There's more to 'tweets' than meets the eye

April 13, 2009

If only Twitter didn't have such a silly name, I might take it more seriously. And those little messages called "tweets"— there's no way I'm going to tell a client I'm going to "tweet" him. The 140-character limit is supposed to encourage fast, simple communication of single thoughts, but it often results in impenetrable, mindless "leet-speak," where every "to" is "2" and every "for" is "4," making messages look like passwords. Most of the tweets I've seen on Twitter didn't offer encouragement to my capitalistic soul, either. Most are just notes tossed over somebody's shoulder as they go through the day: "Getting coffee. Hope it hasn't sat too long in pot," or "Boss coming, gotta go." But I have to say, I'm starting to rethink my initial reaction.

For those who haven't used it, Twitter is a clearinghouse for "tweets," short text messages you can share with others. People can subscribe to your tweets by "following" you, and you can reciprocate by "following" them or others. There's no limit to how many can follow you, or that you can follow. Some serious Twitterers follow thousands of people. You can also send private messages, but that's much rarer.

Twitter has grown exponentially in the past year, up to 4 million unique visitors per day in February. It shows. The Twitter site is often slow and cranky, and its search for users often fails to find those you know are in there. A large proportion of its users sends tweets by mobile phone, not Web, so that estimate may be low. Tweets are ideal for phone use, being small and based on a universally accepted texting protocol.

As I explored Twitter, I found greater solidity than I expected. Many Twitterers send thoughtful tweets about philosophy, books they've just finished, or articles they've read. A friend with a huge interest in the Third World tweets news about Africa. Starbucks has several accounts and uses them to send out information to customers.

Then I happened across a couple of blogs about Twitter usage, and my eyes crept open even further. This Skin We're In is an entrepreneurial blog by Dale Beermann (www.dalebeermann.com). In an August entry, Beermann mentions several legitimate uses for Twitter, including market research, sending back travel updates to the folks at home, following experts who Twitter, finding locals interested in your services or products, and receiving news updates from outlets that send tweets.

Market research is particularly interesting, because Twitter tweets are searchable for the most part. People tend to be honest in their tweets. They forget that, like most everything else on the Web, tweets are permanent. And tweets are often spontaneous, shot off before anger subsides. This makes Twitter a great place to mine authentic opinions about you, your business and your competitors. For example, I searched "IBJ" and found several tweets related to it. I won't tell you what they said. Go and look.

Chris Brogan in his social networking blog goes one better, listing 50 business uses for Twitter (www.chrisbrogan.com). Many of them follow from the principle that tweets have the aura of being spontaneous utterances, more genuine than e-mails or blog entries, where you have time to ponder and self-edit lots of text.

So tweets from Home Depot, for example, have more marketing clout for some people than do newspaper ads or e-mailed newsletters. That's especially so if the company makes tweets seem personal. Brogan praises Home Depot for tweeting about its employees' off-work activities. In fact, one great strength of Twitter from a business perspective is that it gives an unprecedented opportunity to connect person-to-person, instead of home-page-to-person. Automatically generated tweets tend to be less treasured than tweets from actual employees engaged in real work.

Customer care can be enhanced with tweets, too. Comcast, for example, has Frank Eliason, director of digital care, tweeting to customers. His profile is at twitter.com/comcastcares. I'm willing to bet Comcast searches Twitter regularly for complaints.

There are lots of questions and downsides to Twitter, of course, starting with its unreliable site. But Google apparently believes in it enough to make buyout overtures to Twitter. So far, Twitter has no revenue stream, but Google wouldn't care, having its own gargantuan cash cow.

As a lark, I started tweeting, writing about thoughts for this column, technology in general, working from home, and so on. I'm at twitter.com/taltom. But I've noticed that my "followers" list has grown a bit, thanks to a Twitter feature called "retweet," which encourages recipients of your tweets to send them along to others who might be interested in following you. I think I'll keep doing it. At least for now.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com. 

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