Social Enterprise

Cheat Sheet: Microblogging

Short and tweet...

Microblogging? I'm guessing you're talking about very short blogs. And considering how many blogs are out there, short definitely sounds sweet.
You're on the right track. Tweet, tweet…

Eh? What are you wittering on about?
Twittering you mean.

Speak English man!
I am speaking the language of microblogging. Twitter is the most popular microblogging service out there, and a 'tweet' refers to an update posted by a Twitter user.

Update?
It's a bit like a facebook status update. But Twitter users - or the Twitterati if you want to sound like a Guardian reader - are asked to post a response to the question 'What are you doing?', which often lends tweets a second-by-second immediacy not always apparent with facebook status updates. Tweets are very much about sharing what you're up to at that very moment - where you are, what film you're watching at the cinema, even what you're having for lunch.

Tweets appear online on your Twitter homepage and are also delivered to other Twitter users who have opted to 'follow' you. Updates are limited to 140 characters so pithy not wordy is the order of the day here.

Tell me more…
Typically a tweet will detail a current activity, observation or thought - 'I can hear a chorus of crickets singing in the tiny park across the street. Weirdly and beautifully rural sound for downtown Manhattan' is one stream-of-consciousness tweet I was Twittered earlier today, or this from the official Downing Street Twitter: 'Gordon Brown has been visiting the troups in Afghanistan and is now in a meeting with President Karzai. Press conference shortly' (note the warts-and-all typo there).

You can also reply to tweets - so a one-sided stream of consciousness often becomes a conversation.

Hm, I'm still not sure I get it. What's the point of all this Twittering?
Microblogging has been described as enabling a sort of 'social sixth sense' - by keeping you aware of developments as they happen (Nasa's MarsPhoenix Twitter will tweet you the latest insights from scientists analysing data from the Phoenix Mars Lander, for instance). It also helps you develop this sixth sense by building a cumulative context around your friends/contacts which you wouldn't otherwise necessarily have, by keeping you up to date with all the details on who's been where, done what and why etc.

So Twitter is another way of keeping abreast of what my friends are up to and letting them know what I'm doing. But what's wrong with just picking up the phone or sending a text?
Well it's horses for courses, really. Microblogging services like Twitter offer another channel for keeping people in the loop about day-to-day stuff that doesn't necessarily merit a specific pronouncement, especially a large group of people - or 'community' to use another internet buzz word.

US Presidential hopeful Barak Obama - who has demonstrated a lot of wily web 2.0 ways - has more than 60,000 Twitter users 'following' him, for instance. Try phoning 60,000 people to tell them you're on your way to the meeting and see how late it makes you.

Also, Twitter is not simply a web-based service, it plugs into mobiles too as most users can send and receive tweets via SMS. Sadly UK Twitter users can't currently receive tweets by text because the company recently suspended this part of its SMS service in Blighty, citing unsustainable billing rates from mobile operators (UK users can still send SMS tweets however). Twitter says it hopes to be able to resume the text service in future once it has persuaded operators to end their fleecing ways - and in the meantime Brits armed with a web-friendly handset can of course read other people's tweets via the mobile internet.

OK, so this microblogging lark is another way of keeping people up to speed on banal stuff like what I've had for breakfast this morning and whether I'm planning a post-work beer - but why is it relevant to business?
It's true that while consumers, certain sections of the media and politicians have all been jumping on this bandwagon it's still very much an emerging tech when it comes to the enterprise. That said, Twitterings are afoot there too - or atweet if you prefer.

Microblogging made it into this year's Gartner Hype Cycle as a new entrant - and the analyst house notes several "leading-edge companies" are looking at it as a way of "enhancing other social media and channels". Basically, that just means exploring whether microblogging can improve communications and relations with their customers. Think community-building.

But how exactly can it help? And companies such as whom? Give me an example…
Well PC maker Dell seems to be crazy in love with Twitter. Its initiatives include official Twitter streams tweeting discount codes to a pool of prospective customers - in order to quickly drive demand when it has surplus product. Dell claims it has racked up $500,000 in revenue just through these Twitters. Not exactly a figure to be sniffed at.

It is also using Twitter as a way of simplifying RSS - by using a web service called Twitterfeed, blogs can be delivered straight to Twitter as truncated tweets with a 'click to read more' button. Dell's argument is this has the effect of making RSS easy for the masses and offers another channel to drive readers to its corporate blogs.

Twitter is also helping Dell give a voice to its community websites by enabling users to talk to staff, share ideas, give feedback and so on. Used in this way microblogging can help to raise the profile of the company's ideas - a subtle twist on the usual marketing means.

OK, what else?
Several businesses are interested in using microblogging as a customer service tool. Essentially it works as another channel where people can talk to a business, and crucially one where they feel they're in contact with real people at the company, rather than being fed through frustrating labyrinthine automated call centres. The immediacy and informal nature of the medium is key here.

One example would be US comms company Comcast which maintains a Twitter called 'comcastcares' - currently with nearly 3,000 followers - giving troubleshooting advice and support.

Customers going to a company's 'support Twitter' also plug into a community of other users - so they may even be able to resolve their question without dealing directly with the company. Everyone's a winner.

Are there any downsides for businesses?
Well some people worry that microblogging could end up sucking up a whole load of staff time - all that reading and tweeting when they could be doing other things. However similar concerns are periodically voiced about staff use of social networking websites like facebook but the business world hasn't ground to a halt yet so this fear should probably be filed under 'kneejerk' and 'overblown'. Time will tell if Twittering helps or hinders business productivity - but, deployed strategically (as with Dell's discount code Twitter), there's evidence it can speed up some business processes.

Others worry Twitter et al might cause problems keeping brands on message - tweets can be quick and dirty and can't be edited once sent (fortunately they can be deleted) so typos and human error are to be expected.

However just because there are a few typos you'd be wrong to think corporate Twitterings are always giving you the inside track. Considering how popular Twitter is with politicians, microblogging seems to be doing a good job of dressing up carefully spun PR as 'intimate life insights'.

While politicians can pump out all the flimsy rubbish they like, the same rule doesn't apply for businesses. When using Twitters and its imitators, Gartner believes enterprises should take care to avoid seeming like a spammer. As the analyst puts it, there's "a fine line between providing useful information and shilling" - so the basic rule is still think before you tweet.

Another area of concern for enterprises might be company staff tweeting confidential info - but this affects all forms of communication, whether it's a phone call, an email that shouldn't have been forwarded or even water-cooler gossip. People will talk, so staff education and appropriate security policies apply here.

OK, so I'm feeling clued up on Twitter - but what about other microblogging services out there?
Twitter is the big boy but there are plenty of other contenders offering similar services, including Jaiku (now owned by Google), Plurk and Pownce (created by Digg co-founder Kevin Rose). Many of these offerings attempt to include other aspects of social networking so can seem a more complex proposition than Twitter. As well as being first to the feast, Twitter's dedication to keeping the service simple could perhaps be the secret of its success.

It's also worth noting that microblogging as a phenomenon works best where the biggest crowds gather - which makes Twitter hard to ignore given its high profile.

So what are you doing now?
Just about to leave the office and go for a swim, actually. Thanks for asking.

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