Monday, July 28, 2008

Using Twitter - Understand Why

This item just poured forth when I saw a cry for help from a person who is new to Twitter, has just developed a Web site and has a really good story to tell -- but doesn't know how to get it "out there". Several friends have asked me exactly the same question. Firstly an introduction.

Twitter was originally envisaged as a simple way for friends and family to keep in touch. Having a nice cup of coffee? Just Twitter it and those who care about you get a little "touch" through the ether and can be with you in spirit. Of course, it quickly became far more than that.

For example, journalists like John Dvorak use Twitter to perform bulk surveys or research from their large user group of followers (the REAL Dvorak at the time of writing has over 27,000 followers). Looking at some of Dvorak's "cranky geek" type comments, some of these responses are useful but those grains of value are hidden in a great bulk of dross. Mr Dvorak also directs followers to significant articles.

Another type of use comes from Tim O'Reilly. Mr O'Reilly has positioned himself as an information provider. A quick read of his tweets will show that he is exposed to a wide range of content from personal meetings, reading and a highly active network of contacts. He then shares what he feels to be the most significant of these items with his group of followers through "reweets".

Yet another "commercial" type of use comes from sites such as Joomla where announcements or special releases can be made simply. If announcements are more complex then a link to the release page is provided.

So what does this all mean, and how do you do use it to build followers and traffic? To start with, have a clear picture as to what your Twitter channel is for (Remember you can have more than one Twitter identity). For Example, a company that did tours and provided transport around fishing and tourist areas might focus on upcoming events, what the fishing conditions are today, and post a short link to the last wine area tour. Clear links to the Twitter feed(s) Together with a description of the feed should be placed on the site and handouts given to every person that participates in a tour or goes fishing in the area ( local fishing clubs, fishing shops, small ads in the paper).

Secondly, try and build a community or network of information providers. For example, drivers should have a mobile phone where they could report weather, traffic conditions, accidents, roadworks and possibly even police patrols. Retweeting this information to a transport Twitter feed would be really useful for any drivers in the region. Update it early enough and it would be mandatory reading for any commuter before leaving the house in the morning. Ideas like this should build immediate and relevant traffic - if it is the audience you want. Is it the audience you want? That's the question you need to answer first.

Generalising around these examples to try and extract strategic principles we might say;

Twitter is useful if you think you can build an interested, relevant group of followers;
  • this means that you have to have something to say to them that they will be interested in on a regular basis;
  • and it must be useful enough that they will deal with irritating computer type thingies like twitter;
  • so it must be content that they will be obsessed about (for example fisherfolk and fishing conditions), have a personal aspect (they want to know when and where the photos of their individual trip to the wine country are posted) or have enough links to their general interest (they want to relive their holiday of a lifetime by proxy through other recent trips so they follow the feed).

Restating this in a slightly different way, Twitter is all about information provision. People like Dvorak and O'Reilly who really "get this" have enormous feeds - It's their business. What the rest of us need to know is who we want to communicate with and what we want to tell them. In business, if you are not sure why you're doing it and what the benefit will be, there's probably a better use of your time and resources. For the right purposes though, Twitter can be a really fun way to reach out and truly communicate with people who could turn out to be quite pleasant.

There is one small cautionary corollary I must mention. There is a really capable and professional consultant that I follow. Beautiful photo, white shirt, tie and a nice smile. His twitter feed, however, can include language and political comments that are at odds with his daytime professional image. It doesn't worry me, I'm happy to follow him -- but remember, when you communicate on the Web it is all too easy to communicate far more than you intend.