One of the questions we’re often asked by clients when doing an initial consultation is “what about twitter?” It goes along with “should we have a Facebook page?” and “how do I get MySpace friends?”

Social networking, of the web-based variety, is something that people will be writing books about for years to come. It’s as hot now as it was 3 years ago and 5 years ago. That is to say, it continues to be hot because there continue to be new social networks that become popular and die out and then become popular and then die out again.

The trick for a business is to be able to appropriately surf that wave of social network highs and lows and never put all eggs into a single basket.

There are big businesses that do great work on Twitter. Airlines like Virgin Blue and Southwest have a team dedicated to monitoring social websites to see what people are saying about them. So do telecommunications companies like Optus.

For customers the advantage is that they can have a direct line to vent their frustrations. Shout out on Twitter about how outrageously incorrect your bill seems to be and you can not only have friends console you or also share their experiences, but there’s a fairly good chance someone from the company will be in touch to help you through your issue.

For companies the advantage is largely and expectedly the reverse. It’s easy to monitor exactly what people are saying about your company, your industry or your competitors. It’s also really easy to reach out to a customer and make them feel a little bit special by personally helping them with their problem.

Twitter, however, is not the place to try to influence customers or get them to change their habits. It is not as effective as an advertising campaign or a media release but it is a good place to see what people are saying about your latest ad campaign etc. Twitter for companies is more about measurement and accessibility than direct marketing and that’s important to remember.

Nobody likes to be spammed at. Nobody needs to get a direct message because they followed your company. People don’t hang around with Twitter because they enjoy being bombarded with irrelevant messages. They use the service because it helps them feel connected and part of a community. That’s important to remember because, while it might be hard to build up a good reputation on Twitter, it will only take minutes to be burnt and razed to the ground with no one around to sweep up your ashes.

A recent radio piece about Comic-Con featured a genre film promoter talking about changing people’s opinions and excitement about a product. He told a story about going to Comic-Con to convince an audience of die-hard Batman fans that the, then, new movie (1989) would not be the camp 1960s Batman despite the involvement of the director of a Pee-Wee Herman film and the guy from Mr Mom. Within minutes he managed to turn the audience from a booing mass to applauding fans excited with anticipation.

An opinion turn-around like that could never be achieved on Twitter. The value Twitter has, though, is that if something like that were to happen today, the people in that room would tweet about it and excitement about the product would spread exponentially and almost instantly

Twitter is the buzz. If our clients are on Twitter they are in a much better position to have their finger on the pulse and give them more information about the zeitgeist. They might not have a million followers but at the very least they’ll be able to gauge influence.

Twitter gives companies the ability to do something they’ve never done before. They have a direct link into their customers’ thoughts and conversations. That’s a very powerful tool and it needs to be approached with patience and a lot of thought.

About Josh Kinal

Josh makes things on the web easy to use and understand. Sounds simple, but it’s not. His understanding of developing engaging content comes from many years of writing for print and radio. You might have heard him on Boxcutters, his popular weekly podcast about TV or years of appearing on Triple J, Radio National and 3RRR. He also holds a science degree and in 2012 was one of Australia’s few panelists at SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas