Twitterville: My Kind of Town

Twitterville book coverShel Israel’s new book Twitterville has modest ambitions – providing an overview of how Twitter is currently being used for business. It’s a quick read that doesn’t attempt the impossible task of cataloging all of Twitter’s enterprise possibilities, or spend much time comparing Twitter with other kinds of communications and collaboration tools.

But it’s precisely for these reasons that I liked Twitterville; instead of blathering on about theories of social networking, it simply presents anecdotes about how companies large and small are using Twitter to respond to complaints, improve their products, and in a few cases, measurably increase sales.

I appreciated the author being up-front about how the book was written – he tweeted his few thousand followers asking for suggestions for each chapter, then captured and edited the best responses. I’m relatively new to Twitter, and had used a similar process of asking the people I trust for advice when taking my tentative first steps with this new but undeniably powerful communications medium.

Most of Twitterville documents the way Twitter has spurred the growth of different kinds of what the author calls “global neighborhoods”:

1. Large consumer-oriented companies: these arguably have the most to lose by ignoring the rise of social media, such as Twitter. There are already many examples of major consumer brands (including Amazon, United Airlines, and Motrin) that have damaged themselves by responding slowly, ineffectively, or not at all to consumer complaints distributed via social networking. At the same time, companies that proactively use Twitter to listen for and respond to customer mentions of their brands are getting disproportionately positive press, just for doing something they should have been doing all along.

2.  Business-to-business: not many B2B companies have leveraged Twitter effectively to date, though some have gone beyond standard sales and marketing tactics and started using Twitter as a recruiting tool. As Twitterville points out, any business seeking to gain a competitive advantage via Twitter, whether globally or locally, needs to look carefully at the issue of identity. For instance, @comcastcares is the Twitter handle for a real human being, Frank Eliason, who has more than 30,000 followers and has tweeted more than 35,000 times. By contrast, @timewarnercares is being followed by more than 500 people, but has yet to issue a single tweet.

3.  Small business: for many small companies, Twitter provides a better ROI for sales and customer service than any comparable expenditure of time and money. Twitterville documents a number of exemplary small businesses, from coffee houses and pizza joints (and a popular San Francisco crème brûlée cart) to Web 2.0 companies such as Seesmic (which makes the Twhirl Twitter client). In particular, it describes how the entrepreneurs behind these companies are breaking the traditional customer / vendor boundaries that until very recently governed business, replacing them with a model in which customers aren’t just consumers but are actively courted to co-define a brand and thus have an active stake in its success.

4.  Personal branding: Using Twitter (and comparable internal micro-sharing tools) is the fastest way to build your professional identity, whether you work in a global corporation or as a freelance contractor. But you need to have a very clear career mission in tweeting, focusing on what you’re solving for your customers or employer, says Jeremiah Owyang (now of the Altimeter Group, formerly an analyst at Forrester Research). “Don’t focus on the minutiae of tools; instead, think of the greater problem and solution you’ll provide.”

I found the second half of Twitterville especially interesting, as the author goes beyond commerce to look at how Twitter-based communities can be further the growth of philanthropy, government 2.0, and what Israel calls “braided journalism”. Of these, journalism is the first to experience gut-wrenching change as a result of the explosion of information sources on the web, a trend that can only get more severe as “the web” evolves to become “the real-time web”. Recent examples include the US Airways flight that landed safely in the Hudson River, and the worldwide push-back against corrupt elections in Iran, both most effectively reported via Twitter.

These are early days for the 140-character phenomenon of micro-sharing, but savvy companies and individuals are already staking out turf in the neighborhood.

If you’ve been tweeting for a while, Twitterville isn’t likely to rock your world. But if you’re new to Twitter and want a quick overview of the commercial possibilities, a visit to Twitterville is a good place to start.