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The Fast-Moving World of Enterprise Twitter

Posted by Mark Bennett on September 15, 2008

We’re all seeing a huge surge in news around how companies can use Twitter and Twitter-like clones. BusinessWeek and Wired have recently done much to bring Twitter more into the public eye, particularly for business. Mix that with the hubbub around efforts such as Oracle’s “OraTweet”, “ESME” (SAP’s “Enterprise Social Messaging Experiment”) and “Yammer” (which just won the top prize at the recent TechCrunch50), and you can see that it’s a good idea to be up to speed on this. This post may help folks either new to the whole concept or at least new to recent developments get some perspective.


What is Twitter? The basics:


Twitter is the most popular app being used today for “microblogging.” Microblogging is the sending of very small messages (in the case of Twitter, called “Tweets”, limited to 140 characters) in a “broadcast” mode which means all tweets are generally viewable by anyone. That is really all there is to it, fundamentally. What keeps things manageable is that users can filter tweets so that they only see the ones from users they “follow.” Users can restrict who their followers are by requiring that they approve each follower request. In this case, tweets will be viewable only by those followers. All tweets are stored and can be searched as well. Conventions are used to create “ad hoc” threads, usually by pre-pending the thread with a ‘#’ (e.g. ‘#o208’ was used for tweets about the recent 2008 Office 2.0 conference.)


Isn’t it just about what I had for lunch?


When it started, Twitter was seen as merely a place for people to just tweet what they were doing that very minute (e.g. “waiting for the bus”, “eating cereal. again.”) No one really saw much business value and in fact, threw Twitter into the proverbial “time-waster bucket.” Two other forms of tweets started to change this perception. The first was instant, on the spot, news, either large news items, such as an earthquake in China, or more personal in nature, such as the individual arrested in Egypt, which later became quite newsworthy. News and other forms of timely, useful information are very valuable to business, especially if it’s fresh as well as accurate. The other was brief commentary and opinion, often linked to elaboration on a blog or news site. In a few short words, a user could send an opinion about a technology, product, political figure, etc. to a sizeable set of people.


“Listen to your customers. Listen to your employees. Do what they tell you.”


The above quote comes from SAS’ cofounder and succinctly describes how a firm fundamentally relates to its customers and employees. Better performing firms do a better job at it. This is exemplified in the way Zappos uses Twitter. As mentioned previously in this blog, Zappos uses Twitter to listen to customers and “represents a huge presence in a community of customers and employees (and yes, competitors as well), talking and listening to each other about what’s working and what’s not, what’s hot and what’s not, and basically anything else that provides the ‘pulse’ of the market.” In addition, Zappos’ CEO is right in there as well, further enhancing the Trust factor as well as providing him a direct insight into their market.


The employee-enterprise conversation


Public” Twitter conversations between customers, employees and the enterprise are one thing, but what about the “private” conversation amongst the employees and the enterprise? Conversations with customers to get their opinions and feedback can often be non-proprietary since most of the opinions/feedback would be expressed one way or another in a public forum and any responses by employees will follow guidelines and/or common sense to make sure nothing proprietary is accidentally leaked. Within the enterprise, you don’t want those kinds of limitations most of the time. You want free and open conversations to share news, ideas, and opinions of a proprietary nature. Thus, we are witness to many behind the firewall microblogging tools being announced.


But don’t we already have email and IM?


A very sensible step in solving a business problem is to ask if the solution is already sitting around. Many ask, “Why do we need Twitter for the enterprise when we already have email (with d-lists) and IM (with groups/rooms)?” It boils down to that Twitter and other microblogging tools have:


  1. The asynchronous benefit of email (people won’t miss your message if they don’t happen to be online when you send it), combined with
  2. The “broadcast + subscribe” model of blogging (you don’t have to construct distributions list or predetermine your recipients), combined with
  3. Social networking (people can “re-tweet” your message to push it along to their followers if they choose. Similar to forwarding, but without the overhead of distribution lists.)

One can certainly already send messages around inside the enterprise today with existing tools, but the point is that Twitter and its ilk offer an alternative that may support the better flow of news, answers, status, opinions and feedback than the existing tools for certain situations. In other words, the particular business problem being addressed is:


“How can we share short bits of news, questions, answers, status, opinions, ideas, and feedback within the organization when we are unsure of who might know the answer or be interested, or whether they are online or not?”


There will be definitely times when email or IM (or something else entirely) may be the more appropriate tool to use (this isn’t anything new as there are times when email or IM is more appropriate than the other.) Microblogging is not a cure-all replacement, but a tool that addresses unique needs that seem to have high value for the enterprise.


Okay, now what?


As mentioned before, this space is moving very fast, faster than a lot of folks have time to digest what it all means. When that happens, the reaction sometimes is to just wait, but that has opportunity cost. Whatever you decide, it’s good to keep the framework provided byGroundswellin mind to clarify your thinking:


  • People – Asses your employees’ social activities. E.g. If they are already using these tools and asking for more, that tells you a lot about their readiness.
  • Objectives – What do you want to accomplish? E.g. Are you trying to solve particular business problems? Are you trying to increase customer and/or employee engagement?
  • Strategy – Plan for how the relationships will change in order to achieve the objectives. E.g. Are you going to build communities? Are you going to promote customer/employee conversation?
  • Technology – Choose the social technologies to use. E.g. What tool makes sense given your people, objectives, and strategy? What are your budget/infrastructure/security constraints?

This way, you can view each new announcement or opinion and see how it fits into your thinking, such as the recent, intriguing one regarding using Twhirl + identi.ca as a way to have both external as well as internal networks for microblogging from the same UI. One can see how that could be very useful for roles at the boundaries of the organization as well as R&D. You’ll find that almost as many different approaches to microblogging are being offered as there are to any other enterprise software, recognizing that different companies have different needs depending on their legal, competitive, and technological circumstance.


Anything missed or questions overlooked? Please comment!


4 Responses to “The Fast-Moving World of Enterprise Twitter”

  1. Amy Wilson said

    Mark – this is great insight. Another value that you often bring up is the value of weak ties and the wisdom you can obtain from diverse networks. I just (finally) started using twitter. I created my “follow” list from those of my close ties (i.e. business associates that I talk to daily). This means that I am hearing and seeing the same things as them. How would I go about diversifying the network I follow so that I am learning new and different things that I could then bring back to my close ties?

  2. Excellent question, Amy! A few ways to do this in Twitter include:

    1. Follow more people, especially the people whom you follow follow. Also, follow your followers that you don’t know – Yes, I know that sounds flip, but with Twitter, it’s sometimes the best way to get more diverse input. There is definitely the “firehose effect” problem, but folks who follow thousands tend to see it as not so much trying to read every tweet, but see what’s passing by when they take a look.

    2. Follow people who “re-tweet” – This approach attempts to leverage the filter that you hope that person uses to keep the noise level down, yet you still leverage diversity by getting tweets from people you might otherwise never had known about. You might then follow them. Also, if you “re-tweet” as well, you benefit the community as well by promoting diversity.

    3. Search a “#thread” – When people start a #thread, you can use Twitter search (search.twitter.com) to find other tweets from diverse sources on that topic. You might follow them.

    Some of these ideas are fine for Twitter due to its current design and purpose, but may not work as well for the enterprise. Hopefully, tools explicitly designed for the enterprise will have facilities to leverage the power of weak ties!

    Hope that helps,

  3. […] mentioned previously how Twitter is a kind of Activity Stream where most people only display the “tweets” […]

  4. […] to help developers improve their productivity. I had first written about OraTweet a year ago in a post describing how companies were finding business value in using Twitter, both externally as well as […]

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