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Made it mainstream: So where next for Twitter?

Brendan Nelson
Made it mainstream: So where next for Twitter? Brendan Nelson
Twitter is the latest in a long line of web industry stars. Having burst onto the scene with the speed of a TV talent show winner, it's become the latest and greatest idea to occupy column inches and web discussion. Twitter's hitting the headlines in both good and bad ways, with positive publicity around its stellar growth mixed with gloomier concerns about security and downtime.
But there's substance behind the hype. What Twitter offers -- conversation in its purest form -- is extremely compelling to consumers, so naturally brands have started taking an interest too. 
In many ways, though, Twitter still has something of the 'wild frontier' about it. It's extremely new and is still changing rapidly, leaving brands and digital agencies with a number of questions to ponder when considering how to make use of it. For example, where will Twitter eventually fit among all the digital communication channels out there? When is the right time for agencies to invest in building services around it? And, ultimately, what kind of service will it develop into over the next few years?
To answer these questions, we need to consider three aspects of Twitter which not only explain its success to date but why it, or something very much like it, will be part of the digital communications mix for years to come. 
Firstly, Twitter is a potential successor technology to SMS. It does everything that text messaging can do -- especially in countries like the U.S. where people receive Twitter messages via text -- and more.  As its messages travel over the web, they are liberated from the proprietary networks of mobile operators. So while messages sent over Twitter can be private, like texts, they can be 'broadcast' too, sent to tens, hundreds or even thousands of people at no additional cost. We'll probably all be using one of Twitter's descendants in, say, ten years' time, but we'll just call it text messaging. 
The second aspect is Twitter's platform independence. While products like iPlayer are rightly praised for being multi-platform, when new devices emerge product managers must develop new versions to support them. Twitter was never designed for a single platform -- it's more like a protocol than a website. So if you're communicating over Twitter you can talk to almost every conceivable internet-ready platform, with no additional development needed when new ones appear.
Finally, Twitter is an inherently 'viral' medium. This is partly due to its technology, whose real-time nature encourages the rapid spread of information, but also the social conventions Twitter users have evolved. The 're-tweet', for example, is a convention for passing on information while crediting your source. It's re-tweeting that causes pictures of aeroplanes in rivers, or of Stephen Fry trapped in lifts, to come to the public's attention within minutes. 
So, what we have in Twitter is a communications protocol, independent from any single platform yet accessible to all. It does everything SMS does, and more. And it's a place where information moves in real time, making even the conventional web seem slow by comparison.
Looked at in this way, there are clearly things Twitter can do for brands which other digital channels can't. But if you're going to do it, it's important to do it right. 
While many organisations have done little more than dabble, some impressive examples are emerging of Twitter adding a new dimension to customer contact. For instance, First Capital Connect (FCC), a London-based train operator, uses Twitter to send customers automated travel alerts. It uses direct messages, so customers receive highly targeted information after messaging the service with their journey details. This model, where Twitter automates customer interaction in real time, has significant untapped potential.
In the U.S., the shoe retailer Zappos.com has taken a different approach. CEO Tony Hsieh personally operates their Twitter account, speaking with a voice that's simultaneously human, accessible and authoritative. This demonstrates a real commitment to engage with customers. Other brands considering using Twitter must be as responsive and authentic in their communication. Replying to tweets every couple of days won't work -- Twitter users expect near-immediate responses, so those manning Twitter accounts must be senior enough to speak on behalf of their company while having enough capacity to truly engage in real time.
For brands and agencies, the decision about using Twitter should be based on developing the right kind of application for it, rather than a gimmicky investment, which is more about bandwagon-jumping. It's important to remember that with Twitter bad news can travel just as fast (if not faster) as good, so planning a Twitter strategy which considers carefully every likely impact is vital to making sure that it works over the long term.
Brendan Nelson is head of strategy at Tobias and Tobias.

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