Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.
I witnessed two signs of the end of days in one week this September. First, disgraced ex-Congressman Tom Delay did his star turn on “Dancing with the Stars.” Second, Twitter raised $100 million in VC funding so more people can, for free, tell the world, “I’m eating a ham sandwich.”
I had coffee one afternoon with a Silicon Valley entrepreneur sharing his advice on how to network and he said, “The most important thing I would say for you to do is get on Twitter.”
I’ve been on Twitter for a few months but still find the experience puzzling. To me, Twitter is Facebook reduced to the status updates. I just don’t get it. Maybe if I reach the Ashton Kutcher level of followers – 3.5 million, according to Newsweek – then I might achieve the critical mass to really connect with my fellow Tweeters. But, really, do any of those 3.5 million Kutcher pals think if they meet him in person, they’ll be able say, “Hey Ashton, my bud! Can I borrow 50 bucks from you?” Kutcher: “Robert! Dude! Of course, here’s $50. I know you’re good for it, follower 3,235,612!”
And yet Spark Capital, Institutional Venture Partners, T. Rowe Price and Insight Venture Partners think enough of Twitter’s business model – a service for people to send text messages of up to 140 characters, plus photos and video, via a computer or cell phone – to invest $100 million, its third and largest funding round since Twitter was founded in 2006. The Wall Street Journal reported that the company, which has no revenue model and, therefore no profits, has a valuation of about $1 billion.
While Twitter traffic includes drivel like “I’m watching ‘Mad Men’” and “This bus is never going to come,” among the group that has found it useful are marketers. The Public Relations Society of America recently hosted a seminar titled “Social Media and New Media PR Boot Camp,” one of scores of such workshop invites that has likely filled your inbox. “You will learn … how to use Twitter to track news and build communities,” the workshop promises.
And yes, Twitter, along with Facebook, Flickr, You Tube and other Web-based services, can be effective tools in an integrated marketing campaign. In some cases it’s as simple as a writer posting a tweet touting a column he wrote with a link to said article (such as the message I will create to draw my followers to this column). That’s marketing.
Today, Twitter and other social media are hot, which lends them to hype. In a guest post on the site PR2.0, social media expert Louis Gray warns that Twitter is not the marketing campaign but a tool to execute the marketing campaign.
“The non-stop promotion of the tools and, yes, the individuals who think they are ‘experts’ is getting a little overwhelming,” Gray writes. “Many of the companies that have initiated new media practices are practically falling over themselves offering self-congratulatory praise for how they embraced these new technologies.”
Twitter may evolve into an effective communications platform – in some ways it already is; I found out that the columnist William Safire died via a tweet from the New York Times. But until marketers learn to stand out with their marketing message from the “I’m eating a ham sandwich” crowd, the signal-to-noise ratio of Twitter will remain high, and a limitation.
Newsweek columnist Daniel Lyons cited a study of Twitter which found that “40 percent of the messages are ‘pointless babble.’” But then, he continued, “look at TV.” No one can dispute that TV is a monumental platform for marketing, even if it’s for a TV show where a disgraced ex-congressman dances to “Wild Thing.”