Company or person? The Twitter dilemma…

… or, I’d say, not so much of a dilemma really.

This question arises time and again and many opinions have been put forth. A quick search on Google can find a dozen variants on the theme or more. Given I was asked by Tim Malone to explain my position when in retweeting Andrew Barnett I said:

RT @andrewbarnett: sigh – companies should NOT be on twitter – companies should encourage their employees to be on twitter.

Tim asked me what I meant, and I responded with:

@tdmalone companies are not people. Humans connect with people not companies. This conversation could get long #

Here’s what I mean.

As a customer, consumer, stakeholder (or whatever) interested in your product, service or information, I may at some point have to, or choose to, interact with you. That is, with your organisation. But when this happens, who do I interact with?

At this point, you (the organisation) have got a couple of choices. You can present the typical nameless, faceless contact center to me – and you know how much I and all the other customers coming to you love that (and yet you persist), or you can maybe put a little sunshine in my day and let me interact with Mary from Sales, or Pete from Shipping, or Lou from Customer Support.

Even better, if you get this interaction right, Mary, Pete or Lou can actually be empowered to resolve my issue, rather than being bound up in dumbplexity (I love that word! I discovered it in Graham Winter‘s Think one team, which you should buy and read if you even remotely care about working in inspiring, meaningful businesses that are focused on their people and customers).

So how does this apply to Twitter?

Well, in my mind (and you needn’t agree) a Twitter account that is simply the name of your company (and that you use for anything more than announcements – see below) is like the contact center – a nameless, faceless, inhuman blob. I don’t like dealing with things that are inhuman. I’d much rather interact with a real person. And particularly with a real person that wants a conversation with me and that can resolve my issues.

Imagine!? Happy customers dealing with real people! Revolutionary!

There are many companies getting this right – Comcast and Frank Eliason, Telstra with Mike Hickinbotham and the BigPondTeam, Lauren Cochrane at RSPCA and anyone and everyone at Zappos with a Twitter account to name just a few.

Who are these people? Just that. People. But they’re people who want to help and are empowered to do so. There are several more examples that aren’t hard to find if you go looking.

What these people are doing, on behalf of the companies they work for, is building brand identity, adding value to the customer experience and being a real, human face with which to interact. And frankly, we humans like interacting with other humans.

On the other hand, there are Twitter accounts that represent brands that aren’t helping the brand identity and reputation much. They’re simply 140 character at a time foghorns for the companies. Or they are unresponsive. Or they look like they want to engage but don’t do much of a job at that engagement (are you reading this @KevinRuddPM?). They don’t add value. They certainly don’t feel like they’re managed by a human. They aren’t doing anyone any favors.

So, it’s not that the companies themselves shouldn’t have representatives on Twitter. They should. But those representatives should be identifiable as real humans. I don’t want to just talk to Coca-Cola, or SAP, or The Labor Party. I want to talk to a real, flesh and blood person involved with those organisations.

As ever, there are exceptions to every rule. These faceless accounts can be useful for announcements or broadcasts. So long as you make it clear that’s what the account is for. I have a secondary Twitter account, @acidlabs, that I use for just these announcements. But I made it clear when launching the account that that was what it was for.

So, if your organisation has one of those faceless accounts, either change the way it works to be backed by a real, identifiable person, or make sure it’s for broadcast and obviously so. In every other case, make sure your organisation is represented by people.

You can get some real insight into what organisations, and their people, are present on Twitter by looking at twibs. I’m there!

As ever, this is just my opinion. What do you think?

33 Replies to “Company or person? The Twitter dilemma…”

  1. Hi,
    Yes I couldn’t agree more. Twitter is social, and needs to be treated like “you are a party” interacting with others (as @perrybelcher explains in his video on his blog).
    I don’t want to be “cold” sold things on Twitter, I want to interact, share, learn, participate and help others …. if I wanted to buy stuff I would be using google to do my research, and be going from there. Not on twitter.
    You can reach me @jjjodiez on twitter if you like.

  2. Totally agree Stephen. Over the last 12 months individuals from companies like Flock (the browser) have responded directly to my tweets in which I have raised concerns with software, etc. The immediacy and the connectedness of the contact was reassuring and simply human. They responded to the problem, suggested a fix and checked back in later.

    It reminded of the times when friends who are experts in their trade come around to my home to fix the air conditioner or repair a broken pipe. There is a connection. A real connection.

    I am impressed with the way that Loic Le Meur @loic of Seesmic uses Twitter. His conversations are real, sincere, genuine.

    I follow the ABC News, SMH newspaper and other organisations via Twitter yet it seems out of place or disconnected. They almost seem like advertisements. Why couldn’t the journalists tweet the actual news item? They would almost certainly receive additional gems of information from their followers. The journalist would immediately begin gathering additional leads and data.

    The possibilities for companies to put on a real face and connect with the community are endless. Market people, not products.
    Twitter: john_larkin

  3. Hey Steve,

    I am doing some twittering for @tobiieyetrackers and finding it very satisfying. People like the product and I am approaching it in a very personal and helpful way.

    People tweet about buying eye trackers, tweet if they have technical problems, tweet if they have a question.

    I am open and speak as a real person, in fact I introduce myself! I answer questions immediately and if I can’t I go and find out. I have a log of all the things I am ‘managing’ on Twitter too.

    It is not my place to parade as a Twitter employee, I’m not, I’m a consultant. The company has no idea about Twitter and the impact it will have on their business. Once they ‘get it’ I will encourage them to set staff from customer service, support and sales with accounts.

    It’s not about a company name or a personal name, it’s about what you do with the system, how you leverage it.

    Twitter takes education, and I am doing that, from the inside ;)

  4. Hi Stephen

    I agree about this. A tweet coming from a “person” feels real. A tweet coming from the company feels like a bot – even if a real person is doing the typing.

    Same goes for company blogs by “the company” – the company blogs I love have revolving authors, all speak from a personal perspective and opinion (and not always seeming to flow from a “company line”) and give a lovely perspective of the individual personalties that make that company what it is.

    The bland faceless company blogs make the company seem, well frankly bland and faceless. Company tweets feel manufactured, slick and “un-humane”. And they stand out a mile from all the human chit-chat that goes on around them.

    kelly (@kelpenhagen)

  5. I think your points are well made and I agree, it’s fine to have a faceless company account for announcements, so long as people know that this is it’s purpose (and they can choose to follow or not)

    Like you I maintain @thisiscow, which in my case mainly sends out notices of new blog posts, releases etc. And then I’m on @dirkthecow, where people can interact with the person.

  6. My ‘company’ profile says:

    “Do you have questions about Eye Tracking – for Market Research, Usability, Psychology, Opthalmology? Ask me!”

    That is the most important bit, it is where most engagement starts…

  7. Trib –

    I think there is a middle position that works better and I have seen a few companies using: @Brand_person

    You associate the brand with the person writing. You see this with Comcast. There is the original ComcastCares (with Frank’s real name) and now there is ComcastScott and ComcastBonnie. I am a big fan of that approach.

    The other key is to tie the profile back into some company page showing the twitter account. I want to know that I am dealing with a real company representative and now some phony. The Governor of Massachusetts has done this: @massgovernor. That helps you validate the twitter account to the company.

    I did a similar thing with my Twitter page:

  8. Hummm… tough one. I’m not sure about this one. I think it’s important for a logo’d avatar to have a personality, a voice– but not sure it has to be identified with “an individual.” This could present issues for the company, post separation. For instance, I will pick on Sam from Jive here. We all know Sam as the strong brand voice behind Jive Clearspace. Of course, he’s not twittering as the Jive logo, but his Octopus avatar is clearly linked to the Jive brand (as is Sam). So, what happens if Sam should leave Jive? Or Jive should leave Sam? Meshing the identities is awkward when they’re not guaranteed to mate for life. Just throwing that out to add more dumbplexity to the convo. :-)

  9. Susan –

    You identify a key issue, whether it is twitter, blogs or other social media account: Who owns the account and what happens if the person leaves?

    (Its the lawyer in me!)

    With the @brand_person paradigm you make it clear it is a company account. If the person leaves, you freeze the account. Same with a blog using the company name.

    This is one of the reasons a company needs a policy to set expectations for its people using the social internet.

    (Now it’s the Chief Compliance Officer in me.)

  10. If you don’t want to follow a company on twitter you don’t have to. But I can understand how companies want to put a recognizable face to their corporate communications and control their message. They definitely don’t want an imposter to claim their domain name first. And then Sally from accounts might not be authorized to speak on behalf of the firm and most companies’ management gets nervous about what their employees are saying in the public sphere. A lot of companies are starting to experiment with Twitter as a business tool and trying to work out how they can use it to connect with clients and investors so I expect the appearance of company pages will only increase. One company I know doesn’t want any individual identifying with their employer on social media sites without the disclaimer that these are my personal views and don’t reflect the views of my employer. Try fitting that into your 140 character message!

  11. I took a similar position on this with my old company and more of a middle ground with the new one.

    Last year I wrote about my old company’s new Twitter feed (@melcrum): “We sure won’t be following any individuals, because the idea of an ‘organization’ following me gives me the creeps. There are a few Melcrum people on Twitter already, and we follow a few people so that will do in that respect.”

    The idea was that as individuals we would pick up on interesting people who followed the company and then follow them as individuals.

    This is essentially what you’re saying above about foghorns and interaction.

    At my new job, though, we’ve taken it one step further with the company feed. Each update (@StepTwoDesigns) is preceded by, “From Alex…” or, “From Rebecca….”

    We’ve also replied to people via the company feed, as well as picked up new followers (and people to follow) with our individual accounts. Just this morning after reading this post I made sure everyone was properly notified when the company feed got a new follower.

    So, that last bit is really the middle ground – it’s a company feed but with real people visibly updating it. We’re using it for article and news updates, but also to post what we’re working on day to day to emphasise what we do as a company.

  12. Steve,
    This is a really fundamental issue. Social Media is about engagement and conversation not announcements and policies which are predominately one way communication. If a company wants a presence on any of these networks then they should educate and empower their people to be the voice of that company. Above all they must be allowed to be honest and also to action appropriate responses when required. Doing extraordinary things on an individual level on behalf of your company is many times more powerful than any media plan.

  13. I feel your pain mate. I reckon in these harsh economic times though, bosses will be loath to let employees spend too much time on Twitter when they could be doing their actual job! Employee Tweets are fascinating and a great way to build relationships, but there’s a borderline between engagement and time management!

    1. Matt, something I argue (often successfully) with my clients is that engaging with people on internal or external social networks in appropriate ways isn’t time wasting at all. It is actually (or should be) a part of employee’s jobs. In any economic circumstances, and particularly now, surely opportunities for innovation, new ideas and connections are fundamental to resilient businesses?

  14. Yep, but I was talking to one, fairly large, fairly busy company the other day who had trialled the idea and axed it when the employees who were doing the engaging got so swamped with comments they weren’t working because they had to spend too much time defending themselves. That’s the problem with Twitter – you get 140 characters and unless your Ernest Hemmingway, it’s hard to construct enough meaning in that space to do a great job. Let fly with a random, not particularly well-research theory, as is human nature, and you get slammed for it. If you’re representing your company, it’s a tightrope walk.

    1. @Matt – So my point runs slightly counter to your client. People’s jobs need to be reimagined with the engagement as a normal part of work, not an add-on to be removed when it’s not convenient.

      That’s not engagement, that’s thinking old school and pretending to be a part of the Cluetrain.

  15. Yeah, but, there’s a reason we have corporate communications departments! You want trained communicators doing the talking or you end up with submarine captains telling Ralph magazine that changing the female Navy uniform to a bikini would be good for male recruitment! Even smart people slip up, and I don’t know if the world is ready to accept the inevitabilities of human error just yet. That’s why when a client of mine wants to start ‘joining the conversation’ they do a day-long workshop in brand language before they get the keys to the monitoring software!

  16. Matt, you’re making some fairly large leaps there. If a company has got to the point where its employees are having to defend themselves in a public environment then something has gone horribly wrong well before that point.

  17. @Matt, I’ll agree wholeheartedly with Alex. If the clients you’re dealing with aren’t capable of letting their people communicate on their behalf openly (but with appropriate boundaries) and aren’t mature enough culturally to understand the nature of changing their business to do things this way, they have far greater issues than simply using social tools.

    The problems at your clients sound to me (on the very little I can see here, admittedly) to be much more complicated than having the wrong people communicating about the wrong things.

    Using any social tools in your business requires a level of corporate cultural maturity and a commensurate shift in imagining roles that some businesses aren’t yet ready for. It’s this shift that I try to help my clients with if they need it.

    1. @Daniel – I’d say that very much depends on how the profile is used. Obviously announcements, obviously fan community outreach – these are all valid uses of a non-person account (like my @acidlabs).

      I imagine it’d be very hard for people to get confused or upset by this sort of corporate use, so it looks to fall in the workable “not a person” set of possibilities.

      Do you have an example?

  18. There’s a pretty interesting example of sports team engagement on Twitter, although not exactly a character mascot, with the Phoenix Suns NBA basketball team.

    The Phoenix Suns have an official Twitter page ( / @suns)

    Phoenix Suns Girl ( – The Suns’ digital marketing director and huge team evangelist) has also done masses of promotion for the team.

    And last but not least, All-Star Suns player Shaquille O’Neal joined a few months back ( and quickly saw his number of followers rocket past 50k (it went from 50 to 2000 in 24 hours).

  19. @Stephen. I don’t have a specific example but more an idea. While I would like to see staff at the company I work for on Twitter I also think there may be some space to create an engaging fictional character on Twitter along with lots of other value/activity to be built around it as well.

  20. @Daniel – The key to your question is really the word “engaging”.

    In the blogosphere there have been famous and highly popular fictional characters such as Fake Steve Jobs ( who was eventually uncovered as pro journalist, Daniel Lyons. While he was kept secret for a while, even when Lyons was unmasked he continued to write in character and was just as funny, if not more.

    But, parodying Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley is perhaps easier to do with a story rich environment and a professional writer at at the helm.

    Another example is Amanda Chapel – a fictional, snarky, sarcastic, flirtatious and controversial PR person who blogs and riles up the communications and PR industry, and who was actually the creation of several PR people.

    “Amanda” continues to retain a slight air of mystery even though everyone knows it’s written by other people. Again, professional writers and a story-rich environment feature here.

    Characters can definitely work in social media. However, you would need to think carefully about it and probably look into some of the fundamentals of character creation: the story arc for this character, where their inspiration might come from, their motivation, their ambition etc.

    You would also need someone capable of synthesising your information into engaging content for whoever it is that makes up your potential audience – on Twitter, on blogs and beyond.

  21. Interesting discussion. I work for the ACT Government, and we’ve found two twitterers with names that suggest that they’re the ACT Government, with the Government coat of arms as their picture. I’d really like to find out who they are, but haven’t had any luck yet.

  22. There’s some interesting points in this thread.

    I’ve tossed and turned at night considering whether it is vital that tools such as Twitter are used from an individual perspective.

    Where I’ve ended up is that it can be used in different ways depending on your goals and tolerances. Provided that it is clear to potential followers how you use the system – aka their expectations are correctly set – several different uses are appropriate.

    For example, If you use Twitter as a customer service tool (conversing) that’s great.

    If you want to mine it for useful conversations, topics and tools (listening), that’s fine.

    If you use it as an announcement channel (talking), that’s mostly OK too.

    And if you want to use it for advertising that’s doable in limited cases.

    However if you are not clear to potential followers how you are using the system, or change the way you are using it over time that’s always very very bad.

    Remember that followers can also unfollow. So if an organisation provides a false expectation (that you’re speaking to an individual rather than signing up for announcements), it is likely to see a significant drop in followers.

Leave a Reply