Twitter: Far from a Flight of Fancy for Business

This is a post by guest blogger Jonathan I. Ezor.

140: The Twitter Conference is taking place September 22 and 23rd at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. Presented by The Parnassus Group, this conference differs from another major Twitter conference, Jeff Pulver’s (which began in New York and is expanding to London and Tel Aviv as well as Los Angeles over the next few months) in its focus on Twitter as a business medium, instead of the Pulver focus on the significant cultural impact of Twitter. For those who may not have used Twitter, or who may only have heard of it in connection with celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, the idea of Twitter for business, let alone a 2-day conference drawing speakers such as Tony Robbins, Levar Burton, and Dr. Drew Pinsky, might seem unlikely. In fact, Twitter has become a tremendously valuable resource for businesses, and is growing more so by the day.

Twitter’s power is in its simplicity: it is essentially a text-only service, where users’ posts are limited to 140 characters at a time. Each user generally sees messages (called “tweets”) only from those other people whom the user specifically “follows” and vice versa (although all users’ tweets also show up on the firehose-like Public Timeline unless they have expressly chosen for them not to). Posting something to Twitter is as simple as typing and clicking, and can be done from a computer, a cellphone (via a text message to 40404 from the user’s designated cell number), or a smartphone (there are multiple Twitter programs for all major smartphones, including the Palm Pre, iPhone and BlackBerry). While many users access the service via the Web site, Twitter has enabled 3rd party software to connect directly to the service, which has been the key to business use of Twitter.

Whether through desktop clients like TweetDeck or Seesmic Desktop, or collaborative Twitter tools for organizations like CoTweet, the standalone software allows a level of filtering, search, customization and community management that the Twitter site itself does not.

The standalone tools and their sophistication are the key to effective business use of Twitter. A running search of a company and/or product name allows brand managers to know exactly what users are saying (good and bad), and to quickly respond in real time to any criticism or praise.

Following (and connecting with) industry leaders and opinionmakers is much easier and more effective on Twitter than with many other channels. (As one example, my guest blog spot here on BusinessWeek arose directly out of tweets I sent to editors making the pitch, as did my own speaker slot at the Parnassus Twitter conference.) Twitter communications are not impacted by e-mail spam filters (although an overly aggressive marketer may find itself blocked by users or reported as abusive to Twitter), and once the business gets customers to follow it, its messages are automatically pushed to those customers rather than requiring them to visit a Web site.

Twitter culture and technology also encourages the "retweet," where a user will forward an interesting tweet to his/her own network of followers. Smart businesses with easily retweetable messages (well under 140 characters, since each forwarding adds to the length of the Tweet by including the original sender's Twitter ID as well as the message). Beyond marketing, Twitter users are often the first to report events and articles of interest, allowing a business user to stay on top of critical developments in its industry or community, without having to follow multiple news services, blogs or Web sites. And for now anyway, Twitter is completely free.

Twitter isn't entirely without risk for business, though. Blasting out tweets (especially direct messages, which can only be sent to users who are following the sender) without understanding proper Twitter etiquette can lead to banning of the account. Careless tweeting can disclose confidential or sensitive information, and as with other Internet resources, one shouldn't forget that the law still applies (as described in ). Finally, as discussed in a previous blog here, the Twitter service itself is operated by a single company, and may go down without warning; consider that before relying too heavily on Twitter for a business initiative. (Companies are creating policies for their internal use of social media including Twitter; this site has a great collection of such policies.)

What else does a business need to know about Twitter? Stay tuned to this blog for more from the conference this week (or follow the live discussion yourself using Twitter's search tools); you may also follow me on Twitter to see how I use it to provide and get value.

Jonathan I. Ezor is the director of the Touro Law Center Institute for Business, Law and Technology, and an assistant professor of law and technology. He also serves as special counsel to The Lustigman Firm, a marketing and advertising law firm based in Manhattan. A technology attorney for more than 15 years, Ezor has represented advertising agencies, software developers, banks, retailers, and Internet service providers, and has been in-house counsel to an online retailer, an Internet-based document printing firm, and a multinational Web and software development company.

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