Wednesday, 29 August 2012

'Because It's There' And Other Bad Reasons for Using Twitter

These days it seems like every time I go online I see a new communications person (usually a former communications staffer with some big organization) offering their services as a Twitter guru of some kind. Everywhere you go, somebody seems to be offering seminars like 'Twitter for non-profits' or 'How to maximize your marketing reach through Twitter'. Far be it for me to pooh-pooh anybody offering such services, it does lead me to wonder if the corporate and non-profit world's current obsession with Twitter is becoming a tad overkill.

Don't get me wrong - I like Twitter a lot and find it a very useful tool - one that I'm still learning. But the current Twitter craze is reminding me in many ways of the ESL/EFL obsession that took hold in East Asia in the late-1980s and 1990s. For a time it seems like just about everybody in Japan, Korea and Taiwan (and later in Mainland China) was convinced that mastery of the language of King James and Mickey Mouse was the solution to absolutely every problem and English conversation schools began to outnumber noodle stalls and karaoke bars in Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei. At the peak of this craze, advertising for language school chains like Japan's once-supreme but now largely eclipsed NOVA bordered on the insane (and borderline sexual), featuring handsome, impeccably groomed American men bestowing magical English fairy dust on grateful young Japanese women. Who knew English was such an aphrodisiac?

This wasn't a good reason in high school and it still isn't.
The current Twitter obsession - at least among North American businesses and organizations - is not far from this. Everyone seems to want to use it, and if they are using it they want to be using it better than anybody else - or at least better than their competitors. There are currently more social media monitoring tools out there than I can name and every self-styled communications blogger purports to have some kind of 'edge' on Twitter to share with the world. But when it comes down to it, Twitter, like the English language, is a tool, and like any other tool it's not going to suit every job or every organization. And like any type of tool - be it a saw, a chisel or a shotgun, it requires a need in order to be of any use.

For an organization considering adopting Twitter as a tool, there are three obvious (at least to me) questions that its communications staffers need to ask themselves, namely
  • Do I have a story to tell that lends itself to 140-character vignettes?
  • Do I have important information to disseminate?
  • Is there anybody else out there who is already disseminating this information effectively?
  • Do I have the time and the resources to devote to the upkeep of this tool? (See last week's post on the similarities between having a dog and having a social media tool.)

These are not easy questions to answer and require a great deal of thought and research. However, the following criteria are more straightforward, namely a list of wrong reasons to be on Twitter. If you're thinking about adopting Twitter as a tool - and any of the following rationales for adopting it apply - I think it would be wise to re-examine your priorities.

Useful tools in some professions but perhaps not yours

1) Because it's there.

This old mountaineering adage holds no water when it comes to social media tools. A lot of things are there. There's Twitter, yes. There's also Foursquare. There's Yammer. There's the now completely ubiquitous and unsexy Facebook. Hell, there's your frickin' telephone! Just because it's there to be used doesn't necessarily mean that you should be using it.

2) Because it's cool.

No, it really isn't. Even if this were a legitimate reason for using Twitter, this now six-year-old digital tool lost just about any claim to 'coolness' it ever had at least four years ago. In fact it was pretty much officially declared uncool in 2008 - and is now firmly into Facebookville.

3) Because everybody else is using it.

Now this actually is cool!
Actually, this isn't true. In my own research of airport social media best practices, I was surprised to learn that Montréal-Trudeau International Airport doesn't use Twitter at all. In fact they've sized up the tool on several different occasions and each time come to the conclusion that it didn't suit their needs, and in fact would be an unnecessary drain on their resources. Instead they invested in creating a mobile app which, since it's launch at the tail end of 2011, has proven to be very popular among Montrealers. This app, coupled with the airport's old-fashioned phone hotline, do pretty much anything a Twitter feed is designed to do - without the human resources required to be constantly manning a Twitter feed. Sometimes the old tools really are the best ones.

4) I'll look like a laggard if I'm not on Twitter.

Again, not true. Unless you're in a job like mine where you're actively involved in researching what tools different companies and organizations are using, nobody is out there sussing out whether or not you, personally, are tweeting or not. And if they are they've got WAY too much time on their hands. Truth be told, if your organization is communicating well with the tools it's using, nobody is going to fixate on the tools you're not using. Really, nobody cares!

5) I need it to establish myself as a source of first resort in my area.

This may or may not be a legitimate reason for being on Twitter, but it leads back to the original point about whether a) you really do have unrivalled access to certain information and can provide it better than other organizations, and b) you have the time and human resources to devote to the task. The latter point is the undoing of some organizations that leap into Twitterstan before thinking through what they hope to achieve with it. And the trouble with establishing yourself as a source of first resort on anything is that people come to expect this of you - and failing to deliver the goods in this regard will do far more damage to your organization's reputation than not being on Twitter in the first place ever could.

6) The board of directors wants me to.


7) I like the cute birdie symbol.

I've never actually heard this articulated as a rationale for using Twitter, but it's probably safe to say it's not a good reason for doing so. Perhaps you might consider a company mascot - and hiring an 18-year-old kid to stand outside the building in a bird costume. At least the kid can go home at 5 pm and leave the bird costume at the office.

P.S. Christina Rontynen, if you're reading this post, my whole business about Twitter educators was in no way directed at you. And if you are looking for a great social media consultant and educator - and you happen to be in the Calgary area, Christina, the President of CIPR Communications and currently a digital media advisor for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, really knows her stuff. You can follow her on Twitter at @crontynen or check out her cheeky political blog (which she co-authors with her husband Peter Pilarski) at


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