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An introduction to Twitter

December 17, 2008

A coworker and I had a hallway conversation yesterday after she asked, “What is Twitter? And why should I care about it [as a business tool]?”

“Ah,” I told her, “One of the million dollar social media questions!” How to make this long story short? She essentially had two basic questions: what is Twitter (and therefore micro-blogging), and is it a good business tool?

What is Twitter and micro-blogging?

Twitter is a micro-blogging platform that has been steadily increasing in popularity over the last year or so. Micro-blogging is similar to blogging, except that micro-blogging topics tend to be much more discrete and focused since posts (called “tweets” on Twitter) are limited to 140 characters. In tools such as Twitter, you can read posts from everyone or just a few people (whom you “follow”). Tweets are still chronological, just like blogs. They can be tagged, shared and searched, just like blogs.

Key Twitter terms

  • Micro-blogging: a form of short text, audio, or multimedia blogging that is usually restricted in length (e.g., 140 characters for Twitter).
  • Tweet: post of up to 140 characters in length posted to Twitter.
  • Tweeple: people who use Twitter.
  • Timeline: a chronological view of tweets.
  • Follow: the ability to keep track of updates from specific users. You build your Twitter network this way.

One of the primary differences is the immediacy of the conversation. When you blog, your readers (hopefully) comment and you respond, creating an ongoing conversation that may last for months. Those involved in the comment conversation likely participate in a disjointed timeline as they post, leave, then return to read other comments. With micro-blogging, the conversation is almost immediate and can spread widely in a short span of time. Tweeple (those who tweet) often engage with Twitter throughout the day through mobile device notifications or plug-ins that stream tweets live to their computer desktop. This immediacy is an interesting, fun, and sometimes frustrating phenomenon for the avid tweeter.

Is Twitter a good business tool?

Well, that depends on what your business is and what your goals are. There is so much buzz around all things social media right now that people, even usually level-headed business people, get caught up and want to latch on to the next Big Thing. Yes, Twitter could be a Big Thing for your business, product, or brand, but just like any other tool, you have to plan for it. Twitter, or any other social media engagement, should not be adopted merely for the coolness factor or because it “seems like a good idea.”

Even social media experts are still learning the ins and outs of social media. It’s a constantly evolving environment with daily surprises. The one thing I can tell you with 100% certainty is that a successful social media engagement always takes more work and commitment than most people count on. You can’t be successful on Twitter (or with blogging or online communities or Facebook, and the list goes on) if you aren’t prepared to invest a significant human resource. There’s really no point to creating a strong Twitter presence if you don’t intend to maintain and foster it. Most social media is not conducive to short-term blasts–why build an audience then abandon them?

So, yes, Twitter has the potential to be a great tool for businesses, both B2C and B2B. Just think before you leap!

Obviously, this is a much larger topic than one blog post can cover, so keep checking back. Better yet, respond with your own suggestions and questions!

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