Today marks the start of my second decade on Twitter.
On 7 May 2007, I signed up for the microblogging service will little knowledge of what it would become.
I have to say I don’t like marking landmarks particularly, but on this occasion I thought it would be good to look back over ten years and analyse what I think is the elephant in the room of social networks.
Briefly, I think Twitter was, and still is, a superb distribution medium. I think it is widely misunderstood, even more so today than in its infancy and it has been badly damaged by the marketing industry.
I remember very distinctly the amateurish interface that was Twitter back then, a dominantly pale blue web page with what seemed overcrowded even then by Japanese early adopters.
I have since deleted it, but my first tweet was something like. ‘Dipping my toes into Twitter water’.
I will admit that I signed up more out of curiosity than anything. Ten years isn’t that long ago, and up to that point my only social networks had been in the real world or through forums.
The people I connected with had real knowledge and well-founded opinion. When the web started to play a dominant part in my work life, there were three people online I count as influential. Paul Boag had a weekly podcast that became my bible for starting a web business; Kevin Rose made a successful vlog ten years before it became mainstream and Gary Vaynerchuk, who also vlogged his way daily to massive success with his knowledge of wine.
The only problem with joining in 2007 was that there were very few people to follow. The three above were delivering their podcasts, vlogs and shows through other channels, such as iTunes, YouTube, etc, so I went away and left it for a year and a half.
After leaving my desk job in a newsroom in 2008, I started to miss the buzz of a live media hub, so I started what was one of the first online news aggregators in Scotland, pulling together news from every website that carried news from the Highlands, Moray and Aberdeenshire.
By this time Twitter was maturing and it was the perfect delivery vehicle for our commodity, which was headlines.
Local publishers didn’t have a grasp of Twitter, or even social media, despite being so perfectly matched. When I left the newsroom and part of the reason I left, was that the internet was seen as a threat, whereas I saw it as an opportunity. For a long time, access to sites such as Facebook were blocked, and you had to get permission from the management if you needed to visit the site and then make an application to the IT department. Yeah, you read that right.
Between Twitter and Google, I knew that this was the way to deliver the news that people wanted… and couldn’t get without going to look for it! It also put me right back in the newsroom, although virtually this time, and I was getting my media fix.
It won me a national award in 2009, where I beat off Channel Four and 40 others for what for me was a case of realising what I thought Twitter was best suited for… and guess I got it right.
The clue is in the name
Then the marketers got hold of it.
One of the reasons it took off was it was its 140-character limit. To be able to deliver a snippet of information that people could act on was key.
It was newspapers in miniature. Think of a newsstand. You look and all you see is headlines, you spot one you like (or resonate with) and you pick up the paper and read more.
I’ve always maintained Twitter serves the very same purpose as new headlines. Catch someone’s attention and give them (the option to get) more information.
While most ‘expert’ opinion will tell you ‘the clue is in the name, it’s SOCIAL media’ but I say ‘the clue IS in the name, its’s social MEDIA.’ That’s not to say it’s not social, it is a social network for consumers. Businesses are by and large not welcome here, particularly if they’re consistently pumping out overly promotional ‘headlines’.
And then conversely, you’ve got the ‘engagement’ fraternity, those who take part in conversations because they’ve been sold the ‘it’s-all-about-engagement’ line.
I think that’s a big distinction that businesses should make. Everyone is being sold the social aspect without realising the impact it has as a medium.
More experts than babies
As businesses turned to social networks in general, marketers started to work out ways in which they could capitalise on this media tool, so they started to create terms such as ‘brand journalism’, ‘every business is a media company’, and there’s was nothing wrong with those concepts… except that many if not most of the brand journalism advocates knew nothing about branding and had no experience as a journalist. And they flogged the terms to death.
Marketing suddenly became digital and social. People gave up sensible staple careers to become ‘social media experts’ and ‘digital marketers’, even if they knew nothing about marketing. It seems that social media gave people Matrix-style knowledge that didn’t require months or years of learning. And that’s still going on.
I recall seeing a joke tweet doing the rounds… It said there are more social media experts in London than babies. No-one had ever counted them, it was a wry look at the explosion of neo-marketers.
The fact it is free and easy to get started meant that you could be up and running in five minutes. But so many times that was only five minutes that ever went into it, and there are millions of accounts languishing with just ‘My first tweet’ in their timeline.
Twitter doesn’t come with any training, yet it is consistently put forward as an ‘essential social network’ for businesses. I maintain there are only a few applications today where you can make any headway with Twitter:
- Customer service, because when people do engage with brands, it’s usually because of a problem
- Large events because it’s a quick fix for people to get the info they need, but after the event, unlikely to keep momentum
- Personal branding and celebrities, because there’s a voyeur in everybody
- The media, because it’s a great tool to deliver headlines
For the majority of small businesses in starting Twitter in 2017 or even maintaining an existing account, it’s VERY difficult to gain any meaningful traction that will lead to business. Even Twitter gave up on its promotional ‘buy’ button last year and moved its staff to the customer service team.
I said ten years is not a long time, but in Twitter terms, it’s 95% of its existence. Just for fun I checked out some of my ‘network’ to see if I could find anybody that has been on it longer.
I could only find three, and rather curiously they are, Paul Boag, Kevin Rose and Gary Vaynerchuk. I didn’t even think to look them up in 2007.
Today, Twitter still has that media potential, but the trouble is people are getting tired of it, they’re tired of seeing businesses pimping their wares or worse still trying to befriend you by commenting on your latte. Twitter advocates will tell you that spam and trolls are what’s killing Twitter, but email suffers from both, yet still outperforms social media by a country mile.'Twitter still has media potential, but it's been spoilt as a marketing tool.' Click To Tweet
It’s important for businesses owners and marketers to remember that most social networks are designed, built and developed for personal communications and ‘socialising’. A business can and should make itself relevant to consumers, but socialising is not an easy marketing method, it’s more of a customer service thing, which means you have to have customers following you in order to socialise meaningfully with them.
My mantra has always been ‘relevance’ – if what you post is relevant, then you can’t go wrong and if you don’t have anything relevant to say, the old adage that it’s better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it.
So while I’m marking ten years on Twitter, I’m also saying that it hasn’t been a bed of roses. Or has it? It looks beautiful on the outside, but once you’ve pushed your way deep into the thick of it, it can get rather thorny.