Why your business should use Twitter

perspective Twitter's not just about what you ate for breakfast. Mark Kobayashi-Hillary explains how businesses can take advantage of it and other social networks.

perspective Twitter has soared in popularity this year.

It seems every celebrity is using it, from Jonathan Ross and Demi Moore to the U.K. Prime Minister.

The BBC appears to be using Twitter as an in-house tool for soliciting audience feedback and many are now styling it as a search engine for current events.

An example is the recent death of Michael Jackson, where thousands of comments and links about Jackson were being added each second, making it the place to look for live information, as opposed to pages that have been indexed and ranked by Google.

Because of its popularity many executives take a look at Twitter, with a view to promoting their own profile--or that of their company--yet leave underwhelmed. If Facebook was all about pretending to be a vampire or throwing sheep at each other, then Twitter appears to be little more than celebrity spotting and geeks swapping tech tips.

What's the point?

I can assure you there is one, even for businesses.

The first mistake a lot of new users make is to assume that each update, or 'tweet', is like a status update in the other major social networks. Twitter has developed into an online conversation, with users interacting and swapping news constantly. It's no place for an executive who wants to post a single message each day pitching the fact that his company sells widgets.

This constant debate can be integrated into a corporate communication strategy in an entirely different way.

How many companies out there--especially in the technology services business--are still publishing whitepapers? They publish a paper on a supposedly 'hot' subject, then host a dinner and hope some journalists will show up and agree this is a company that is offering some real thought leadership.

Excuse me while I stifle a yawn.

Nobody really ever read those whitepapers but they looked good in corporate receptions and as handouts at big conferences.

So what does the new world of thought leadership look like?

Well, it's probably not on Twitter. No matter how hard you try, it's going to be hard to get some detailed thoughts into 140-character chunks. However, a more integrated approach to social networks in general can work exceptionally well.

Consider this basic outline...

First, a blog is added to the corporate Web site, updated daily with new thoughts and ideas from the management team, but steering well away from advertising the company and instead keeping focused on ideas about the industry in which they operate.

Then, each new blog entry is highlighted and discussed in Twitter conversations, in LinkedIn and Facebook groups, and as comments on other related blogs.

Twitter in particular is packed full of people with a strong interest in technology, either personally or professionally. Just about every media professional you can think of is on there too, so it's a useful place to get a discussion going that ultimately links back to your own blog. This should be about real thought leadership, demonstrating how smart and savvy your team is.

Each of the major social networks has developed a distinct identity and purpose, not always in the direction the founders expected. In fact, most of the etiquette around conversations on Twitter came from the users themselves creating new standards.

LinkedIn has developed from being little more than a space for online résumés into a debate forum for business across the world.

MySpace has become the center of the universe for unsigned bands to showcase their music.

Facebook has become the general all-purpose site where you connect with friends, and niche sites are popping up all the time to appeal to specific communities.

Then there are the specialist networks--most business area or interest group can find a network out there somewhere.

Used in isolation, it's hard to achieve a tangible business benefit from any of these sites. Whatever your business does, you need to still do that and do it well. A bad car manufacturer doesn't become a cool car manufacturer just by tweeting, joining groups on social networks or commissioning viral videos.

However, if you consider that the people you want to reach, all those elusive customers (and yes, big-shot executives are online too) are out there chatting online, then it would be foolish to not think about how to engage with them. This applies just as much to businesses selling only to other businesses, as it does to those selling to consumers.

The last time I had a problem with my BT broadband line at home, I mentioned it on Twitter. Within minutes BT--which is on Twitter too--was asking me about the problem. That's an example of great customer service.

BT understands the value of conversation. Do you?

Mark Kobayashi-Hillary is an advisory board member of Saffron Chase Communications and author of recent book 'Who Moved my Job?' You can follow his tweets here.

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