by Linda Ziskind
What can you say using only 140 characters? Actually, quite a bit, though you wouldn't know it from the recent print media coverage of Twitter, the social networking tool that delivers user updates in 140 characters.


Except for a few tech-savvy individuals, this group seems to be in the early stages of engaging social media and has offered up little in the way of analysis about the evolution from personal broadcast system to community network system. The truth is, though, as more and more people make social media a part of their lives, the more our lives are being changed by it.
Opening the Pipes
Over the past decade, the star of digital communication has been email, and businesses have used it to raise their game through interactive messaging, lower cost of execution, and real-time tracking results. Yet, for all of the bells and whistles, email is still a single direction monologue that can't deliver a conversation.
Enter Web 2.0, a term nobody can quite agree on how to define, but is generally used to refer to the era of collaboration and shared information on the web. O'Reilly Media has come up with a set of defining memes, three of which stand out:
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Architecture of participation
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Harnessing collective intelligence
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Software that gets better the more people use it
It's these functionalities that have enabled the collaborative environments of social media .... where the one-to-one of email becomes the many-to-many of Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

The Impact is Mutual

As O'Reilly noted, people shape the technology they use. Twitter users are virtually congregating, looking for social interaction with groups of common interest. In doing so, they're aggregating valuable communities of collective intelligence. At the same time, the technology that they're shaping is influencing their own behavior. Within the context of the Web, where information is plentiful and often free, participants in aggregated affinity groups are often more generous with knowledge, sharing thoughts and ideas with people who, in the real world, are their competitors as well as their peers.

The Tweet Heard 'Round the Twitterverse

The SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin has been a seminal predictor of social media impact. Twitter had its early adopter breakthrough at the festival two years ago and last year it became the festival's main communication channel, most particularly during the now infamous Sarah Lacey interview of Mark Zuckerberg. This year at SXSW, the prevalence of Twitter and social media topics in the programming schedule told the story: 2009 is shaping up to be a game-changer for business and social interaction.
For Nadia Payan, a 24-year-old marketer from New York City, her trip to SXSW was more than just a learning experience. It was proof-of-concept for the networking power of Twitter. Although she lacked the funds to buy a conference pass, Nadia had something just as valuable: guts and ingenuity. As a Twitter follower of some of the most influential people in social media, she turned to one of them, social media expert Chris Brogan, for advice. Chris suggested that she reach out to the Twitter community for help.
Nadia tweeted her problem to her 376 Twitter followers, each of whom have their own list of followers, ranging from hundreds to thousands. The first wave of response brought no money, but plenty of advice, including a strategy for raising funds through a sponsorship plan, which she successfully implemented.
This is how I found Nadia. I'd read a 2nd generation tweet about her request. Chris Brogan had tweeted about Nadia and mentioned he'd contributed to her cause. Non-profit social media consultant, Beth Kanter retweeted Chris's message. Their tweets gave Nadia and her request a halo of trust and influence that helped her gain traction. This is something Leisa Reichelt, a user interface designer, calls "ambient intimacy" .... the ability to get to know people who may not be close friends, or to stay in touch with friends who we're separated from by time or geographic constraints.
I asked Beth what made her decide to retweet Chris's message. She replied that it was a combination of "paying it forward," for the many times she herself has successfully raised money on Twitter for charitable causes, and trust in the credibility of Chris's request.
In four days Nadia raised more thank $600 from over 20 donors and sponsors. In the process, her efforts became a case study of how people (and businesses) can tap into the collective intelligence and community support that this technology generates.
Takeaways for Businesses
So, how can businesses take the lessons of Nadia's experience and integrate them into their own social media strategy? Here are some suggestions:
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Create credibility & trust through engagement and relationships with community influencers. OK, so you've opened a Twitter account. Now what? Build relationships. Look for the people who are participating in a community of interest relevant to your business. Search keywords, find the people who are talking about your market and your company, and follow their tweets.
JetBlue has used its Twitter presence track demand and offer occasional real-time deals to their followers. Morgan Johnston, JetBlue's manager of corporate communications, along with his team, is the Twitter voice of JetBlue. Morgan is able to interact directly with his 203,996 followers with flight and weather updates, and advice, such as the following tweet:

@stickel you can change or cancel your flight at http://tr.im/mngflt
3:05 PM Mar 18th from TweetDeck in reply to stickel

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Listen to your tweeps (followers) and respond to their comments, complaints, and questions. Many businesses are reluctant to participate in social media because they fear negative comments. Guess what? Those comments are happening with or without your involvement. You can ignore them, or you can use them as an opportunity to engage in a dialog. Customers aren't looking to pick a fight, they're looking for acknowledgment that their complaints have been heard and are being considered, or addressed.
Scott Monty, Ford's recently hired social media expert, encountered exactly this kind of situation last December when Ford sent a Ranger Truck fan site a cease and desist letter, citing copyright violations. The site's webmaster alerted the Ford fan site community and before you could say "Quality is Job One," bloggers and tweeters were out in force, condemning Ford's actions to shut down the site. Monty immediately began addressing the situation on Twitter, "I'm in active discussions with our legal dept. about resolving it. Pls retweet #ford," and used the fan site's own message forum to augment the communication. It turns out the site was being used to sell counterfeit Ford parts and when that issue was addressed, Ford dropped its legal action. Turnaround time for the whole episode? Less than 24 hours.
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Don't advertise. Communicate, and be human. Twitter is based on relationships. Person to person relationships. And it's probably safe to say that everyone on Twitter knows there is no Santa, Easter Bunny, or talking logos. Which isn't to say customers expect company CEOs or CMOs to be the voice behind their company's tweet. But they do expect that voice to be human.
Comcast is a company often referenced in lists of businesses that are successfully incorporating social media. Their Twitter handle is "Comcastcares," but the account bio lets us know that Frank Eliason and his team are the real Comcast people managing the account. Frank not only provides his followers with a list of links and email addresses to reach Comcast, but gives them links to his personal bio, his personal blog, and his family's website. One click and you've established a personal relationship with a company rep who seems open, honest, and eager to help. For his trouble, Frank has aggregated nearly 13,000 followers for Comcastcares, just about the same number of Twitterers that he follows.
On the other hand, CBSNews seems to be just another talking logo. They don't identify the person behind the Tweets and have virtually no interaction with their followers. They have ignored Twitter's networking features, instead using the technology only to broadcast advertising-style. Not surprisingly they have under 7,000 followers, and are following only one person. Without giving their followers a way to communicate, they've made it clear they're not interested in the voices of their community.
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Stay flexible. Social media is organic. It is constantly being reshaped & refined. Functionalities are added on a regular basis and new social media tools get introduced. In this fast paced technology environment, it's important to keep your social media strategy responsive to those changes. Don't jump into the social stream blindly. Clearly define your business objectives and map your execution strategy to them.
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Linda Ziskind is a marketing consultant and social media strategist. She's a Partner at ThinkPolygon, an agency offering design, technology, brand strategy, and social media solutions. Follow her on Twitter here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Ann Handley

Ann Handley is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author who speaks worldwide about how businesses can escape marketing mediocrity to ignite tangible results. She is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a LinkedIn Influencer, a keynote speaker, dog person, and writer.