Does Twitter mean business?


At 8.11am on the morning of Friday, 26 June 2009, I read a Tweet (a post on Twitter) that “Michael Jackson had been rushed to hospital and there were unconfirmed reports he had died from a heart attack”. What followed was the most active period for the micro-blogging phenomenon Twitter before or since. So significant was the jump in Twitter activity that day, and for many days afterward, that frequently the Twitter infrastructure could not cope with the rate of posts, triggering structural lock outs and some more undesirable effects of system overload.

The Twitter engineers weren’t the only ones who discovered new things about Twitter that day. The strength and weakness of micro-blogging, Twitter’s new class of communication, where on display for all to see.

For a while I was a ‘listener’, an important activity on Twitter and one of the benefits that is often overlooked. I watched the flood of Twitter posts gradually paint a sad and morbid picture of the passing of Michael Jackson.

A Web site called Twitterfall ( provides an absorbing view of the full stream of posts, literally a cascade of every public post on the system, at least when it can keep up. Even setting my view rate at two posts a second and filtering only for Michael Jackson, I was constantly ‘flushing the queue’ (dumping thousands of unread posts) just to keep the stream within the current timeframe.
The unprecedented frenzy drove me to turn on the radio and TV to hear what they had to say. Like the people posting on Twitter, the mainstream media were also simply trying to keep up. Sadly I discovered that Farrah Fawcett (62), Ed McMahon (86) and Michael Jackson (50) had all died that day.

Rumour was rife in relation to other celebrity deaths and large numbers of hoax messages were making their way into the Twitter stream. If you took posts at face value, Chesney Hawkes, Harrison Ford, George Clooney and Jeff Goldblum had also met their tragic end.
The opportunity, and it seems the temptation, to ‘cry wolf’ was strong and being used by some elements of the Twitter community and other social media for attention or other unsavoury purposes.

In a well-documented faux pas,  TV presenter Richard Wilkins announced Jeff Goldblum’s death on the Today Show, something I am sure both he and the network regret, as they made a classic mistake of failing to confirm sources. Twitter and other online forums will no doubt continue to exacerbate such mistakes, as they place increased pressure on other media for speed of comment, while at the same time delivering tempting but questionable information and opinion. Luckily Goldblum saw the lighter side, delivering his own eulogy on the satirical ‘ColbertNation’ show in the US.
Richard Wilkins was far from alone. Some celebrities sent similar Tweets out to their followers reporting Jeff Goldblum’s fall from a cliff in New Zealand. Stephen Fry, who at the time had over half-a-million Twitter followers, was one of those caught up in the moment and sent a post, later deleted, suggesting that Jeff Goldblum had died.

I became driven to help with the damage control effort after hearing a number of more reliable media outlets confirm this rumour as a hoax and reading a Tweet from Kevin Spacey (an Authenticated Account – verified by Twitter) that “Jeff Goldblum is alive and well. I just spoke to his manager. Stop these stupid rumors.” I reposted the Kevin Spacey Tweet, an act called a Re-Tweet or RT and directly asked a number of the mistaken celebrities to inform their large followings that they had erred.

To the credit of Stephen Fry and some of the other Twitterati (Twitter celebrities or elite with hundreds of thousands of followers) they did rescind, delete or otherwise mitigate their earlier posts. Some of these people coming to understand that for serious news, a large Twitter following comes with significant responsibility. The erroneous Re-Tweets of these credible people were still being circulated on less active Twitter accounts many days later, demonstrating the long tail of the medium.

What does Twitter Offer?

On the day following Michael Jackson’s death, I joined with many others in profoundly overloading the Twitter infrastructure; I was engaged in research, conversation and infotainment. I didn’t know what to make of the news, I didn’t know what to make of Twitter in that environment, but like millions of others, I was pulled into the velocity and immediacy of the information stream.
Twitter was the first port of call for millions as they sought combinations of news, social comment, and dialogue with friends and in some case emotional support. Twitter showed its humanity, variability and a contradicting swing from the mundane to the profound, dynamics that are common to most forms of human interaction.

Twitter’s role has also been discussed in relation to other recent events such as the Iranian election, the tsunami warning following a recent New Zealand earthquake and a similar fake Japanese tsunami warning that escaped from a test of an alert system. Each of these events has exposed facets of Twitter’s power and failings.

Some of the more obvious are speed at the cost of reliability and opinion in the place detail. However like every tool or system, one should play to the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses, there are after all other tools for reliability and detail. In the right circumstance, Twitter has demonstrated superior value to other publishing tools or information sources.

With my decade in the Content Management field, I see Twitter as an information frontier similar to the web before search. There is a richness of content, especially consumer and social opinion that will be a boon for analysis and feedback.
There is also a velocity that is unmatched in any other communication medium. Tools are already emerging that deliver value from the aggregated collection of this superficially shallow communication channel.

Twitter. Bah Humbug!

Perhaps you remain unconvinced. It is worth remembering that the Internet was once labelled a fad, a timewaster, the domain of geeks or academics that would have no bearing on serious business. The same has been said of email, SMS, digital cameras, online social networking, blogs and now micro-blogging and its flagship ‘Twitter’.

Such a view is normal for any technology or change early in the adoption cycle. Like the online phenomena before it, Twitter is in early adoption, a stage with ‘fad like’ dynamics and overly stated hype.

No-one can truly claim to know where this will end up, what it will look like in a few years and how divergent groups will extract real value. Of course pyramid schemes, spam and porn have jumped in early. Their presence and some early technical hiccups do not provide a sensible argument for ignoring the phenomenon or considering how it will impact upon you professionally and personally.

Corporate arguments against Twitter often begin with the fact that the posts sit on a server in California and are out of direct control. Most CIOs are not ready to accept that the corporate message will be unfiltered, unmoderated, uncontrolled and escape normal business controls and process.
However it is worth remembering that your banking records are not on your server, nor is a lot of data your business uses every day that is much more significant and important that Twitter posts.

You shouldn’t apply broad determinations to the suitability of an environment without considering the strategic use. It may be completely inappropriate for a pharmaceutical company to say anything at all on Twitter, that doesn’t mean they cannot use Twitter based applications to analyse what is being said about them for internal purposes (the concept of listening).

Most important of all, consider where your customers are. Like the Internet some 15 years ago, younger audiences are more than comfortable in this environment, you may even consider them natives, at home and embedded in the environment. Their communication and consumption patterns are going to have an effect on you, your business and ultimately what you will come to think about Twitter.

Making Use of Twitter

In a business setting, Twitter provides an opportunity for you to listen to what is being said about your brand. It will let you conduct research, ask questions and find other resources. If you choose, you can also add to current dialogue, influence decisions and develop a closer relationship with your customers and other important 'influencer' groups, in a manner that is both recorded and capable of being analysed and reduced to business metrics.

Of course Twitter has its negatives. The 140 character limit of a post, although brilliant in some ways, severely limits more complex dialogue and encourages a fragmented, organic and confusing collection of material that also has its own parlance and idiosyncrasies. The trick is to use Twitter to direct interested readers to more detailed and appropriate channels for complex information and the conduct of transactions.
Twitter is also not a classic web application. By itself it adds very little direct value to a new user. As a result, many people leave Twitter before they extract any benefit and generally with a poor opinion of the experience. This is not dissimilar to the experience of using early web browsers when there was precious little useful content to browse.

The missing piece of understanding is this: it is the community, not the application, that is the benefit. If you do not gather a community, or more specifically a useful community, you will not get any great benefit from Twitter and you will most likely leave, wondering what all the fuss was about.
Like moving to a new city, you have to do some legwork to build a new network. Start with people you already know, professions you wish to make connect with, personal shared interests and other classic human ways of making a connection.

Depending upon what you want to do and the quality of the network you build, you are going to need to be following and be followed by something like 500 people before you get a critical mass in your own network. For some applications and corporate benefit, you may need to be thinking in much higher numbers and probably managing multiple accounts covering divergent messages and brands.

So start me up!

One significant problem for Twitter is that the account start-up process tends to lead you away from building a network and more toward following celebrities. The ‘recommended follower’ list consists mainly of ‘broadcasters’ as these accounts have the largest follower numbers.
This means many ‘start-up’ users will send posts and not receive replies and receive posts from celebrities who do not want replies. New accounts are also targeted by ‘affiliate’ (read: pyramid) operators and a host of other people that you wouldn’t really want in your network. The upshot of this is that at least initially, you have to do some real work contacting people you know, people you would like to know, and people who are ‘real’ and active in posting on areas of topical interest, in order for you to gain value from Twitter.

Get this right at the start and you will grow to love Twitter because you will experience sufficient benefit and clearly see the prospect for growing future benefit. The obligation on any social network is that you have to be willing to give value in order to receive value in return. Twitter itself is working to address many of the ‘start-up’ issues and recently posted ‘Twitter 101 for Business – A Special Guide’, see

Once you start connecting with people of interest, you will need to extend your network. One method is ‘FollowFriday’ or FF. On Friday’s, many Tweeps (people who use Twitter) will send out posts recommending other people whose interaction they value.
This is a great time for you to follow the people in these recommendations. If they have been recommended by people you value, they are more likely to fit within the network you are looking to build than most other methods of finding new people.

Also, because they are largely ‘real people’ with active posts, they are likely to be higher value connections and more likely to follow you back. Unless you are Ashton Kutchner or Oprah, this is not a race to get the most followers, it is an exercise in building the best network for you or your organisation. Quality trumps quantity!

Power applications

At some point, fairly early in the piece, you will find that being in the ‘micro-blogging’ world of Twitter can become onerous if you use only the Web site. Most users graduate to other tools and usually more than one of them.
Some ill-informed commentators suggest that Twitter will eventually die because the Web site retention rate is lower than other social media comparators. What is missed is that the most active users quickly move away from the Twitter website itself, and although very active, are not picked up in these website statistics, as they access the stream of posts using other feature rich applications.

A good way to think of Twitter is not as a Web site, but as a collection of 140 character posts. In this way it is similar to the Internet, which as a collection of web pages is generally experienced through your selection of browser, search engine or other web application. The Twitter ‘web of posts’ is equally organic and ethereal, so you need to work out how to access it for the given requirement at hand. The Twitter website is only one of a number of methods of accessing the stream of posts. Others you may wish to consider include Twitter Fall ( if you wish to let the waves of public posts wash over you. This is mostly for visualisation and ‘feel’ rather than a serious entry point to ongoing Twitter use. There are many desktop applications for grouping content, automating various activities and basically saving you time. The leading applications are TweetDeck and Seesmic Desktop, both downloadable for PC and Mac at no cost. I would recommend that you start learning how to use one of these sooner rather than later, however make sure that before you do, you have fully setup your Twitter Account through the Twitter website (your image (called Avatar), background, name, bio and Web link if desired). Don’t leave any of these set-up activities undone and carefully consider an Avatar that most accurately represents you, your business or your brand, you will thank me later as any shortcuts here will cost you followers and effectiveness.
There are special purpose websites that will tell you when someone stops following you, turn your collection of posts into a PDF book, tell you how you rank on Twitter and that let you find groups of like minded Tweeps. Watch out for those that promise thousands of followers or ask for money, remember the aim is a valuable network not a large useless one.

There are also multiple applications for mobile devices such as Blackberry and iPhone. TweetDeck and Seesmic are available for mobile and so are Twitterfall and specialist mobile applications such as Tweetie, TwitterBerry, Twitterific and hosts of others. There are also sites for shortening links (which helps when limited to 140 characters) and for handling images for link inclusion in Twitter posts, this functionality is included and automated in many of the desktop applications. You will need to make your own call and can ask your growing Twitter network what they use and what they think is best.

A Final Tweet

Post, post often, re-tweet posts that you like, recommend some people on Friday while having your coffee and reply to some of your Tweeple (people you connect with on Twitter) and you will have an active network in no time. Remember the more you give, the more you will receive. Then you can start making determinations of how, like email and the Internet, you will best benefit from the larger network at your disposal. For like the Internet, both the social networking and micro-blogging components are going to keep changing and evolving, but they are not going away. Get onboard now, or wait until like the Internet, you have little choice.

Follow me @drwarwick – if you have an Avatar, are a real person and have some interest in this area, I will be proud to be one of your Tweeple. Make sure you tell us all what you learn and how you are using Twitter for benefit.
David Warwick is founder and CEO of Veridian Media, and a Director of Melbourne design and brand agency Smart Works. David holds an MBA from Melbourne Business School and  is Co-Chair of the Content Management Professionals Association in Australia. Contact or via Twitter @drwarwick