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The Twitter Revolution For Business May Not Be Televised

When I attended Internet Week's Social Media Camp, marketing pro Chris Heuer presented a slide in the initial Social Media 101 session that read: "Spin doesn't work. People smell BS a mile away."

Ironic, I'd say.

Tell me if this doesn't remind you of late-90's nuttiness: social media gurus conducting Twitter seminars for anxiously paying attendees and clients... people are signing book deals based on tweet compilations. Just last week, Twitter is on the cover of Time magazine ("Twitter and the change it brings"). One Social Media Camp seminar was about "the science of retweeting." Ashton Kutcher battled it out with CNN for the most followers. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jason Calacanis offered $250,000 to Twitter to become a "suggested user" because he equated it with another "Super Bowl."

Now with investor community whispers of Twitter becoming an e-commerce tool, it's time to wonder if it can really walk the walk.

The anecdotal and empirical evidence about Twitter's shortcomings is snowballing as fast as the microblogging site's growth is slowing. The media hype turning point may be upon us.

I'm not talking about abject failure -- Twitter has proven to be a financial boon for Dell Computer, apparently helping to generate more than $3 million in sales since 2007 from its @DellOutlet account. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is milking his Twitter account for everything it's worth to show how cool both he and his company are, selling shoes over the Internet. For breaking news and massive outspoken protests (such as the recent #cnnfail Twitter trend) and customer service outreach (notably with JetBlue), the service has absolute merit. I follow certain journalists to get a sense of what they are writing about and what's on their minds.

But Twitter is turning out to be like a huge party that everybody RSVP'd for and very few people showed up. You know that feeling you may have had in the back of your mind wondering how interesting it would really be to let everybody know about what you were doing every hour? You may have been right -- it's not interesting at all.

To me, it started with the ingenious New York Times article at the end of May that revealed most celebrity Twitter feeds were concocted by ghostwriters. Suddenly, Twitter had a little hollow ring to it, that it was a bit of a smoke and mirrors act. And if Hollywood couldn't bother Twittering, then what about other CEOs and well-known names?

Then came the one-two punch this spring: Nielsen Online issued a report that "more than 60% of U.S. Twitter users fail to return the following month," followed by last week's Hubspot reseaerch that showed that more than half of Twitter's 4.5 million registered users have never posted a tweet. This is going to be a business?

I've heard all kinds of stories of mega-celebrities with tons of followers putting links in their Twitter feed, only to see the click-through traffic produce very disappointing numbers.

Recently, digital traffic measurement firm Compete said monthly unique visitors grew only 1.47% in May.

When the cold light of day arrives, and Twitter's ROI is scrutinized by corporate America, marketers, PR firms, Hollywood, and everybody else who drank the Kool Aid, it may turn out that Twitter is only effective with a certain niche of early adapters, or highly mobile and connected individuals.

Twitter may be more comparable to the specialized smaller audience of Wired magazine versus the colossal mass outreach of Good Housekeeping.

Spin? Oh, yes, it does work.

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10 comments about "The Twitter Revolution For Business May Not Be Televised".
  1. Patrick Boegel from Media Logic , June 29, 2009 at 10:36 a.m.

    Funny thing is though, anytime anyone utters the term Social Media, Facebook, Twitter, youtube it seems that half the time it followed in some way by ROI. Why for example is the colossal mass outreach of Good Housekeeping any less ROI prone than the infant that is Twitter?

    Twitter in 2009 is suffering from a classic Americanized relationship with technology, tools, information and stardom.

    Except it is in even bigger hyperdrive. Build it up, gotta get me some of that and tear it down as a false idol. The cycle is happening quicker than any cheap tabloid run on the latest Hollywood meltdown.

    Twitter may not save everyone's life or rescue humanity, but I don't think it ever claimed to despite the hype machine it has been run through.

    But lets figure out what twitter can really be about before we demand some ROI.

  2. Richard Nailling from Free All Media, LLC , June 29, 2009 at 10:45 a.m.

    So true....thank you for having the cojones to point out this 'irrational exuberance' around Twitter. Shows how desperate we are for a real breakthrough in online media. I'm sure its founders are grateful for all the hype, but they are probably amazed as well.

    At the end of the day, it's about the need for the content, the quality and usefulness of the content...and providing that content consistently--in any form--is just plain hard work that only a few talented, specialized people (and brands) can provide.

    I'll be happy when the turning point is reached and Twitter can take its proper place in the communications stack.

  3. Dane Lickteig from Stallard Technologies, Inc. , June 29, 2009 at 11:12 a.m.

    The worst thing for Twitter is their tagline, "What are you doing?"

    To harness the power of Twitter people need to completely forget about that and think of Twitter in a completely different light.

    Twitter is a global message board without walls in very, very real time.

    Twitter is an phone text message on a phone to anyone, anywhere that remains available.

    When the public understands that, it becomes easier to use and flat out "get".

    If people still want to take it literally--then yes, Twitter is all hat and no cattle.

  4. Philip Reynolds from Tearn Media , June 29, 2009 at 2:24 p.m.

    If the writer watched this video he might think differently
    http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html

  5. Drew Kerr from Four Corners , June 29, 2009 at 4:23 p.m.

    Philip:

    Actually, I did address the admirable breaking news aspect of Twitter in my essay, citing the #iranfail debacle with CNN.

    However, as a vehicle for link traffic and business, the potential seems dubious.

    best,

    Drew

  6. Steve Yanovsky from Brand Alchemy , June 29, 2009 at 5:37 p.m.

    The RSVP analogy is a very astute. For many, taking part of the 'Twitter Cooler Talk' is often more important than what they are talking about.

    Twitter can be described as 'Random Fandomcasting'. It allows celebrity obsessives, fantasy leaguers, proclaimed alphas, tastemakers and those who are just friends, to publish or obtain random or scheduled thoughts, insights and reports on events, from and to those in a private network. It's real-time camaraderie about what matters most to them. How much or how little of what matters, is not for us to judge.

    You may be a Punk'd fan, but do not need to know Demi's reaction from the lingerie that Ashton just gave her. If you happened to be the attending nurse when the ambulance arrived with the 'Gloved-one", there is an immediate human reaction to tell others about it. Twitter is has been embraced as the prospective publishing tool. And yes, we can all agree that it has enormous value for CNN, ESPN and other publishers for reporting and knowing. But the adjective "confirmed" is always attached if it came from a Tweet.

    I appreciate Alex Williams', June 21st article in the NY Times, "Mind Your Blackberry or Mind Your Manners." when he commented, "Techno-evangelists insist that to ignore real-time text messages in a need-it-yesterday world is to invite peril".

    Twitter is both an enabler for both attention and distraction. For brands, the jury is still out whether it's a problem or a solution.

  7. Heather Dougherty , June 29, 2009 at 7:07 p.m.

    I agree with Patrick Boegel and with the latter part of what Richard Nailing have said (1st 2 commenters). I think people look at Twitter a little too narrowly. It's still a very new thing to many, many people. There are a number of companies who have embraced it with marked success — lifting sales, revolutionizing customer service, etc — and others who are still learning to use it well.

    I would suggest looking at it more broadly. Think of Twitter as a transitional vehicle on our way through the evolution of the social web — outlined beautifully by Forrester's Jeremiah Owyang on his blog: http://bit.ly/11oVkd

    Twitter may not survive the complete transition or maybe it will morph into something else, as rumors already suggest. In any case, interacting with and analyzing a tool of its kind is an important step in readying ourselves for the future.

  8. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia , June 30, 2009 at 10:08 a.m.

    I think you are dead on...Twitter's 140 characters of fame are just about over.

    The truly innovative and valuable part about twitter was how it allowed journalists develop their own, identified audience, coupled with the excitement of having unsolicited "followers". That part of the business model will survive and evolve, especially as journalists realize that a personal brand is going to be more important in future than a corporate one.

    But like many, I found that even my favorite people became annoying when viewed through the lens of twitter.

  9. Kevin Horne from Lairig Marketing , June 30, 2009 at 4:03 p.m.

    Two definitions of Twitter "boon":
    1) Take $3 mil and divide by Dell's annual $61 bil. Get answer of 0.005%

    2) Ask Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh why he now plans to spend $10 mil on "awareness" TV ads. Get answer that business won't scale without it.

  10. Dorothy Crenshaw from Crenshaw Communications , July 1, 2009 at 11:20 a.m.

    I have come to similar conclusions (see blog post from 6.12 http://tinyurl.com/ncqmlu) One problem is that the Twitter hype has overshadowed its demonstrable benefits (customer service & hyperlocal direct-marketing tool.) The "Twitter Revolution" in Iran, unfortunately, wasn't, nor has it yet been proven a revolutionary marketing tool. They're simply not enough people listening to one another, and with a 2-way conversation being the holy grail of social media and PR 2.0, that's a major failing.