August 24, 2011

The power of Twitter

There was a time when Twitter – and all its potential uses, pros and cons – could be confidently put to one side by businesses. As an agency, we believe it’s sometimes better to give social media a miss if a company or brand is unclear about its campaign messaging and aims, and/or can’t commit to producing regular and relevant content.

But in recent months, Twitter has been setting the news agenda rather than merely reporting and commenting on it. If you want instant, real-time updates or a unique, firsthand perspective on what’s happening, it’s the place to be. Such was the enormity of its role in the recent riots, a Twitter and social media clampdown in times of unrest was mooted. It is having a profound and visible impact on society and, as such, is predicted to be one of the most important digital developments in our lifetime.

Things really started to change in May 2010 with #ashtag. Not only did Twitter break the news about the Icelandic volcano eruption, but it also – through the use of the hashtag labelling convention – enabled people to keep abreast of the situation with real-time updates. Within hours it was a ‘trending’ topic for all those requiring immediate and accurate travel information.

But mass access to instant news and information, without the time delays and filters imposed by the traditional media, has evolved into a very different beast. Now it’s the perspective of firsthand participants that makes news Twitter-style so vivid and real – as an occasion like #RoyalWedding highlights. Vice-versa, the prosecutions for intention to incite violence over #LondonRiots shows its perils.

Even if you’re not one of its 200 million users, chances are you’ve been on the receiving end of breaking news borne from Twitter. Love it or hate it, the site’s infamous ‘tweets’ spread like wildfire – both directly and indirectly, from mobile devices to word-of-mouth to television news – meaning no matter where you are or what you’re doing, Twitter is now a leading source of news and views.

It’s a powerful mouthpiece with a massive reach. It can make or break situations, celebrities and brands. And if you thought it wasn’t that big a deal before, it certainly warrants your full attention now!

But what lessons can businesses learn from these recent Twitter highs and lows? Should you strike while the iron’s hot and set up that much-talked-about company Twitter account? Or proceed with caution?

If you consider the reasons people and organisations fall foul of Twitter – let’s say, two celebrities starting a spat and, in turn, a reputation-ruining story – they almost always stem from a person typing before they think, without a plan or position. The best things about Twitter? Useful, well thought-out content – a news site giving blow-by-blow coverage of an event, a comedian providing regular laughs, tips on a specialist subject or a place to worship a favourite celeb or brand.

And that’s key – the perfect Twitter account’s raison d’être, and its content thereafter, arises from a clear purpose, plan, message. Those who jump on the bandwagon without some boundaries and a sense of quality-control, do so at their peril.

Twitter presents new challenges for businesses/brands, and the marketing communication agencies that represent them. If you’re thinking of dipping a toe into the Twitter waters (or any social media site, for that matter) it’s important to bear in mind that it is a lasting communication that is representative of your business/brand.

Next time, we’ll explore how an agency can help you formulate and implement a social media strategy, and whose domain this is – digital or public relations.