The value in Twitter

This is a post about Twitter. If you’ve never used or heard about Twitter, the Wikipedia page for Twitter will give you a brief introduction. Come back when you’ve read it. πŸ™‚

I love Twitter. Twitter has introduced me to some great people and really demonstrates the value in weak connections. Strong connections inevitably create an echo chamber – if you are talking to the same people sharing the same interests and opinions, deja vu becomes familiar πŸ™‚ I remember reading a Japanese quote once, went along the lines: “If more than two people are in agreement, at least one is not required.” Kind of makes sense. (I’ve got a feeling it was as harsh as: If two people are in agreement…) Weak ties broaden your horizons and connect you to a whole new group of people. Diversity thrives on weak connections. And diversity is great for challenging assumptions and generating new ideas.

People often ask if Twitter is just a simplified version of Instant Messaging. Nope. With Instant Messaging (IM), you have a list of contacts you can chat to. But to chat means to specifically start a conversation, to interrupt. With Twitter, you can talk at will, regardless of whether or not anyone is listening (simple tip: Tweet rubbish and nobody will). If people don’t want to be interrupted, they simply ignore Tweetsville. They don’t have to set their status to Busy or pretend to be Offline to avoid a conversation. To Tweet or not (and to follow or not) is entirely optional, for all sides of the conversation.

Instant Messaging (IM) is about strongly-connected networks. You start a conversation with someone who is on your contacts list or if you know their IM address. You can’t see other conversations unless you are specifically invited into them. There is no serendipity in IM. Twitter is about loosely-coupled networks. You can view every Tweet from every person with an open account (you can have a hidden one if you want). By default, you get see Tweets from people you choose to follow. It’s up to you if you want to respond. And up to others if they want to reply.

Whilst some users stick to the ‘What are you doing’ theme (and offer ‘too much information’ about their dietary habits – you know who you are, Marmite sandwich lamb), it can offer so much more – great for sharing links, one-liners, ad-hoc conversations and making announcements. And Twitter has one IM feature that is brilliant – the ability to send a direct message (but only to someone who is following you). Direct messages are also sent out as emails and text messages to mobile phones. Fantastic if you don’t have the mobile phone number and want to get in touch.

Not convinced? Here are some examples:

  • I spotted Guy Kawasaki‘s tweet and was able to review a draft copy of his upcoming book, sent comments via email and he gave me some start-up advice in return. Happy days.
  • Comcast spotted Mike Arrington‘s rants about his broken Internet connection and got in touch to sort it out. His rants turned into praise of equal volume. (He has 20,000 followers on Twitter. Most churches would dream of such participation.)
  • I muttered and moaned about Zoho in a Tweet. They responded on Twitter and Email within the hour.
  • Steve Clayton was asked a question he didn’t know the answer to (amazing, but true), a tweet for help and the answers flocked in
  • I saw Euan Semple tweeting to some chap called Sleepydog. I met said Sleepydog, aka Toby Moore, at a conference last week. We even Tweeted where we were sitting to organise a meet-up.
  • Loic Le Meur announced an early bird special for his LeWeb conference in December on Twitter… and then tweeted with updates about how many tickets were left. Would they have sold so quickly without Twitter?
  • I saw Euan Semple tweeting to some chap called Stephen Dale. Started following him. He saw me tweeting with Rob Gray whom he had also met. Rob introduced me to Stephen in London two weeks ago.
  • When a blogger was arrested in Egypt, he managed to send a quick SOS on Twitter (no time for anything else) and people who saw it helped get him released. His interpreter has not been so lucky
  • I hear about important news first on Twitter. Stuff that matters inevitably gets talked about by someone in the network. Even the BBC seems to Tweet about news before it appears on their 24-hour TV channel

By the way, all the above links lead to Twitter pages. If you’ve never visited Tweetsville before, you’ll need to create an account and login to view what they say. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Waste 5 minutes of time.

Just about any business could gain benefits from using Twitter. It taps into what seems to be an innate animal trait – the desire to communicate, instantly. To synchronise. (I had never looked at it this way until Ken Thompson’s brilliant session at the NLabs Social Networks conference). Anything that connects with our genetic make-up has value. And, alas, the potential to be exploited. Although that has yet to happen on Twitter (service is to damn unreliable!)

The challenge for Twitter is that I would never pay for the service. It’s a feature, not a platform. A lot of people have asked how can Twitter monetise it’s product. Getting users to pay for it is never going to be an option. (More so, whilst the service is still unreliable and prone to unexpected downtime.) Twitter is a messaging tool. People are no longer used to paying for messaging tools, whether it’s IM or email. The current forms of online advertising work in information-seeking environments, not human-seeking ones like communication tools and social networking sites. But Twitter has some serious value tied up in its rather clever feature. Analytics could discover patterns between conversations, links and networks…

Next stop: FriendFeed. And it’s a platform, not a feature…

Further reading:

Life, Death and Twitter in Africa

A quick note. I tend not to blog about news unless it is something worth munching over (and preferably not being bounced around the Techmeme echo chamber). Instead, I share links through Twitter and FriendFeed (most come via Google Reader) and roll them up into a weekly post. If you want real-time updates, join in the fun on Twitter and/or FriendFeed

But this link on Wired deserves a post all to itself – Life, Death and Twitter on the African Savannah – talking about how social media is being used to raise awareness about and donations for a wildlife park in Kenya. Funds have dropped due to the recent political turmoil affecting tourism. Some sound bites here, but I recommend reading the full article.

…the blog raised $40,000 from donations in March. Kimojino’s Facebook page drew about $2,000; and a handful of safari companies bought advertising on the blog in exchange for sponsoring rangers. “All the rest has been from single donations from individuals around the world, from donations as small as $5 to our biggest, which was $5,000,”

The man who helped set the blog up was discovered in the wilds of… Rotherham, a town up North here in the UK. Thanks to his blog attracting attention, he switched life as an office temp for life Stood in the Congo. I am truly envious πŸ™‚

Beyond blogging:

On a game drive one morning, the ranger stops his car in front of a herd of antelopes and whips out a camera. “I have never had a Coke’s Hartebeest on Flickr,” he says, taking a picture.

(If a certain fizzy drinks company had any sense, they’d donate some of their advertising revenue and sponsor that picture.)

What is most amazing – big companies reluctant to change should take note – is how traditions are adapting to blogging:

Getting online has not been without its risks for Kimojino. He explains that for him to be speaking about the park to the public, instead of his boss, breaks traditional Kenyan decorum and was at first difficult for him.

And balancing needs for digital and physical life:

…after a few months of this online activity, Kimojino went to the optometrist – he was worried the computer would damage his eyesight, hindering him from spotting, for example, a leopard in a tree two kilometers away.

Brilliant!

More Twitter Benefits

Back in January, I wrote a blog post about using Twitter for Sales.

Interestingly, when talking to my parents about Twitter, they bought into it immediately. Their immediate thought was Twitter for Families – why didn’t everyone get on Twitter so that we can each send out updates to everyone when stuff is going on. Twitter hit a nerve that blogging, Facebook and friends all missed. I now use Twitter pretty much daily when appropriate. Often to simply post simple quotes that make a point. I’ve got a Twitter feed on my site home page which, given I can Tweet from my mobile phone, is the easiest method for dynamic updates I’ve ever implemented…

And now Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch has a great example of a company using Twitter to improve customer service – Comcast, Twitter and a Chicken. Fed up with getting nowhere with Comcast when his Internet connection died, he used Twitter to start criticising Comcast for being, well, not that great. πŸ™‚ It turns out that one wise exec at Comcast monitors Twitters and other sources. He saw the criticism and debate that kicked off, contacted Michael and a support team turned up to fix his problem. That’s real-time customer service.

These are the sorts of benefits too many companies miss out when sticking their heads in the sand about new technology.

Road Twitter

Here in the UK, it appears our Highways Agency has caught on to the idea of Twitter. In recent years, we’ve had overhead digital display boards installed along the majority of our motorways. The displays can show a limited number of characters, so messages have to be short. Originally, they were to be used for traffic updates, to help warn of and/or avoid congestion, such as:

‘Accident on M1. Use M6’

‘Queue after next junction’

Then they started giving you advice about the weather:

‘Fog! Slow down’

To be fair, one of the motorways (M40) is very susceptible to patchy fog – one minute you have bright sunshine, the next you can’t see the car in front.

Then we started getting general traffic updates:

’16 minutes to Junction 8′

Utterly useless when you have no idea how many miles it is to Junction 8 on the M6. The controller of the boards on the M40 is a little brighter:

‘To Junction 5, 16 miles, 16 minutes’

And then the Twitter messages started to appear:

‘Tired? Take a break’

The current favourite:

‘Check your fuel levels’

Somebody needs to remind the people in charge that every time we read the sign we are not watching the road. It’s a matter of time before the signs are blamed for causing an accident. They were meant to be used occasionally for alerts, not to continuously tweet driving instructions. What next? ‘Service your car regularly’, ‘Check your tax disc?’, ‘Test your brakes’ (hmmm, that one could cause trouble). And the continuous use of the displays for general messages means we will start to ignore them and not notice when there really is an alert on display…

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The technology was installed for a reason. Using it for other purposes risks eliminating its benefits.

Technorati tag: Twitter

Twitter For Sales

That’s the plural. This is not a post announcing that Twitter is for sale. πŸ™‚

If Google can help your CRM, then so can Twitter. If you haven’t yet stumbled upon Twitter, the concept is beautifully simple. If you’ve ever sent a ‘Happy New Year’ text individually to multiple different contacts on your mobile phone, how about sending it once to everyone, whether they choose to read it on their phone or in a web browser on any device with an Internet connection? Like a Chumby (that one is waiting for whole other post). That’s what Twitter does. Restricts texts to no more than 140 characters but enables you to send one text to anyone who subscribes to your Twitter feed.

So, imagine this. Your sales people need to keep track of news that can affect your company or the likelihood of a prospective customer buying something from your company. How about using a Twitter feed to send out regular updates, in real-time.

For example: A Microsoftie travelling to a customer hoping to sell them a search solution based on SharePoint. Would be better to know that an announcement has just been made to acquire FAST than to hear it from the customer. A sales rep travelling to meet a prospect, receives a Tweet that the prospect has just announced their quarterly results. How about using Twitter in your call centre? Send out updates that can help keep everyone informed when making/answering calls. A support engineer discovers a new method for repairing a fault, takes half the time and resources – a tweet goes out and is picked up by all other engineers currently on call. You don’t need war and peace on each subject, just a short announcement that will either tell you what you need or alert you to find out more asap.

It’s a simple concept, the equivalent of that snail mail approach in the 1990s – distribution lists for sending out bulk emails. And yes, you could indeed use that approach instead. But Twitter keeps it short and helps prevent announcements from being buried under everything else that swamps your inbox.

If anything, Twitter is the reincarnation of those little stock tickers and ‘breaking news’ feeds that you could install on your desktop a few years ago. But this time, you don’t need to download any specialist software and you can view the updates in real-time on any device that can view the Twitter feed.

Take it a step further – use Twitter to feed breaking news to your customers. Why restrict the information to only those customers who your sales people are about to see or speak to? Drop in announcements about new products, short term pricing deals, any kind of buzz that might turn a prospect into a sale.

To find out more about Twitter, check it out – http://www.twitter.com/.

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[Note: if this post crops up in an odd place, it was half written back on 4th Jan and got lost]