Mr. Positive Thinking was skeptical at first. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins says he wasn't sure he had time to use Twitter when he first heard about the popular social networking site. "Why would I want to read something someone else is doing?" Robbins asked. Like many people, he says he feels somewhat overwhelmed with the volume of information already bombarding him. "Remember when people said technology would give you free time?"
Then a year ago Robbins was visiting with a friend in the technology business. The friend quickly sent a message out to his Twitter network that he was sitting with Robbins. Within minutes 75 people from as far away as Europe and Australia had responded with questions for the guru. Robbins had a breakthrough moment. "This is what I live for," he recalls. "I have a mission. I want to touch people. I want to use every medium I can." He now has more than 1 million followers. Of the information overload, he says: "They can pick and choose what they like."
On Sept. 23, Robbins was the keynote speaker for the second day of the two-day Twitter Conference in Los Angeles. The event was a chance for celebrities such as Robbins and social networking experts to share Twitter strategies with attendees, more than 400 businesspeople, nonprofit fund-raisers, and other Twitter users. Founded in 2006, Twitter is expected to generate 4 billion messages, called "tweets," between users this year, and as many as 40 billion in 2010. The conference was the second run by event coordinator Parnassus Group, with others planned in Seattle and early next year at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
Stars Surprisingly Helpful Several of the attendees said the celebrities, including professional skateboarder Tony Hawk and radio talk show host Dr. Drew Pinsky, were surprisingly helpful. Normally just at conferences to entertain, the stars showed they were as amazed and befuddled by the new communication medium as anyone else. On one panel, Roots actor LeVar Burton and singer Tyrese Gibson engaged in a lengthy debate over how much of their private lives they should reveal in their tweets. The two continued their discussion after the panel had finished. "To see them come off their pedestal and show they're just as unsure as everyone else, that was powerful," says Martin Bosworth, managing editor of ConsumerAffairs.com and a conference attendee.
Winnie Hsia, a social media specialist at the grocery chain Whole Foods Market (WFMI), says her company has 180 Twitter accounts run by employees at 200 stores. She says the company is letting the staffers write their own messages without much control from headquarters. "If we are trusting them to put their faces in front of customers in the stores, why not online?" Hsia says. But the Austin (Tex.) grocer still faces a dilemma deciding how much it should promote specific products in tweets. "In some regions people really want to see store specials," she says. "In some markets it's considered spam."
In a panel called Tips and Tricks, panelists shared some of the many applications that Twitter users can tap into to mine Twitter data. TweetStats.com, for example, lets users track exactly what time of day other users are twittering so you're most likely to catch them if you send them a message at that time. TweepSearch.com mines the bios of users so you can search for people with similar occupations or interests. TweetBeep.com provides e-mail alerts about companies or subjects you want to follow. If all this gets confusing, Feedmyapp.com provides 34 pages of Twitter applications.
Sizing Twitterers Up Quickly Robbins' two-hour talk was punctuated with opportunities for audience members to massage the shoulders of the person beside them, dance to techno music, and jump up and down to Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. Robbins has had his own learning curve with Twitter. He said his first posts were inspirational quotes from people like Nelson Mandela. "You can imagine my frustration with 140 characters," he says, referring to the limit on the length of Twitter messages. But readers said they wanted him to respond in his own words and "do something deeper."
Although Robbins has 1.36 million people who follow his tweets, he himself follows only 265 people. About 110 of those are people he thinks he can learn from. They include former IBM (IBM) chief Lou Gerstner and entrepreneur Richard Branson, who Robbins says doesn't twitter often. The others are people who have said nasty things about him online and whom he wants to have a dialogue with, including one who claims to have proof Robbins doesn't write his own tweets. (He insists he does.) The essential point, Robbins says, is that just as he tries to add value through his public speaking, he looks for people who can add value to his life through Twitter. The service allows him to quickly size people up. "Twitter allows you to understand someone's blueprint in seconds," he says. "Look at what they write, what they share. Some people it's all about the workplace, some people it's spirituality, others it's about looking cool."
Robbins says he wasn't paid for speaking at the conference. "It is a community that's been good for me," he says. "So when you're a member of a community you give back." He also sees a model in Twitter for other businesses. "The only way to build a brand is to build a brand that gives more than it gets back," he says. But isn't Twitter, which charges nothing for its service, famously big on traffic but short on revenues? "People say Twitter doesn't know how to monetize. They're creating the best possible user experience and they'll figure out how to monetize it," Robbins says.