Intercom Q&A: Alec Hosterman Answers Your Questions

by Kevin Cuddihy on 14 January 2010

Last week we put out a call for questions about Alec Hosterman’s article, “Tools of the Trade: Getting Technical about Using Twitter,” in the December Intercom. You can read the article again at the Intercom site (don’t forget that you must be logged in to view the PDFs) before reading further for the questions and Alec’s answers below. There’s some great in-depth answers, so get a tasty beverage and settle in! And come back next Wednesday, when we’ll have another call for questions to an Intercom article for you!

What’s your opinion on the dilemma many of us face with social media, that of trying to negotiate how much our personal and professional lives should overlap online? Is it common for professionals to have both a personal and professional Twitter account? Or is it okay to blend the two, as long as all your personal Twitters are fairly innocuous?
What you do with your personal Twitter account will more than likely differ from your professional account. For instance, I have my own personal account (@alechosterman) but I also have an account for each of the classes that I teach (which I keep locked) and one for my department (which is public). There are several reasons for this. First, each account serves a different purpose, and thus, a different audience. Second, I don’t want to clog up my class and departmental accounts with personal information that would, inevitably, clog up my follower’s accounts. This becomes part of Twitter etiquette, in some respects.

With this said, there are some professions that utilize just one Twitter account for both personal and professional tweets. I know quite a few realtors that have only one account, likewise, some small businesses and educators choose this route. The choice, inevitably, is up to you. In determining your Twitter goals, it will soon become apparent what type of account you will create and how much information you wish to share on it. I just read an article entitled “80 Ways to Use Twitter as a Small Business Owner.” It has quite a few helpful suggestions on how to use Twitter in a professional environment, including what to tweet.

How can we make sure we avoid the problem of ambiguity while using Twitter? Even in emails, tone is sometimes very hard to distinguish. I imagine in Twitter it’s even harder. Does that preclude humor?
Tone is difficult, naturally. Because tweets are a maximum of 140 characters, space comes at a premium: each word and symbol must have meaning. Think about Instant Messenger or texting. When messages are sent through these mediums, users generally truncate words because it’s a quick message, nothing in-depth (unlike this blog post). “Before” becomes “b4”, “your” becomes “ur”, or “business” becomes “biz.” To express emotional reactions, general emoticons are used, like J or L or common abbreviations like LOL or Yay! (Notice “yay” is spelled incorrectly but its phonetic pronunciation relays excitement.) As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.” This is a prime example of how meaning (message interpretation) is determined by the medium (Twitter).

Humor is wholeheartedly a part of the twitterverse. Some of us have come to rely on our followers/followees for a chuckle or two, especially after a long day. Comedians have found a new home on Twitter. People like Bill Cosby, Tina Fey, Jay Leno, or John Larroquette tweet with the same verve and humor they have in person. For instance, David Pogue (@pogue) has been tweeting his favorite Steven Wright quotes (Wright’s material is a perfect fit for Twitter). For instance, “Today’s Steven Wright-ism: If the police arrest a mime, do they him he has the right to remain silent?” (posted January 11, 2010).

In the end, proficient tweeters will create a message that has meaning even in shortened form. Naturally, miscommunication will occur but the more one engages Twitter, the more they realize the common ways or tricks other tweeters use to get their intended message across.

I’m intrigued by your discussion of a company using Twitter as a help desk feature. Do you think that’s feasible for a smaller company, however?
Larger organizations, like Comcast or GoDaddy, have more than one person dedicated to Twitter inquiries / help desk / customer service functions. For small business, I presume this would be more difficult since people generally engage in but not impossible. Customer Service inquiries come in all forms these days, Twitter being the latest trend. After some quick research, here are some suggestions that I think work, especially for small businesses.

  1. Brand your support account with a name and avatar. Doing this will help ensure customers know this account is for support while another account is for sales (if that is the case).
  2. Find a client that will handle multiple Twitter accounts, like TweetDeck, HootSuite, or Seesmic. Here one person can manage several Twitter accounts with ease, cutting down on time spent switching between accounts on the web.
  3. Twitter should be used as a gateway towards a solution, but not the solution itself. What I mean by this is customers can tweet a query and the response you provide can lead them to an on-line FAQ, a number for live service, or the like.

There are also several companies that specialize in using new media tools for customer service and help features, like http://www.helpdeskontwitter.com and http://www.twittercapture.com.

How often do you think a company has to monitor Twitter to have a true presence there? At some point we have to evaluate manpower versus benefit. Any suggestions on a good way to evaluate that?
Here is a very common concern about integrating Twitter into any organization’s marketing efforts. Before teaching full-time, I worked in the advertising / public relations department of a toy manufacturer. It was long before Twitter came into existence, however we did have an on-line bulletin board that I monitored, responding to collector questions and the like. In the early days, I found myself spending more time figuring out how it worked, what the nuances of posts were like, and who the individuals were that frequented the board. Over time, I spent less time on it, but it was no less important in my daily activities; I just became more proficient in my bulletin board activities. Twitter is no different.

I recommend organizations assigning one person to the company’s Twitter account. Other individuals in the organization can have their own accounts, but the same person should monitor the company account; their writing style, grasp of information, and twitter etiquette will all come through to readers. Early on I feel the user should monitor the Twitter account on a regular basis (this is negotiable with your employer, but strike a balance between the need to build the tool and your other work). There are quite a few applications out there, other than running it through the website, which will help streamline time spent on Twitter. The more you become familiar with the way Twitter functions, the less time you will focus on tweeting versus other work.

It takes time to establish a Twitter reputation, so tweeting with regularity is important, especially early on. Followers need to know when to expect your tweets and what they’re aboutwhich is no different than any other marketing efforts. As you progress, you can integrate your tweeting alongside other social media marketing efforts. Applications like TweetDeck allow you to run your Twitter account alongside Facebook, LinkedIn, or Myspace accounts (if your company has these). Similarly, add your Twitter account to your marketing activities and tag lines (i.e., “Follow us on Twitter @XXXXXX”). The more others know about your account, the faster your followers list will grow.

Finally, it takes time to establish a reputable account. It will be 4 to 6 months before a person has followers and has “wings” (pardon the pun). But once your organization has a set of followers and determines the best way to use Twitter to achieve their organization’s goals, then the more companies will see a return on their investment. Patience is the key with Twitter.

Can you expand a bit on Twitter etiquette? Especially for those just getting into the Twitterverse, what should we be extra careful of?
Like any form of electronic communication, there is an etiquette and protocol for Twitter that one should follow. Think about Twitter as a rather large gathering of individuals engaging in an on-going conversation. Each person has their own routine and members they communicate with, therefore another person makes the gathering that much larger. Butting into conversations is rude in real time, and it’s the same in the Twitterverse. Here are some simple points to remember:

  1. Remember to use “please” and “thank you.” Sounds simple, right? Making connections in the physical world relies on manners and it’s no different in cyberspace.
  2. If you send out @messages, don’t feel bad if the person doesn’t respond right away. People are busy and they may not have the chance to respond right away.
  3. If you get a message, respond promptly. Immediacy is one of the major advantages to Twitter and people will see
  4. If you pass along another person’s tweet, give them credit by listing it as an RT (re-tweet) and their profile name. In turn, the person RT’d might see you and begin to follow you.
  5. Include a photo or avatar. Using the pre-made bird image is a red flag that could indicate the account is spam. In addition, fill out the contact information and biography. Anything you can do to personalize your account you should do.
  6. And speaking of spam, don’t do it. There’s nothing worse than getting spammed on Twitter. I immediately block the user and report them to the Twitter-Powers-That-Be.
  7. Watch out for those individuals who follow you but are there really to sell something. If your profile is public, go in and do a regular check of your followers. If they promise to help you lose weight, gain a thousand new followers per day, or are your dream date, chances are you might want to block them.
  8. Finally, be patient. It takes time to learn the tool, grasp the language, develop a list to follow, and a gather followers. Twitter isn’t instant gratification right away, but it can be in the near future.

There are sites out there that pontificate on Twitter etiquette. A fairly complete blog is from Fast Company. Likewise, Mashable posted “Zen and the Art of Twitter: 4 Tips for Productive Tweeting.” The article is a good resource for those who are new to the Twitterverse.

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