The Business Sense of Twitter

Many IT shops consider employee use of social media a nuisance or time waster. And though LinkedIn and Facebook offer a measure of business value, it's not difficult to understand why.

Twitter might look like just another social media tool, but in truth, it's utterly different, with strong potential for business ROI. (See "Cashing In on Tweets.")

Technically, it offers little more than Facebook's status message, but the advantage comes not from the tool itself but from the community of people using it and the way they do so. Here's why Twitter is a much better social medium for IT professionals and other businesspeople:

1. It's got a real business use. More than any other social media site, Twitter is used by a great number of businesspeople, who are tweeting about professional topics. According to a comScore study, people aged 45 to 54 are 36% more likely than people in any other age group to use Twitter. You may be surprised to learn how many of your colleagues are tweeting -- and not just to report what they had for lunch. Meaningful discourse occurs on Twitter most every hour of every day.

2. It's OK to follow people you don't know. It's not cool on Facebook or LinkedIn to friend people you don't know at all. But Twitter is about information, and "following" people you don't know -- merely because of the interesting things they might say -- is the rule. Unless someone has invoked Twitter's "protect my tweets" setting (and very few do), you don't need permission to follow anyone. In order to spread your word, you need followers on Twitter. But you can still gain significant benefit along the way by listening.

3. Twitter delivers news, unique perspectives and stellar information. This is the key benefit, and it doesn't get talked about as much as it should. Like Digg and Slashdot, Twitter has a large content-recommendation culture. The tool is designed to do that with a built-in URL shortener. And with Twitter, the best content bubbles to the top. People tweet or retweet (forward someone else's tweet) only the most interesting things. Spend a couple of hours following smart people on Twitter, and you'll likely learn things you might not learn any other way. That makes it an excellent environment for following trends, gathering information, gauging buzz and researching topics of interest. You can also interact with people and pose questions to get discussions started.

4. You can mark your company or personal brand. Twitter can be used for many business or professional goals: building your personal or company brand, enhancing your business relationships, interacting with customers, doing market research or selling. Once you build up a large enough following, Twitter becomes a microblog. It's a powerful one-to-many tool that reaches a very influential, engaged audience.

5. There are no cliques or hurt feelings. You fully control the stream of tweets you see. Don't like someone's bald self-promotion? It's easy to "unfollow" someone, and it doesn't send them a message such as "Scot Finnie stopped following you and therefore clearly doesn't like you anymore."

A couple of tips for smart tweeting: Follow only people you're genuinely interested in. Following everyone may help you get followers, but it defeats half of the benefit of Twitter: reading the thoughts of the most insightful people.

With a tool like TweetDeck, you can create multiple groups consisting of the tweets of people who are generally focused on a specific topic. You can also follow hash tags -- or Twitter searches -- to see tweets on specific topics. I used Twitter for over a year before I tried TweetDeck. Once I did, the value of Twitter increased markedly for me right away. There are many other Twitter tools. To learn more, see "8 Free Twitter Clients for Better Tweeting."

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can catch him at twitter.com/sfinnie, or contact him at sfinnie@computerworld.com.

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