The Mystery of Twitter

twitter_question_markLet me come clean right away and say that the point of this post will be: there is no mystery to Twitter. Which is to say, it’s easier than you might think to understand the popular micro-blogging service. But as Twitter has overwhelmingly captured public attention, people who haven’t used it seem to be constantly asking, “What’s the deal with Twitter?” or, “What’s the appeal?” As a Twitter user, I have friends and colleagues asking me this question frequently.

Likewise, professional marketing people have heard that Twitter offers some unique branding and marketing experiences, and are enthusiastic about learning how to use it, but aren’t sure how to leverage it most effectively.

In this post, I’m going to attempt to give useful answers to both these questions :
• How does Twitter work and why is it so popular?
• How can Twitter be best used by businesses and marketers?

First of all, much like some other 21st century activities and products (like Tivo and Blogging), it’s something that’s better experienced than explained. To describe Twitter in a just-the-facts fashion often leaves the hearer thinking, “so what?” Others take the opportunity to judge Twitter users from the outside, branding them “narcissists” and asking, “Why does everybody need to know what I’m doing every second?” At the same time, flocks of would-be marketers have descended on Twitter with the assumption that this is yet another venue for one-way commercials and ads.

What both of these groups don’t yet understand is that Twitter is not a broadcast medium – at least not in the traditional sense that radio, television, or even web sites have been. It is true that any public “tweet” (what Twitter calls posts) can be read by anybody browsing Twitter’s site, however the real intention of most tweets is often to engage other individuals in a conversation, even on a somewhat personal level. This is where Twitter differs from one-way mass communication mediums. All at once it is both public and personal.

For most of us, it does take some amount of time using the service to catch on to this concept. Initial expectations seem to vary widely. Un-savvy marketers often open Twitter accounts and use every tweet to blast out some ad for a product or service. They think we’re fooled by tweets that go like this: “Hey, check out this awesome new product! I use it every day and love it! [some spam url].” It doesn’t help when this same tweet is repeated ten times a day.

At the same time, ordinary users sometimes have grandiose expectations of interactions with famous personalities. Well-known web design guru Jeffrey Zeldman recently received a message from a Twitter follower who complained that Zeldman didn’t give out enough web design tips on Twitter. Zeldman, however, very much “gets” what Twitter is about, and uses it to show a casual, slightly personal side of himself, because he recognizes that that’s what the service is for. He does sometimes reflect on industry trends and topics, but only because that’s part of how he interacts socially, not because he sees Twitter solely as a conduit to further his career or pundit status.

The key to understanding Twitter and other social networking sites like Facebook is to think about them as a virtual form of “hanging out.” In many ways Twitter is like a large ongoing soirée – a casual environment where you can mingle with people, meet new people, and chat. If you were at a party and a stranger next to you tried to strike up a conversation by saying, “I just can’t seem to open this bottle of champagne,” your response would likely be something like, “here, let me help you,” or, “they are difficult, aren’t they?” But only the surliest of us might bark, “Why do you think I care, you narcissist?”

Likewise, if you ran into Jeffrey Zeldman at a party, you would probably realize he wasn’t there to dispense tons of free web design advice. And you probably wouldn’t tell him directly, “I’m going to ignore you for the rest of this party, because you aren’t talking enough about web design. I’m very disappointed in you.”

To continue the metaphor, if you were an insurance salesperson at a party and all you said to anybody was, “Hi, I’ve got some great insurance info for you!” you would quickly be the most hated person in the room.

Then there are the people who like to talk about how many followers they have, or offer advice on how to get as many followers as possible. To me this is totally pointless. I doubt you would really stand around at that giant party telling anybody who came near, “Hey, I’ve talked to five hundred people at this party already! Let me tell how you can talk to as many people as possible too!” As if there would be some kind of prize handed out for that.

Having said all of that, there is certainly a place for informational tweets from businesses that want to communicate things your customers are genuinely interested in. It works best when you get creative, and engage individuals. Web hosting company Moonfruit recently ran a contest, giving away Macbook laptops to people randomly chosen who mentioned “Moonfruit” in their Tweets. Not only was Moonfruit offering prizes, they engaged people in a fun way, challenging them to come up with clever ways to work the unusual word into their conversations.

Here’s the heart of the matter, though. What’s important about using Twitter is being present. Being present involves being your authentic self, rather than some manufactured character you think people will like, or being a human commercial and nothing more. You don’t need to divulge overly personal things, but most users can sense a certain amount genuineness through the medium, and prefer to experience that. And you certainly can market to Twitter users, but do it by engaging them, and by leveraging the collaborative nature of the service.

By all means dip your toe in Twitter. Meet some people, and certainly take the opportunity to make useful business contacts, too, just as you might make some valuable contacts at a party where you meet people who are in the same line of business as you. Just don’t be the single-minded bore at the party when you do it. Be sure to be truly present.

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