Does Twitter really fit into business and IT?

The microblogging technology makes sense in some cases, but there are better alternatives for other proposed uses

There have probably been more words written about Twitter than there are Twitter users. While it is considered the newest, most popular form of social networking, fitting into the category of microblogging, it is in fact used by far fewer people than Facebook, for example.

Estimates vary, but the latest numbers from Web analytics company Compete.com put it at 14 million Twitter users per month compared to 91 million monthly Facebook users.

[ Before you decide to deploy Twitter, it's a good idea to consider the security implications. | See how HP and JetBlue are using social media. | And learn InfoWorld's 10 commandments of social media etiquette. ]

However, one area where Twitter appears to be way ahead of Facebook is in business. And Twitter is not alone: Other Twitter-like services, mainly Yammer and  Socialtext, are also making inroads into the enterprise.

Twitter is already in business -- big time
Most people associate the word "enterprise" with traditional smokestack industry giants like Colgate Palmolive, ConAgra Foods, and General Motors -- for the time being, at least. But enterprise companies also include Hollywood studios, all the major news networks, and giant publishing companies like the New York Times and Time Warner, which owns CNN. These non-smokestack enterprises have jumped on the Twitter bandwagon with both feet. InfoWorld has also added Twitter to its mobile options.

The broadcast industry was the first to latch onto Twitter as a marketing tool, helping marketing professionals do something they probably learned in Marketing 101: creating customer loyalty by building a relationship with the consumer. And what better way to build a relationship than to use a tool that lets you have a personal, one-on-one conversation with millions of your customer-viewers simultaneously?

CNN, MSNBC, and Fox make their correspondents and program hosts available via Twitter. Whether or not a tweet (the name for a Twitter message) from Wolf Blitzer really is from Blitzer is beside the point. They are building, they hope, loyalty to CNN and Blitzer as a brand. The harsh reality is this: The next time there's a disaster somewhere in the world, they want you to turn to their channel to hear the full details. How better to do that than if you get a tweet alert from Blitzer himself, saying, "Hey buddy, there's trouble in fill-in-the-blank"? Hollywood has followed suit with fans and stars sending tweets back and forth whether the star in question is on location or out of work.

Moving closer to IT, late last month Salesforce.com announced its alliance with Twitter. The deal lets Salesforce.com's business customers monitor public tweets about their products and step in to the conversation with a tweet of their own to show they care or to resolve a problem. And in the case where a tweet solves a particular product issue, the Salesforce.com customer can make that solution part of its knowledge base if the issue arises in the future.

Does Twitter have a use beyond marketing?
The question now is whether Twitter's use in the enterprise will move beyond marketing. Can it play a role in other sectors of a business -- especially in IT?

There is one area where IT might use Twitter and its competitors to advantage: as an evaluation tool. Not unlike Salesforce.com, IT could use Twitter as an evaluation tool to monitor customer/employee reaction to a new product, application, or service.

IT might also initiate the conversation by asking employees in a tweet's 140 characters or less to give them an unfiltered expression of their experience with the new product.

However, Twitter's use in other areas of IT is more problematic. You might think that Twitter could serve well as an alerting tool for IT, sending tweets to IT staffs' PCs and mobile devices. But perhaps not: "For an IT department looking for an [internal] communications tool, Twitter is not the most appropriate tool," says Oliver Young, a senior analyst with Forrester Research.

As IT people already know, scale changes everything. If a service like Twitter is going to be used as an alert tool, IT had best be sure everyone in the company is on board, Young says. That's easy for a 10-person company, but not as simple for a company with 10,000 or 100,000 employees worldwide.

Young also believes for internal use -- such as for IT alerts to its users or as part of the IT infrastructure for IT staffers to talk to one another -- instant messaging is the better service. Young points out that Twitter is not necessarily as fast in reaching its destination as IM.

If using Twitter as a microblogging tool to carry on conversations within the company, everyone had better be sure that he or she has turned off their public face, keeping tweets within the four walls -- or ultimately something that shouldn't be shared will be in a public forum, Young warns.

A company must also consider the latest in e-discovery regulations from the feds, aka the Federal Rules for Civil Procedure. If you archive your internal  tweets, for whatever reason, they are subject to searches in the future in case of a litigation. And if you cannot produce the tweet the litigant is asking for, you can probably count on a hefty fine from the presiding judge, if history is any indication.

Twitter has competition more suited to business use
But Twitter isn't the only social networking tool on the block, and there are many others that might be more appropriate for business use, such as Yammer or Socialtext's Signals.

Consider two of Twitter's shortcomings: the inconsistent delivery ties and the ease in which information leaks to employees' public-facing Twitter connections. Yammer integrates its social networking conversations with its own IM service, and both Yammer and Socialtext keep conversations behind the firewall by default.

And both companies' products honor business needs that a pure Web 2.0 offering may see as uncool. For example, because e-mail is still an integral part of how employees communicate, especially the older generation, Yammer lets users send and receive messages through the corporate e-mail server, and users must be in the company-approved e-mail directory.

Yammer users can also post questions or search for discussion topics or through profiles -- for example, to look for in-house company experts. And it functions as a company discussion board, letting users create groups within the organization and target discussions to that group alone.

When an employee leaves the company, their messages can be archived with the ability to expunge the conversations according to a time frame set by company policy, notes Yammer CEO David Sacks.

At Socialtext, the company has announced the beta release of Socialtext Desktop, which displays the "signals" posted by colleagues and groups. Employees can use it to send "signals" or to view the messaging stream for anyone in the company. It also includes a pop-up notification alert to keep users aware of the latest news.

Don't expect Twitter, Socialtext, or Yammer to create world peace, no matter how many people across the globe start talking with one another. But there is no doubt that this social networking technology is becoming an important tool to keep personal and business relationships going.

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