Twitter Habits

So if you keep up with the news at all in the past year, you’ve probably heard about something called Twitter. It’s supposed to revolutionize the way we communicate or something. I’ve been using Twitter for over a year now and it’s become a regular part of my life. Looking back at some of my older tweets, though, I can definitely see my tweeting and Twitter usage habit change over time. Like Twitter itself, my tweets have adapted to my environment and matured in the past year.

First of all, it’s important to note why people use Twitter. People call it a social network but I really think this is misleading, because people think Facebook when you say “social networks,” and Twitter is very different from Facebook. I would argue Twitter is a mass communication tool for individuals. Unless your name is Shaquille O’Neal (who I follow) or Ashton Kutcher (who I don’t follow), you’re not going to be using this as a tool to carry on a sustained conversation with your followers because, let’s be frank, you don’t have that many followers who are actually your friends. Except for niche groups like the tech community, the majority of your friends and colleagues are on Facebook or Linkedin and even if they are on Twitter, there are much better ways to carry out an extensive dialog.

For ordinary people, Twitter is basically a way to build a customized news feed. You can follow the accounts of your favorite media outlets as well as brands and people to get up to the minute information that is relevant to you. For example, I used to check CNN several times a day to find out what was going on in the world, but now I can get up to the minute updates not only from CNN and the New York Times about current events, but also the Wall Street Journal and CNBC for business news, ESPN for sports news, TechCrunch and Mashable for tech news, plus updates for specific news about Boston College, Wimbledon, or The Office. I can even discover interesting articles or videos by following celebrities and other influential individuals (such as journalists or business leaders).

Of course, there are still some rough edges to sort out. For example, because I follow several mainstream news sources, I often get redundant tweets when news breaks. It would be nice if these news flashes could be collapsed into one single tweet. I only need to hear that the bailout passed once. It doesn’t matter if I get the headline from CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, CNBC, Boston Globe, or Morning Call. It only matters if I want to read a more in depth analysis. Still, I think news is the greatest value of Twitter for ordinary people.

So why do I tweet? I have around 130 followers, which is solid for a random college student, but by no means influential. Of all those people, the small portion who are my friends can be more effectively reached through Facebook. The rest are typically companies or marketers hoping to gather feedback or data from me. So aside from complaining about customer service, why should I, or any ordinary person tweet?

My answer is brand building. It might sound self absorbed or hyper-commercialized, but I think in this day and age, it’s something everyone should think about doing. It’s very common for friends, colleagues, employers, colleges, and anyone else to Google you and learn more about you based on your web and social media presence. Just like multinational corporations, you can be passive and let others say whatever they want about you (see BPGlobalPR) or you can be proactive and write your own story by crafting your own public image. This is why I take care of my Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter accounts as well as write this blog.

With this in mind, the differences in my tweets over time make sense. At first, it took some time to figure out how to actually use this service. Early on, my followers were a few early adopter friends and a bunch of random, mostly spam accounts. As a result, my tweets were fairly uninspiring, usually commenting on mundane things like the weather, waking up early, and dining hall food. I first became conscious of my Twitter habits when I started using Selective Tweets. This allowed  me differentiate my tweets and Facebook status updates. Twitter remained the more frivolous, spontaneous updates while Facebook statuses were more important and thought out.

This setup basically stayed the same until I went abroad. All of a sudden, I was relying much more on social media to communicate with friends and family back home. In a way, this meant a return to the more frivolous postings of my early days on Twitter, but because I was in a different country, it carried more value for my followers. Getting lunch, taking a walk, or even talking about the weather was interesting because I was in doing it all in London. In addition, I began to blog more actively when I went abroad and Twitter was a great way to publicize new posts. While WordPress analytics indicate that Facebook is still my top referrer, it’s always a good idea to push through as many channels as possible to reach more potential readers.

The most recent change has come in the last few months. I’m starting to build up a meaningful follower base (I broke 100 last summer but most of those were spam bots that Twitter later deleted). I have two significant active peer groups from TechTrek and TEC, in addition to various (real and active) marketer and enthusiasts. I’m being followed by organizations like Boston College and True Ventures, as well as a few members of the VC community and controversial personality Jason Calacanis. I doubt they scrutinize my tweets too much, but just knowing my 140 characters could pop up on their Tweetdecks makes me think before I tweet. I do a lot more retweeting now of interesting news stories or websites that I find to project a more mature and professional image. I use more hashtags to make my tweets stand out, join larger conversations, and hopefully get retweeted. Like successful corporate brands out there, I’m building up the value of my personal brand by producing interesting, thoughtful, and curated content.

Dangers of Abbreviations

I don’t usually get into political stuff on this blog because it generally just makes people angry for no good reason nowadays. However, I was interested by a certain business related aspect of the BP Gulf oil spill that I think deserves some commentary. Apparently, some Brits are concerned that American political rhetoric against BP is also directed at the UK as a whole. The reason? Many in the US government and press have referred to BP as “British Petroleum” even though the company officially changed its legal name to simply BP in 1998 to reflect its more international and clean energy focus. Whether you buy any of that is up to you. Let’s look at the debate from a marketing and branding perspective.

In the 90s and early 2000s, there seemed to be a trend to rebrand everything with abbreviations. Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC. General Motors is GM. Electronic Arts, EA. It seemed like shortening your brand into an acronym somehow made it modern, relevant, and cool. There’s only one slight problem. When you rebrand something by simply abbreviating it, it’s going to be hard for people not to associate your new abbreviation with the old name it was derived from, especially if the old name was already established. The name BP came from abbreviating British Petroleum. Most people who are in government and the media right now grew up and lived knowing the company as “British Petroleum.”  More importantly, while abbreviations are widely used in popular culture, formal speech and writing conventions still encourage you to spell out the full name. So don’t be surprised if consumers mistakenly refer to your new abbreviated brand by the long form brand which it was derived from because…that’s how you came up with it in the first place right? I mean, people can be stupid, but not that stupid.

So all you branding experts and marketers out there, if you really want to break from your past, how about doing something a little less obvious than abbreviating your name? This is your job, at least put some effort into it.

Paid to search?

It may be nearly two months since I was last in London, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get emails from LSE and UK merchants still to remind me of my time abroad. When it comes to innovation, I’ll give the Brits one thing: they’re not afraid to try crazy stuff. Here’s one email I got earlier this week that really intrigued me:

For those of you unfamiliar with UK commerce, Nectar is a point based reward card system used mostly by Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s biggest grocery chains, but also various other e-retailers like Amazon and eBay UK. You collect points for every pound you spend and redeem those points for rewards like coupons and discounts.

If I understand this ad correctly, you’re getting free points to download and use this Yahoo search bar, which you can then redeem at your favorite retailers. So basically Yahoo is (albeit indirectly) paying UK consumers to use their search engine.

That’s pretty sad. It’s not the first time a search engine has done this before though. Early on, there were gimmicky search engines like iWon which quickly flopped. More recently, Bing had its cashback program when it first launched, but that was limited to shopping. Speaking of Bing, I wonder if this idea was cooked up by Yahoo search’s new Microsoft overlords or if this is a last gasp attempt by the people at Yahoo. Either way I’m skeptical of the impact it will have for the search engine market share battle.

I do wish they came out with this sooner though. I had over 200 points which were just idling (and probably will forever) because you had to have a minimum of 500 to redeem them for anything. Could’ve saved £2.50 ($3.75) on my last grocery bill.