Twitter seems to be the hottest new social media tool for business owners these days. Perhaps it's not fair to call it a "new" tool, as it was launched in 2006. It started gaining popularity among the "in" tech crowd in March 2007, when it won the 2007 South by Southwest Web Award in the blogging tools category.
But over the past year it's gained significant traction as a business tool with everybody from solopreneurs to larger companies like Dell and Comcast. It's gone mainstream. Recent surveys indicate that 11% of online Americans have used Twitter (or similar services, but Twitter has the lion's share of the market segment). Personally I think these numbers may be a little inflated, as many users have multiple accounts, but it's still pretty significant.
Perhaps more importantly, though, a recent survey by Abrams Research (PDF - 299K) of over 200 social media leaders indicated that their consensus is that Twitter is the best social media tool for businesses. 40% of social media experts said that Twitter would be the one they would most recommend business pay for (if they had to - Twitter is currently 100% free). One response pretty much sums up the reason:
It's the quickest way I've seen to spread information virally to a wide scope of people attached in a lot of random ways.
So...what exactly IS Twitter?
"It's a microblogging service."
"No, it's a sort of a new generation of chat and instant messaging."
"No, it's a mobile blogging platform."
"No, it's a..."
Wait, kids - don't fight about it. It's all of those things, and more!
Technically speaking, it's a multi-platform microblogging service. It was designed as a way to post short messages (140 characters, the limit of SMS messaging that mobile phones use) to update your friends with your current "status", i.e., answer the question, "What are you doing right now?" This would help friends keep in touch, and even coordinate face-to-face meetings -- a handy tool for a night of clubbing.
But of course, people want to be able to respond to those messages, not just one-on-one, but among a group of friends. And then what started as just a simple tool to post status updates and reply to them evolved into more of a conversational tool.
Which brings us to today. At this point, Twitter is more like a giant chat room, with the essential difference that instead of seeing the posts of all Twitter users, you're only seeing your friends and other people you've chosen to listen to ("follow", in Twitter lingo). This allows you to keep the pace of the information flow (or "tweetstream") to a manageable volume.
Of course, you also see the one side of a conversation the people you know are having with people you don't know. When those conversations are interesting, you can join in, and it becomes an "organic" way of meeting new people with similar interests and mutual friends (more on this in a later post).
And it's multi-platform, so you can use it via your mobile phone, the Twitter web site or any of several other enhanced Twitter client applications. A variety of third-party tools are also available to
How do I use Twitter for business?
Twitter has become a sort of virtual water cooler, particularly for those of us who a do a lot of our work online, or who aren't working in offices with a lot of other people. Because it is "almost real-time" and based on short messages, it is more conversational than blogs or discussion forums. It has a more personal feel and seems (to me) to be more conducive to building and sustaining relationships.
Personally, I've used Twitter to:
- Gain new readers for this site and my two other blogs.
- Promote my books.
- Find joint venture / strategic alliance partners.
- Get a speaking engagement.
- Announce both free and paid events, such as webinars and teleclasses.
- Meet local people with similar interests (and later met in person).
- Coordinate meetings with key people I was trying to connect with at a large conference.
- Support the launch of two ventures I'm involved in.
- Save countless hours of research by having nearly instant access to thousands of people.
- Track social media buzz about topics and companies I'm interested in.
Social media expert Chris Brogan shares his ideas on the business benefits of Twitter:
- Twitter helps one organize great, instant meetups (tweetups).
- Twitter works swell as an opinion poll.
- Twitter can help direct people's attention to good things.
- Twitter at events helps people build an instant "backchannel."
- Twitter breaks news faster than other sources, often (especially if the news impacts online denizens).
- Twitter gives businesses a glimpse at what status messaging can do for an organization.
- Twitter brings great minds together, and gives you daily opportunities to learn (if you look for it, and/or if you follow the right folks).
- Twitter gives your critics a forum, but that means you can study them.
- Twitter helps with business development, if your prospects are online.
- Twitter can augment customer service. (but see above)
Of course, I've also used it to:
- Share recipes.
- Watch funny cat videos.
- Find out who else in Austin likes sushi.
- Debate politics.
- Learn about quantum physics.
Some of these may not seem like they have business value, but the fact of the matter is that discovering common interests and sharing personal details helps build stronger relationships, even with people you don't know very well. And while it does take time, it also saves time.
But can it actually affect your bottom line?
Absolutely. I've been lightly active on Twitter for about a year, heavily active since last September. Since last September, the real dollar value that I can attribute directly to my Twitter activity is around $10,000, and the intangible value well above that. I expect the future value of the deals I've already done as a result of Twitter to be well into six figures, and new opportunities are appearing all the time. So there's no question for me -- it's an essential part of my online marketing strategy.
Plus it's a lot of fun! Don't underestimate the value of having a little bit of that scattered through your day. If you're going to spend part of your day having fun online, why not do it in the company of possible business associates and use it as a way to build those relationships?
How do I get started on Twitter?
- Pick a user name, maximum of 15 characters (no spaces). I recommend either your real name, your business name or as reasonably close as you can get within 15 characters.
- Sign up at Twitter. If you get an error when you submit the form, don't sweat it - it's a common problem. Odds are your account was set up just fine. Go to the home page and it should show you as logged in.
- Fill out your profile. For the "More Info URL" enter whatever web site you want to direct people to in order to learn more about you and your business. That may be your main business web site, your business blog, your personal blog, or your LinkedIn profile. Your choice.
- Upload your photo. You're already in the Settings area, so click on Picture (top center menu). Hard to build a personal relationship with...well, whatever that image is -- I still haven't figured it out.
- Find your friends on Twitter. If you use a web-based email like Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, etc., Twitter can search your email address book for friends of yours who are already on Twitter. Otherwise, you can search for them by name. When you find people you know, click on the Follow button to view their updates on an ongoing basis.
- After you sign up send a tweet to @scottallen and say "Hi".
- You can also follow me (click the Follow button on my profile) for information on entrepreneurship, social media and whatever else I feel like sharing. Also feel free to directly ask me questions about those same topics.
- Start posting ("tweeting")!
What should I tweet about?
As you start out, you're going to want your tweets to be a mix of different kinds of posts. As you expand your Twitter usage, your content mix will vary depending on whether you are primarily using Twitter to make new connections or as simply a new communication channel to your existing connections.
The basic content models you want to include in your mix are:
- Status updates - What are you working on? What has your attention at the moment?
- Sharing links - Whether it's breaking news or valuable resources, share links that would be of interest to the people who have an interest in your business. What are your customers interested in?
- Have an opinion - Add your own commentary to those links. Help people get to know you as you share information.
- Ask and answer questions - Google doesn't have the answer to everything. Sometimes there's just no substitute for a human being.
- Retweet - Did someone you follow share something interesting? You can repost it out to your own network. It's simple and quick, and it acknowledges the person who sent it out in the first place by giving them a little extra exposure.
- Business announcements - Yes, you can directly make announcements about your business - events, deals, new products, etc. Just don't overdo it.
For now, plan on about an equal mix of these. In a future post I'll talk more about specific content strategies.
What comes after that?
The above is just going to get you started. In upcoming posts I'll cover:
- Meeting relevant new people on Twitter.
- More on what to tweet about.
- Tips and techniques for using Twitter for business.
- Essential tools to make your Twitter use more effective and efficient.
- Additional resources for more in-depth learning.
Until then, I hope to see you on Twitter.