Blogging, microblogging and social networking services are rapidly growing in use by business. Can they be beneficial to businesses or are they a pointless waste of time?

I take a detailed, frank (I may rename this post “How to lose friends and alienate people on Twitter by being too open about my calculating approach” ) and balanced look at one of the biggest, Twitter, with some tips on how you can make strategic use of it and blogging.

According to a recent 02 survey, an estimated 700,000 small businesses are using Twitter with 6,000 joining everyday. The numbers certainly suggest that it is more than a craze, but there are plenty of examples of companies just jumping on the latest band-wagon, so is there real value in such tools?

Being human

I’ve found that having a ‘face’ on your business is really important. As the old sales adage goes, “people buy from people”. It might sound a little odd coming from a technologist who is a firm believer in the future of the cloud IaaS market as an automated, interoperable commodity market place much like the electrical power grid is today, but we are not there yet and even then there will always be people and values behind the companies.

Therefore, about four years ago I decided to borrow a leaf from the US IT entrepreneurs and put myself firmly and visibly out there as the face of my company. That started out with putting a bit of information about me and the management team on our Web site, with pictures, and me starting a blog.

Another part of that strategy was also to ramp up our press relationship effort. I think of my professional blog and PR in a similar vein, and with a similar purpose. Making myself available to journalists was particularly key, since often the easiest way to get some coverage is to get a sound-bite in someone else’s article, and the blog posts often helped with that too.

It was a place I could voice an opinion and, slowly at first, I started to get picked up on that.

So, now our new customers were not just buying from a faceless corporation, but from an organisation run by a real, accessible (I also put a direct email address on our Web site) human being, with views and opinions that were starting to gain traction in the technical press as well.

While it is not quantifiable, I am confident that contributed significantly to our early success and helped us, as a small company at the time, punch above our weight.

Shorter, faster and more interactive

Today I use Twitter a great deal as well, and in many ways it is achieving the same things as my blog but in a more real-time, bite-sized manner: micro-blogging. I see two purposes to my work Twitter account, @Memset_Kate:

  • A promotional tool
  • A place to ask questions (and get answers)

Here I am mainly looking at the first element, using it to raise your or your company’s profile, but the second element is also very important to me. Twitter is a fast, convenient way to plug into the collective wisdom of people with similar interests, in my case mainly around technology.

For example, if I were looking for a new software package for a task, Twitter would be my first port of call. In fact, I value that distilled wisdom so highly that I recently launched Tweet Download since I wanted an easier way to preserve my tweets and others’ replies.

Many people also advocate Twitter as a way to plug into news, but personally I find subscribing to a sensible magazine (The Economist and New Scientist being my personal choices) or Web site much more effective and less time consuming.

Twitter is quite different to a traditional blog in a number of ways beyond the obvious brevity and frequency. With a traditional blog it is helpful to engage with commenters, and to get something of a dialogue going, but that is by no means the core of what it is about. Twitter is all about the dialogue though, and if you just post tipbits of information but never engage with your followers you’ll fail to reap the benefits.

As with more static Web content’s ability to humanise an organisation if used correctly, Twitter enables us to again plug into something that people enjoy and which makes them feel more comfortable about other people (and thus organisations): conversation.

Also akin to our natural interactions, Twitter is a collective of inter-connected communities, but with the added feature of popularity being quantifiable (ie. follower count), and that is important if you want to use it to leverage your brand.

As with any social circle, in order to be liked and make friends you need to do certain things: say interesting stuff, help others out, and engage in the conversation. Most Twitter users want to be popular, and you can therefore gain favour by mentioning them, replying to them or retweeting them in your stream.

In return they are more likely to engage with you and return those favours, helping you raise your own profile. In doing so you become more popular, and what happens with to the popular kids? More people want to be their friend.

Keeping it real

Before continuing with the mechanics of online social interactions it is worth mentioning topics. With my blog I found it best to be mainly focussed on a narrow range of topics (green technology, hosting, business, cloud etc), but I still try to write openly and frankly, and I do write the articles myself.

I firmly believe that it is important to be yourself – a real person – when using such tools. Too often you see blog posts that are clearly generated by a PR department, or done generically from a company, and I think they are missing that important objective of presenting a personable face.

With my tweets I take it a step further and do sometimes touch on personal stuff. Now I’m not advocating a blow-by-blow account of what you have for lunch, but as part of presenting oneself as a real person (not a corporate suit) I believe it is helpful to let one’s followers in a little bit. Have a look at my twitter feed for examples of what I mean.

Being a bit of a bitch

Unfortunately, however, we can’t be friends with the whole world. I have a couple of thousand followers and little time to spend chatting to them. The key to making successful use of Twitter is to be selective, though ideally without showing yourself to be thus.

I have a number of steps in the process, and they revolve around an approximate ranking system for how valuable I think someone is, a lot (but not all) of which comes down to how well-connected they are:

  • Followers:followee ratio – if someone is followed by more people than they follow it is a good sign of a high degree of quality and/or influence.
  • Are they a journalist?
  • Are they someone senior in my field of interest?
  • Do they interact bi-directionally with a journalist or someone senior?
  • Do they talk about relevant topics (vs. “I like cheese!” / political rants / etc.)?
  • Do they know their stuff (vs. “Blah blah cloud, blah blah cloud, blah blah platform”)?
  • Have they helped me out already, eg. by re-tweeting me?
  • Do I feel I could have a rapport with them?

I cannot remember exactly who I should be making the effort with at any one point though, so I have some techniques and tools. First, I only follow back about 50% of people who follow me, and I’ve delegated that task to my PA since I get an awful lot of new follower requests. That gives people a warm-fuzzy feeling of mutual interest, but I must admit that is a bit of a deception.

In reality I rarely look at my “all friends” column, instead I have a private group, “faves”, as a column in Tweetdeck (a great application for those serious about Twitter – the Web site alone is insufficient) to which I add people with which I think it is worthwhile interacting.

I then focus my attentions on tweets appearing in that column, as well as my mentions column of course. If someone is talking to you then it is important to reply, and usually not time-consumptive unless you allow yourself to be drawn into pointless debate (“Someone is wrong on the Internet!”).

In terms of choosing who I follow, other than people who follow me first, I use the same targeting rules as above. If there is someone who often gets re-tweeted or mentioned by other people that I deem of high value, then I’ll tend to follow them and make the effort to get into their online social circle.

This may sound all rather conniving, but is it any different to how we act when in business networking situations? We seek out those who are on our social level which can help us be noticed by the people with more influence in hopes of elevating our social position.

Also, one has to be a bit hard-headed about this sort of activity, otherwise you risk allowing a highly addictive and fundamentally unproductive diversion to end up costing you a lot of valuable time.

Staying in touch

Unlike blogging, Twitter and such does have another very important ability: to help the dialogue with your customers. If a customer has a problem with our services they are much more likely to moan about it on Twitter or a forum than they are to send in a complaints email, and that is fantastic since it gives us an opportunity to publicly stand up for ourselves or, where necessary, apologise.

Equally, when someone praises your business you can leverage that, and often people ask others’ opinions on brands via tools like Twitter, and without a presence you will be unable to react to such queries.

I encourage my systems administrators to assist on some forums partly for that reason. Forums are just another online social network, but with a very specific topic, and they are a great way to gain exposure and demonstrate your expertise if you are willing to put the effort into the interactions.

The future

So, do I believe in the future of social networking as a business tool? In short, yes, but I am unsure as to what extent. I think that it can be very helpful right now, but I think the social networking landscape may be changing. I also use Twitter heavily in a personal capacity, to organise nights out with friends and keep up with them, but that is a very private account.

My friends, most of whom are in their twenties, and I are increasingly locking down our Twitter and Facebook accounts, dropping “unknowns”, making them private/”friends only”; keeping ourselves to ourselves.

Therefore, I do wonder whether the novelty will wear off in time; whether we will return to principally interacting privately with people we know in the flesh, using online social networking as an augmentation to those meat-space interactions and largely ignoring strangers.

There is a danger that the current Twitter-boom is partly driven by people like the work-me, or those of you reading this article, trying to get a leg up for themselves or their business.