Why Companies Care About Twitter

In the comments to yesterday’s post, Jim mentioned how interesting it was that Twitter had finally gotten companies to pay attention to what customers were saying about them. I got to wondering why that was. Why didn’t this happen with blogs, or Facebook? Both of those use the same one-to-many broadcast model as Twitter. Facebook and Twitter share the concept of friends, as do blogging platforms like the venerable LiveJournal.

The key difference is that Twitter messages spread easily, and it’s simple to watch over all of Twitter for any mention of a company. Blogs stand alone with only links or individuals’ comments tying them together. Blog owners added blogrolls and similar list of favorite sites to encourage cross-pollination, but lists of sites with little context don’t drive many visitors to those sites. Posts on low-trafficked blogs got little attention, and were passed around mainly if a high-traffic blog linked to it.

Facebook aggregated people together into groups of friends and explicitly encouraged posting short, pithy status updates. This in turn made people much more likely to vent, but that venting didn’t travel far beyond the person’s friends. If you’re motivated, you can create a Facebook page to express how much a company sucks, but those pages are more like blog posts, and you’re back to hoping that enough friends spread the link to the page. And there are barriers to searching Facebook’s content. You have to have an account, start a search, and then explicitly set it to be searching status updates.

Twitter has similar group aggregation to Facebook and, by virtue of its 140-character limit, greatly encourages its users to share short messages about anything and everything in their life. Even more importantly, people using Twitter quickly latched on to the practice of retweeting — rebroadcasting someone’s message. Retweeting has become such a standard practice that Twitter clients and the Twitter webpage allow you to retweet someone’s message with one click. One person’s rant about Comcast can now be passed around Twitter widely and quickly, spreading from group to group. The barrier to re-broadcasting is far lower than with Facebook and especially with blogs.

Twitter has made additional design decisions that further drive these network effects. Twitter now lists trending topics — topics that a lot of people are talking about. Twitter also lets you search all tweets for mentions of you, your company, or any topic you care about. Companies can monitor what people are saying about them easily, and feel compelled to do so because complaints about them can spread like a brushfire.

That’s the one-two punch that distinguishes Twitter from other publishing services. If Twitter hadn’t made it so easy to re-broadcast people’s messages, or if content on Twitter was as hard to search for as it is on Facebook, then I don’t think companies would care that much about Twitter.