The word “tweet,” once used to describe the chirping sound of a small bird, has evolved into a popular action verb associated with one of the hippest social networking sites on the web today. Twitter has received extensive coverage and attention by the media, helping to accelerate its following, pun intended! So what makes Twitter so unique? Is it the site’s simplicity, allowing people to express their thoughts via short status updates? Or is it the timeliness factor, with users’ ability to receive messages in real-time? Or, perhaps, it’s the fact that numerous A-list celebrities are “tweeting,” and tempting the public to try it too!?!

Let’s take a deeper look at Twitter to see what the site is all about, find out who’s “tweeting,” and consider how it can be used to maximize brand equity.

Taking Flight
In order to understand Twitter today, it is important to know its origins. Twitter was developed by three men, Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams. These tech-savvy individuals collectively developed a micro-blogging site that could support input from both computers and cellular devices. Their purpose was to create a centralized site that would allow friends to stay in touch in real-time, acting as an extension of the IM status, but displaying greater detail. Shortly after the site had gone live within their circle of friends, the three men experienced an earthquake in San Francisco. While not uncommon in the California area, they reached for their phones to alert friends of what just occurred. To their surprise, they found others in the area were also sharing their experiences. It was at that moment they realized Twitter could be something more than just status updates about daily routines. It could be a hub that reports groundbreaking news.

Since then, Twitter has proliferated into a social messaging utility service accessed by more than six million users. While total usage is relatively low in the social networking arena, growth is occurring daily. Current reports show that 8% of 18-34 year-olds and 7% of 35-44 year-olds are actively engaged with the network. The average age of users is 31 (as compared to 27 for MySpace and 26 for Facebook). Members are a mobile bunch, utilizing wireless internet and text messaging extensively. They are also more likely to consume news and information on these devices.

The excitement surrounding Twitter has helped it become the third largest social network behind Facebook and MySpace, according to web analytics company, Compete. However, there are fundamental differences in terms of functionality which put Twitter into a class of its own.

Twitter’s primary function is posting updates, commonly referred to as “tweets,” ranging from personal comments (“I am reading New Moon, Stephanie Myer’s second book in the Twilight series.”) to newsworthy content (“I just saw a plane crash into the Hudson River!”). Updates answer one question: What are you doing? This simple question derives a simple answer which cannot exceed 140 characters so as to comply with SMS standards.

Many Twitter users (“Tweeple”) utilize the site to discuss personal agendas, while others use it to share links and tips, spread news and jokes, publicize events or reply to/forward other people’s tweets. The site has morphed into a hyper-grapevine news resource that users rely on for the most up-to-date information. Unlike other social networks, Twitter’s most unique characteristic is its ability to connect users with people they may not know. The barriers that exist on other sites with the acceptance of “friend requests” are much less cumbersome. Users can simply browse the site, searching for common points of interest. If I am an Ashton Kutcher fan, for example, I can choose to follow his tweets. He can also choose to follow mine (or not!). Some Tweeple never actually tweet themselves; rather, they exclusively read others’ updates. The site’s ability to adapt to various usage styles and preferences is what makes it so attractive.

The public forum created by Twitter gives it an appeal that social sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn cannot replicate. The platform encourages users to be open with their updates, and they aren’t holding back! Nearly 90% of people make their updates public so that anyone can read them. The ease of tweeting is drawing a wide range of users. In fact, Twitter is expanding beyond individual members to include magazines, books and TV shows, among others, all of which can be followed by fans so that they are aware of the most current information at all times.

Tweeting Brands
Celebrities, sports teams, media organizations, government officials and corporations have caught on to Twitter and are using it as an extension of their marketing efforts. Since the site does not charge for membership, many businesses find it an effective tool for peaking into the minds of their customers and observing reactions to other brand initiatives. The primary benefit is its immediacy. If any negative feedback occurs, a representative can promptly respond.

Twitter = Instant Customer Service, Brand-building and Corporate Culture

Companies like Dell, JetBlue, Whole Foods and are passionate users and have quite a following with more than 500,000 people! These brands have learned to use the site to their advantage. The key is recognizing that Twitter is not for direct marketing or drawn-out monologues, but rather for personal, casual conversations. Interestingly, companies that have made their CEOs/Presidents accessible to their followers are the ones having the most success.

Growing Pains
While Twitter is climbing the social networking ranks quickly, it is suffering some growing pains. First, its founders have yet to figure out how to generate revenue. Rumors of nominal fees for corporate companies have been circulated. In addition, different measurement tools encompassing both online and mobile usage are being tested. The biggest threat is user loyalty, with current retention at a mere 40% in any given month. The site is in danger of losing its vitality if a higher level of loyalty cannot be obtained. Online analysts expect this problem will correct itself, with the retention rate increasing and stabilizing as more people become accustomed to using Twitter.

MayoSeitz Media’s Tweet
Twitter has become a connective thread, an eavesdropping mechanism and a communications tool, among other things, all in real-time. The net effect is that people are changing the way they communicate. They are becoming less introverted and more willing to openly express their thoughts and feelings. Similar to birds, the “tweets” may be meaningless to some, but to others, they represent something important and worthy of attention. Brands getting into this space now, while still on the ground level, will reap the most benefits.

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