Microblogs Get Down To Business

May 29, 2009 (08:05 PM EDT)

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Sure, you can use Twitter to keep up with Ashton Kutcher and Oprah. But can you actually do anything useful with it, something that justifies using it on the job?

You bet. Twitter and similar services are being adopted by companies such as JetBlue and Alcatel-Lucent to help improve customer service and teamwork across business units and continents.

The tools are easy to configure and use, and it's simple to find connections with other people with interests similar to your own, be they personal or professional. As a customer service tool, Twitter's advantage is that almost everything people say on the service is public and easy to find using Twitter's built-in search. That makes Twitter an instant focus group, made up of millions of people, many of whom are your customers.

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JetBlue thinks of Twitter as part of its corporate communications function, which encompasses media relations, internal communications, and dealing with bloggers. "We think of bloggers and microbloggers as being citizen journalists," says Morgan Johnson, manager of corporate communications for JetBlue, who heads up the airline's Twitter efforts. Twitter users don't have the same reach as traditional journalists, but there are a lot more of them. "Our primary use is just watching and listening," Johnson says. "Twitter can easily be one of the best market research tools available for you." Companies are desperate to get customer feedback, but they find it hard to come by. "On any of our flights, we send out 10 e-mails requesting feedback, and we only get a few of those back. That sort of information is important to us," Johnson says.

Twitter is a free hosted microblogging service that subscribers use to send and read short messages, or tweets. Messages are limited to 140 characters. Users can restrict delivery to their circle of friends or, by default, allow anyone to access them. Users send and receive tweets via the Twitter Web site, Short Message Service, or external apps. The service is free on the Internet, but SMS users are subject to phone service fees.

People often send Twitter messages spontaneously about companies they're doing business with, whether complaining about a delayed flight or expressing gratitude for fast customer service. Companies can overhear that conversation by punching their company names into Twitter Search.

That's particularly helpful in industries such as the airlines that struggle with a bad reputation. "In customer satisfaction surveys, the airline industry as a whole has lower ratings than the IRS," Johnson says. "I take it as a personal point of pride that the majority of mentions we see are positive, but we always want to make sure it goes higher."

Social Studies
There is a business case for enterprise social networks., an online retailer, is using Twitter to make personal connections among employees, and between the company and its customers. Employees use it to organize meet-ups outside of work, and customers can use Twitter to see what the corporate culture is like, says Aaron Magness, who works in business development and marketing at Zappos.

"We just use it as a means of talking and letting people know who we are," Magness says. Of Zappos' 1,400 employees, 430 are on Twitter, including CEO Tony Hsieh. To help get the word out about the company and its employees' personalities, Zappos created a public Web site,, built on the Twitter API to consolidate employee tweets. Among the recent tweets was this from the CEO: "At airport headed to our warehouse in KY. I get stage fright in front of so many shoes. I will just imagine them without clothes." Another pointed a customer to Zappo's product return information.

Twitter Collaboration
One of the more interesting possibilities of microblogging services like Twitter is group collaboration. Yammer is like Twitter for business. It has a simple security scheme--users confirm accounts by using a corporate e-mail address, and they can only see messages (called "yams" on this service) from other users who registered from the same e-mail domain.

Like Twitter, Yammer is a hosted service; unlike tweets, yams can be any length and can include embedded images and other multimedia content.

Yammer is a lot like a corporate discussion and knowledge management forum, such as Jive Social Business Software (formerly Clearspace) or Socialcast. But where other services can veer into complicated organizational hierarchies, Yammer shares Twitter's simple, linear flow. As with Twitter, you follow conversations by following users; unlike Twitter, Yammer also offers groups for discussions on a subject or between people on the same workgroup.

"It's an in-box you don't have to check all the time. You're not obligated to respond to every message," Yammer CEO David Sacks says. Yammer offers basic service for free, with premium add-ons for administration, directory integration, and data export starting at $1 per user per month.

Alcatel-Lucent uses Yammer to break down barriers between business units and employees around the world, says Greg Lowe, social media architect for the company. The company now has 1,000 users on Yammer, with 200 posts a day, discussing subjects such as how they use their own products internally, corporate policies, and cultural issues.

"I think what's really interesting is that people seem more engaged because it's an open platform that isn't bound by organization," Lowe says. Normal collaboration initiatives begin in individual business units and are often limited to that business unit, but Yammer collaboration crosses company boundaries.

To be sure, while Yammer is more secure than Twitter, it's not very secure. Like Twitter, it runs on servers outside your company's firewall. Indeed, when I mentioned--on Twitter--that I was trying out Yammer, a couple of IT managers who follow me in Twitter sent me private messages saying Yammer scares them because it makes it easy for employees to set up accounts and discuss confidential company business without the service having been audited for compliance and security.

Moreover, while it's free for employees to start discussions, Yammer charges IT departments fees for the tools to manage the conversation. At least with Twitter, it's obvious that the discussions aren't secure, and employees are likely to be more cautious.

There are potential legal implications to using Twitter and Yammer, especially where liability is concerned. The informal nature of these tools may lead employees to blurt sensitive or damaging information. Businesses should institute policies around Twitter usage and communicate to employees.

There's also the risk that Twitter can become a distraction. Employees need to be careful not to tweet the workday away.

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