How to win business and influence customers…with Twitter

Twitter, a social networking site that allows people to track each other by writing and exchanging short text messages, has spurred business technology leaders to investigate how they might utilize such a service to improve their organizations’ ability to collaborate and communicate with colleagues and customers.

Twitter has gained popularity among the social media digerati in large part because it addresses the problem of information overload on the Web by requiring that users keep their posts brief and concise (140 characters or less). It’s become a phenomenon known as “microblogging,” and other sites such as Pownce and Jaiku have started similar services. Users follow friends, colleagues, media figures, bloggers, online publishers and complete strangers whose updates they find interesting enough to monitor.

But while users can see Twitter’s practical benefits, the service has been dogged with outages (mostly server performance issues) that have threatened its viability. People have also abused Twitter by updating their status too much, effectively spamming the people who follow them. Analysts and IT practitioners say those issues, coupled with improved access and administrative controls, would need to be addressed before microblogging could have a place in their organizations.

“You need to understand how you will manage and filter the information,” says Jonathan Yarmis, an analyst with AMR Research who researches emerging technologies. “What information we create, and who we share it with, will become an issue in the enterprise [for microblogging].”

Understanding the Uses (and Users) of Twitter

Before it can be understood how Twitter, or microblogging technology in general, could be used for business, it’s important to reflect on the service’s evolution in the consumer market. Twitter was started in March 2006 by Obvious. Jack Dorsey, the man who came up with the idea for Twitter, became its CEO.

During an interview with CIO in February, Dorsey said that the idea was inspired from working as a programmer in the dispatch industry for 12 years and from watching the “status messages” people leave on their instant messaging (IM) clients when they are away from their computer.

But his ideas were much bigger than IM, and tied to the notion that improvements in mobile computing would lead to new ways of communicating and conveying a person’s activities to friends, family and colleagues.

“The limiting factor of the IM metaphor is that you’re bound to the computer, and I always wanted a way to get away from that,” he said at the time. “Another goal of mine is to get away from sitting down in front of a computer and actually be out there doing something, be it walking or some activity, share it with my friends and also get a sense of what they’re doing.”

Because he wanted to focus on making the service mobile, he applied his knowledge of short-message service (SMS) text, thus requiring users to render a Twitter update in 140 characters or less.

“It’s only useful if it’s short, and you have more or less one line to say what you’re doing,” Dorsey said. “And that concept in general just allows you to be a little bit freer. [E-mail] is like being presented with this massive white canvas, versus something [like Twitter] that is postcard size. It’s less intimidating.”

But Twitter, which has taken a few rounds of funding, hasn’t been without problems, not the least of which it hasn’t found a way to make money. Scaling for a growing user base has also been a problem. Users have at times been unable to send a tweet (a message on Twitter) or read replies to their tweets from friends.

A pop-up saying, “Twitter is stressing a bit” has become a frequent error message. On June 30, for instance, some users who logged in to the service received an error message that Twitter.com’s server wasn’t responding and the network had timed out. Since February of last year, some reports have estimated that Twitter has been down for nine days or more.

Also, it’s not clear that Twitter has hit the kind of mainstream adoption that other social networking services, such as Facebook, have enjoyed, making the technology a harder leap for those in the business environment.

“It’s still pretty much early adopters and people who are interested in social media,” says Jeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst with Forrester Research who examines social technologies.

In fact, last October, Forrester issued a report that estimated, on average, 78 percent of Twitter’s audience is male, 31 years old and draws an annual income of US$78,000. This group, the report went on, was predisposed to using new technologies, especially those of the Web 2.0 variety, such as desktop widgets, tagging and wikis.

But lately there have been signs that Twitter is catching on mainstream. Staff members of both Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and John McCain of Arizona have used Twitter to debate the issues of their presidential contest (probably more concisely than in a town hall meeting), and the Los Angeles Fire Department utilized the tool to publish short updates regarding the California wildfires in 2007.

Catching the Eyes of Business Users

Twitter has also led business executives and managers to think about how they might take advantage of the service to improve and streamline internal communications. Drewe Zanki works for Rio Tinto, a British mining company and oversees an IT group in its minerals division in Denver. He heard about Twitter by reading some of his favorite blogs and immediately became interested. He joined just a few weeks ago.

When he first signed on, he noticed that there was a lot of chaos in the amount of communication occurring, but he saw some potential business value.

“Often, the e-mails I get from CFOs or IT directors are half a line anyway,” Zanki says. “Being able to get your business case through in 140 characters or less could be very valuable for everyone’s time.”

Tim Davis, CIO of Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, a fast-food chain, says that he joined Twitter back in April after making a commitment to stay more informed about social media.

“This spring I decided I needed to get educated as social media is just taking off and I couldn’t continue to shun it without investing the time to figure it out,” he says. “I also wanted to figure out how this all fits into business models.”

He began following the updates of bloggers, social media gurus and even found other Twitter users who shared his passion for cigars, a hobby for Davis.

Like Zanki, one problem Davis immediately experienced was some Twitter users overusing the service and dominating his cache of messages. “I had to quietly drop Scoble because he would spew out eight tweets within three minutes,” he says, referring to the technology blogger, Robert Scoble, who, at the writing of this article, has 28,336 followers. “Personally I don’t think that is the right use of Twitter,” Zanki adds.

David Elwart, CIO of South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, says that he has experienced similar problems since joining the service. “There can be too much noise,” he says. “Some of them you quit following because of it. But some people are really interesting and can turn you on to new things.”

For instance, Elwart began following a woman in California whose specialty was state parks and recreation. The messages the two exchanged over the service led to South Carolina state officials, at Elwart’s behest, inviting her to speak at their annual conference on tourism so the state could learn from her insights.

What a Business Twitter Would Need to Look Like

The way Twitter works is, true to the form of short messaging, pretty simple. You post a message in 140 characters or less into an open textual field, click a button that says update, and your message is broadcast to the Twitter pages of all the users of the service who follow you.

There is a replies tab that chronicles when your friends decide to comment on your message with one of their own. There is also an archive tab that logs your updates and an “everyone” tab that shows the updates of all Twitter users (provided they made their feed publicly accessible).

But setting access around sending messages to narrower groups of people is more difficult. In the settings of Twitter, there is an option to broadcast your messages wholesale into the public time line or just to your own followers.

For businesses, there would need to be more specific controls, says Davis of Popeyes Chicken. He says “the verdict is still out” on what a Twitter-like service could mean to his company. “I could see a company setting up a few Twitter accounts for specific types of communication [such as] system-outage notification and disaster notifications,” he says. “It would have to support hierarchies so that you could send one message to a team, a group made of several teams or higher levels. These groups could be departmental or geographically based.”

Popeyes Chicken started a user profile on Twitter to engage in conversations with other Twitter users about its core product. One tweet on June 19 asked another Twitter user, “Take a look at popeyes.com. It is REAL chicken marinated from the inside out. Not that chewed and glued processed stuff!”

Elwart of the South Carolina parks says he can see how his employees-spread out among the state’s 47 parks-may find such a service like Twitter helpful for broadcasting short messages that people have to see but don’t need to fill up e-mail inboxes.

“The welcome center of a park could say on Memorial Day that ‘traffic is heavy,'” he says. “It’d be a lot quicker to post [via microblogging] than writing an e-mail.”

The other upside, he says, is that the technology can be utilized easily on mobile phones since it relies so heavily on SMS text.

Waiting for Vendors

The mark of Web 2.0 and social technologies has been that innovation occurs in the consumer market first before technology vendors, both start-ups and incumbents, begin to make the technology palatable for businesses.

This has been true with technologies such as social networking profiles (now part of both Microsoft SharePoint, that company’s large software platform that includes social technologies, and IBM’s Lotus Connections).

According to Yarmis of AMR Research, social software vendors will likely begin developing Twitter-like technologies for the enterprise that would include some of the administrative consoles as desired by the CIOs interviewed for this article.

“They will be thinking about the notion of ‘stream computing,'” he says. “Stream computing is this idea that you’ll have a large number of data streams out there and the issue will be, how do you derive business value from it? We’ll have to figure out a way to package it in containers and have it be more organized.”

Forrester’s Owyang noted that telecom companies could make a big play in the microblogging space, seeing as they have access to people’s texting patterns. “They have access to your social graph,” he says. “They know who the top ten people you have [texted and called are]. That is a real opportunity for them.”

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