Why company accounts on Twitter aren’t enough

Last week we released a Geek Whisperers podcast, as we’ve done every week for seven whole episodes now. Since we think we’re somewhat clever, we pull out witticisms from the podcast itself to use as titles. We think this is fun but it makes for terrible SEO. The latest episode is entitled You Would Not Survive without Humans, which I think is something I said. The topic is about balancing the needs and responsibilities of personal vs corporate social media.

Several people in our community had asked us to cover this topic, so we recorded a podcast on it a few weeks back. Coincidently and after the podcast was already in the can, when I went to speak at the Cisco Social Savvy event last week, three people independently asked me the same thing: “How do I balance personal vs corporate social media? What happens when the personal overshadows the corporate brand?” Our panel wasn’t even on that topic, but it seems like this question is top of mind for a lot of people.

I think we did a good job in our podcast on personal vs corporate social media, but this topic is deep and multi-faceted enough that we’ll come back to revisit it a few more times. I do want to explore a few aspects of how to deal with it in this blog. I’ll do it in several parts — this first part talks about why your corporate social account alone is insufficient.

I think this analysis holds for all social media platforms, but it holds the most for Twitter. Twitter has always been an odd duck. Even now we get asked all the time how to get started on Twitter, because Twitter usage is very individual and these overlapping circles of conversation are not easy to conceptualize at first. (In fact, next Monday’s podcast is on this very topic.) I’ll touch on the other platforms at the end. Remember, as always, that my context is the community surrounding a large technology company, and your mileage may vary.

Your Brand is a Robot that clicks and buzzes at your audience.
Your Brand on Twitter is a Robot that clicks and buzzes at your audience.

On Twitter, companies and people are on an equal footing. I haven’t seen any statistics, but I suspect that most people follow more fellow human beings than companies, even if the human beings they follow are celebrities and not real people with real lives. In my personal Twitter account, I follow around four thousand people in the IT and social media fields. (I’m a professional at this; I don’t necessarily recommend following this many people at home.) Recently I realized I’ve stopped following all corporate accounts except for my own company’s account and a few media outlets. I don’t follow big companies; I don’t follow startups; I don’t even follow companies partnered with my company — but I do follow employees from all these companies. So if this is true, and it is from my experience, most people’s Twitter streams are filled with people’s faces. Although some corporate logos are sprinkled in, the context is social — people chatting with other people. In that context, brands are robots.

Brands accounts are really good at one thing: they’re the official news source of your company. Most corporate social media accounts realize this and tweet what are more-or-less headlines. They are the official source of first-party content, with most tweets are a title and a link, or perhaps a pithy saying you’re going to find quotable. They’re linking to what they hope is valuable and interesting content to their followers. One of the trite sayings I give to people I’m advising is: “You have to put out fish food to attract the fish.” Everybody nods after I say this, so I keep saying it. The brands are trying to attract some fish by actually adding value and nurturing their followers. They’re linking to articles; they’re linking to white papers; they’re linking to webinars and events and funny pictures and press releases. They’re linking either to materials they’ve created or 3rd-party content they think you’ll like. They’re probably also slipping a bit of demand generation activity in there as well, even though I suspect that most of the people that read these tweets are already in the corporate demand gen database.

But brand accounts have two big disadvantages, and this is why our ultimate conclusion is going to be that you need your employees out there as well. Their first disadvantage is that they are companies, not people. You can try to humanize them, but it doesn’t work on Twitter — just take my word on it for now, and we’ll discuss how it doesn’t work next time, but for now, here’s one example. My university alumni association’s Twitter account just congratulated me on finding our cat, who had been trapped in our neighbor’s basement for 3 weeks. I found it creepy. But if “Mary from the alumni association” had done the same, I would have found it thoughtful and maybe followed her back just from that shared connection.  Sometimes brands will tweet inanities like “Happy Friday”. This is also a mistake. Brands don’t have permission to make small talk. Remember, in the Twitter-as-chat context we’re talking about, your brand is a robot. A robot can try to talk about the weather, but it can’t talk about getting stuck in the airport or its kids or its hometown football team, because it doesn’t have any of those things.

As an aside, if you switch out of the “chat” framework of thinking about Twitter, your can think of your branded account actually as more of a magazine than a robot. This realization has spurred a lot of hype around “content marketing,” and some of that advice is actually good. Your company is a media company producing a magazine. Out of scope for this blog post, though, but let’s just note that magazines don’t make good small talk either.

The second disadvantage is that brands talk too much. Twitter is the ultimate content black hole. Tweets only last for a short time; most people will see your tweet in the first hour or two before it gets pushed away by other content. If you want to keep your message out in front of your followers — which you do, because that’s what you get paid for — you need to keep pumping out tweets to keep your channel filled. And that’s ok, especially if you’re a big company, because you’ve got all this content you’ve spent all this money to produce. At one point we were cranking out 5-10 different items a day pulled from blogs, program news, and other assets published across our company. New blog posts, white papers, webinars, classes, user groups, promotions, videos, … and on and on and on. If you’re a smaller company or more aggressive about marketing, you’ve got less content but you’re repeating each item several times. (Which people notice, by the way. Don’t think they don’t notice.) And we’ll just assume that all of your content is valuable, on target, well-written, and not full of corporate marketing-speak, so that people would actually want to read it. We’ll ignore the fact that this is only true for 10% of the things your company creates.

One of the main reasons that email marketing open rates go down over time is saturation: you are sending too much for the recipients to absorb. Even if you send me a newsletter every week that’s incredibly valuable, I probably won’t open every one just because I get too busy. The same problem is part of what prevented RSS from becoming a mainstream consumer-facing technology. People felt guilty when they opened their feed reader and were faced with thousands of unread items from hundreds of information fire hoses. They already felt guilty about that situation in their email client; why did they need more guilt in their lives when they wanted to do something fun and informative? There’s a real reason why Twitter doesn’t track where you left off last time or have a big flashing Number of Unread Tweets.

You’re stuck in this Catch-22. You need to keep your channel filled it so people see it. You can’t make small talk, so you publish with interesting information and links. But at the granularity of a Twitter account which represents a company or a product, most people are overwhelmed either by volume or breadth — they just aren’t that interested in you. Even for VMware, which has passionate followers who have bet their entire professional careers on us… they still aren’t interested in every corporate fart we emit.

Enter your employees, who are actual people with actual faces and who can help curate you out of this mess. We’ll pick up there next time.

We’ve been focusing on Twitter. Does this hold for other social channels like Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn? They do have a few advantages for brands over Twitter. Since they are more visual — pictures and link previews show up right there in the stream — companies can drop some sort of branded image in the stream, and people will see it without clicking on it, which has some sort of value to the company, and hopefully to the viewer. For Facebook & LinkedIn, they also allow people to show off their affinity by following you. People may not really want to read all your spam, but they want to have your logo on their profile page. But the saturation problem remains, and in fact is even worse. Twitter is a wall of text messages, and it is built for skimming. You can follow many people and skim a lot of content on Twitter. For the other platforms, since images and previews show up right in the stream, skimming is harder, and the number of accounts you can follow goes down. The saturation problem gets worse. Nobody has time for all your emissions in the first place, and now they have to scroll and scroll to get past them.

Next up: Why your employees are your most effective social ambassadors. How they can balance their personal brand vs their corporate responsibilities. And what happens if somebody gets famous and then leaves?

One thought on “Why company accounts on Twitter aren’t enough

  1. Every time I see a tweet or post by a ‘brand’ I think of your blog and this posting.

    I came across a similar view on brands in social media and suggested the use of social media personas, kept slightly separate from the main brand. The example cited is ‘Mr Holland’ as a persona of Holland Tourism see http://twitter.com/meetmrholland

    Funny enough the blog discussing personas was written by a persona, someone in the social media industry called Marketing Chap from the UK. You can read the original blog here http://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2013/07/19/brands-its-time-stop-being-faceless-and-start-showing-character-social-media#5Ke5pMaLyvb3oEGf.99

    I think personas are a clever idea (if done carefully) for consumers. It would be tricky to see how it can work with business or enterprise markets.

    Perhaps something for a future Geek Whispers topic?

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