The leading edge of online corporate outreach once was the executive blog. Carefully crafted messages on a range of topics, closely vetted by PR firms, were posted every few weeks, calculated to appear spontaneous and thoughtful. Not surprisingly, many companies learned that customers didn’t find those missives authentic, and they moved toward more dialogue-based tools.
Now, with the advent of micro-blogging services like Twitter and Plurk, that leading edge has become more like a pinpoint. Companies, and the people who work for them, are learning to be relevant and collaborative in the very small space of 140 characters or less.
Why do they bother? Enterprises are moving toward micro-blogging for the same reasons they use any Web 2.0 tool: That’s where their customers are.
“Companies are challenged with staying compelling,” Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter, told TechNewsWorld. On the new frontier of the micro-blog, relevance takes many forms.
Blurring the Lines
Like blogs, or weblogs — their older sibling counterparts — micro-blogs have bubbled to the top of Internet consciousness on a wave of popularity among ordinary Internet users looking for faster, more efficient methods of interacting. Like blogs, micro-blogs quickly have morphed from serving individuals’ purposes to meeting the needs of affinity groups, professional interest communities, and companies themselves.
Take the case of Patricia Michalski, knowledge manager with Deloitte, who started using Twitter to keep in touch with far-flung family and friends.
“I stumbled on Twitter when a professor in my master’s program mentioned it,” Michalski told TechNewsWorld. The faculty member was discussing different Web 2.0 tools used to share information.
Michalski quickly found that a number of her Deloitte coworkers worldwide also were using Twitter, so she began “following” some of them. In Twitter parlance, to “follow” a micro-blog is to subscribe to updates from that person or group. Following can be reciprocal or one-sided; one might choose to follow a newspaper’s updates, or “tweets,” for example — but that newspaper certainly would not choose to follow the tweets of all its readers.
Soon, Michalski began searching out sources of information on Twitter that might enrich her knowledge management expertise. She now follows KnowledgeBoard, a group that distributes links to articles or sites with specialized information on topics such as knowledge audits, knowledge transfer and business intelligence. Thus, her use of Twitter has progressed from purely personal to a hybrid of individual and group purposes, both personal and professional.
Tweets from Outer Space
As organizations have become more saavy about the use of micro-blogs, they’ve applied some of what they’ve learned from more heavyweight Internet tools to how they interact with readers in the micro format. NASA, for example, long has been a leader in posting images, video and voluminous information on space ventures to its array of sites and blogs. Now, the organization is using Twitter to “speak” for individual missions.
“The folks at NASA have done an amazing job anthropomorphizing the Mars Phoenix lander to disseminate breaking Martian discoveries, and the account has enjoyed meteoric success,” said Twitter cofounder Biz Stone. The landing module, known as “MarsPhoenix on Twitter,” currently has over 32,000 followers and has posted over 400 updates.
Some organizational micro-blogs are more terrestrial. DellOutlet, the arm of Dell that sells refurbished equipment, is using the real-time nature of micro-blog updates to make special deals available to those who read its tweets. A posting on July 30, for example, used its 140 characters to efficiently provide the following special:
20% off refurb Latitude XT tablet or XFR fully ruggedized Laptop. Enter code @ checkout: J?$PG35M04V41D – http://tinyurl.com/5hw6ty- exp 8/1
“Dell has reported $500k in sales through Twitter,” said Stone. That’s since March 7, 2008, according to the Twitter archive of its updates.
The Concept of Conversation
It’s a mistake, though, to think of a micro-blog as a unidirectional blast of information, according to Mark Silva, principal and founder of Real Branding, a firm that helps companies plan and implement interactive strategies. “Most companies can’t value the benefit of micro-format content,” he told TechNewsWorld, “where what is small is a very big deal.”
Take BarackObama, the campaign’s micro-blog on Twitter, for example. It has nearly 55,000 followers — a big number by micro-blog standards, but still not a huge distribution list by conventional media standards. “What [companies] don’t see is the network effect,” said Silva. Popular micro-blogs, he asserted, have an enormous ability to influence the larger popular culture.
Given that substantial influence, some of Silva’s favorite micro-blog tools are those that search on Twitter for mentions of particular companies or products. “I like the use of Google alerts and TweetBeep for monitoring the conversation,” he said. “I like the use of micro-blogging to instantly join, redirect or calm a conversation.”
The key term is “conversation,” Silva emphasized.
“The concept of conversation scares most large companies because it’s a lot less controlled than issuing a press release or a spokesperson’s well-considered statement,” he noted.
Companies that stick to a script, however, are overlooking many of the benefits of micro-formatting and “atomizing” content, he said.
Organizations that take the plunge can reap the benefits of the collaborative nature of Web 2.0, Silva asserted, such as influencing the search cloud around a particular subject or allowing others to embellish a company’s content.