Twitter is not for business

I think there are several fundamental reasons why companies are unsuited to microblogging, not least the fact that: 1) Twitter relies on people having realtime conversations, and, as you’ll know if you have ever applied for a job, filed a customer service complaint or pitched for business, companies are incapable of doing anything on a realtime basis. Corporations don’t shoot the breeze: they spend ages dwelling on things, commission market research, consult consultants and then, when the moment has well and truly passed, they broadcast. Hence, advertising and corporate Twitter accounts that read like a stream of press releases.

2) Twitter requires users to be brief — keeping tweets to a maximum of 140 characters — and, as you’ll know if you have ever attended an AGM, read a company report or sat through a PowerPoint presentation, large organisations are institutionally incapable of getting to the point.

3) Twitter requires users to be open and, as you’ll know if you’ve ever dealt with a financial PR, tried to get an executive to say something interesting or been surprised by the collapse of a big corporation that previously had received nothing but positive write-ups in the press, corporations are not open.

4) The tone of Twitter is altruistic and reciprocal, whereas businesses are not altruistic and reciprocal: their essential mission in life being to flog stuff. Critics often suggest that social networking sites are hotbeds of solipsism and narcissism, but, at its best, Twitter is about sharing interesting and amusing ideas and helping people. And I’m not sure how businesses can fit into this. At least, I feel uncomfortable every time I discover a company in my list of followers — it’s polite for individuals to follow you if you follow them, but when corporations do it, it’s a bit Big Brother and creepy. And there was a dramatic illustration of what can go wrong when Habitat, the furniture retailer, recently used phrases relating to the contested Iranian elections to promote its mailing list. Using a political crisis to flog an £899 Massello table isn’t classy and it wasn’t surprising that Habitat suffered a backlash.

5) The best Twitter-users are those with distinct voices and personalities, and corporations don’t have distinct voices or personalities. And this is the thing about the handful of corporate Twitter accounts that are engaging, such as @zappos, and Ford’s @ScottMonty. They’re not really company Twitter accounts. They are accounts belonging to individuals who happen to run or work for a company.

Indeed, @ScottMonty is often cited as an example of how corporations can use Twitter well, especially after he recently used it to defuse a controversy over attempts by Ford to shut down a fan website in the United States called As soon as he read complaints about it, he began investigating, kept his followers updated and, after persuading Ford’s lawyers to withdraw the closure efforts, he was able to tweet that the dispute had been resolved.

But how much of what @ScottMonty says is Ford and how much is him? How much is his popularity a reflection of Ford’s desire to engage with customers via social networking? And what happens if or when @ScottMonty leaves Ford: will he take Ford’s voice with him? Difficult questions, which, if I ran a business, I’d resolve by avoiding Twitter entirely.

No comments: