Twitter is giving retweeted comments a higher “rating” than non-retweeted comments; those comments that are retweeted more are more likely to show up in a search.
  • A focus away from people (a stream of what a person is saying) to a topic. This is akin to searching by hashtag, but topics may have several keywords that can lead into a “topic page”. So a page about open source development might feature the keywords Linux, GNU, Unix, etc.
  • Company-specific Twitter pages, where companies can included a variety of different search terms and associated Twitter users to create a customized real-time Twitter portal for the company.