Twitter has taken the communications world by storm
in 2009, influencing United States politics, mobilizing
opposition to the Iranian government and fueling celebrity
gossip. CEOs tempted to join the craze may be taking
a risk too far.
On a day-to-day basis Twitter is a predominantly one-to-many channel rather than a discussion group per se: individuals only see comments from people they follow while their own “tweets” (maximum 140 characters) only go to people who have voluntarily decided to follow them. This means that, unless the tweet is addressed directly to an individual, users do not generally expect a response.
This format explains why politicians and celebrities have embraced Twitter as a means of bypassing traditional media and going straight to their audiences. “The best part is being able to directly talk to Missourians about my day without reporters editing,” observed Claire McCaskill, a Democratic senator from Missouri.
Part of Twitter’s attraction for companies is its utility as a free focus group. As the leading mobile micro-blogging platform it reveals real-time public reaction and sentiment. Customer service departments in the US, for example, keep a close eye on Twitter to head off product or service issues before they escalate online.
Ford used Twitter in December 2008 to counter allegations that it was shutting down fan websites with cease and desist orders. A day later, General Motors used it to squelch rumors that it was shutting down its Volt electric auto factory. And Home Depot and Whole Foods turned to Twitter during last year’s US Gulf Coast hurricanes to tell people where they could get emergency generators and fresh water.
Several CEOs are on record as Twitter fans. “Twitter is another way for us to get news out about Digg,” says Digg Chief Executive Kevin Rose. “Whether it is company announcements or sharing [our] casual information, Twitter is a great way to quickly reach people.”