On Companies Using Twitter

As a Twitter user (@ramsey) with over 700 followers, a good followers-to-following ratio (4 followers for every 1 I’m following), and over 4600 updates, I think I have a valuable perspective on the use of Twitter. I throw these numbers out there not to brag, and I’ll be quick to point out that this is certainly not a high number of followers, and a certain percentage of them are probably spammers, but the numbers tell that I obviously have something to say that some people find interesting and engaging.

I also manage the phpc and atlantaphp Twitter accounts, but you won’t find me talking about myself on them because the point is not to promote myself but to promote things going on in the greater PHP community (for the phpc account) and to promote things going on with the Atlanta PHP user group (for the atlantaphp account).

First and foremost, many people use Twitter for many different reasons. I could list a variety of reasons, but I won’t do that because the list would grow fairly long. Instead, I’ll tell you why I use Twitter and how I think it works best.

To me, Twitter is both a micro-blog and a conversation. If I have a thought that I think others will find interesting, I’ll tweet it. It could be about technology, politics, beer, or life in general. These are the topics I tweet about most. That’s the micro-blogging part.

The flip side is that, once I tweet something, it becomes part of an organic and open conversation. Others are free to respond or even pass it along (re-tweet) as they wish, and I can’t ignore the conversation. So, I take part in it. Some will agree with me; others disagree. As a result, we all learn from the conversation and develop connections with each other.

Since we’re talking about having a business tweet as an entity, I’ll shift the focus to that of a business using Twitter. I’ve seen businesses tweet in three basic ways:

  1. Corporate communications; tweets are only news and PR items like press releases.
  2. Customer support; someone follows a list of specific hash tags (i.e. #product) and other search terms to see what people are saying about their products and services, and they respond and try to help resolve those issues.
  3. As a human entity, micro-blogging and joining the conversation; the company employs an "evangelist" to be the face of the company, tweeting informal messages about things going on in the company and responding to other people's tweets, taking part in the conversation. As an evangelist, their role is to give the company a human face and personality that people like and relate to, developing relationships with the public, hoping to get them excited enough about the company that they also become evangelists for the company's products or services (though they might not even know it); essentially, the evangelist wants to build a community of fanboys and fangirls for the company.

In my opinion the third option is the best for a company using Twitter to build a community and an excitement around their brand.

A fourth option that I have heard proposed (and that some companies have even attempted) is to ask employees to submit tweets that will then be posted on a regular basis through the corporate Twitter account (somewhat like a corporate blog). The idea being to showcase thought-leadership from the company’s employees. However, I think this approach misses the conversation aspect of Twitter, thus limiting how far the company can go to build a community of people excited about the work they are doing.

Having multiple employees submitting tweets will give the company a kind of schizophrenia. It will be a collection of disjointed voices, who, while they may have interesting things to say, aren’t taking part in the conversation. The signal-to-noise ratio will be perceived as having not enough signal and too much noise. The company won’t get many followers, and if it does, the followers-to-following ratio will be near parity (1 to 1), which means most followers gained are gained through follow-backs.

My recommendation would be that a company that wishes to take part in the conversation on Twitter needs to find someone it can trust with the power to tweet his or her mind in an informal and engaging way and to take part in the conversation with its followers, and it would be best if this is only one (at most two) people, to give the impression of a unified voice with a unified vision.

If a company wants to share cool ideas from their employees and showcase the thought leadership in the company, then the company’s Twitter account should follow its employees on Twitter and re-tweet their personal tweets when they provide value to the conversation that the company wants to create.