140 characters of engagement

I’ve just gotten back from the 140 Characters Conference in LA where the message, loud and clear and 10 minutes per speaker at a time, was that it’s the quality of your followers that matters, not the quantity.

More reinforcement:  Twitter’s new list function is already prompting “mass unfollowings” (thanks to Mary McKinnon/@bestwebstrategy for this link).

Picture 5 The first #140conf in New York in June was all about the unique communities that Twitter inspired.  The dominant sponsor was Hootsuite, personified by a large owl walking around hugging people.  Ann Curry duked it out with Rick Sanchez.  Wyclef Jean showed up, late of course, but illustrating the importance of authencity.  Attendees bonded over the duct-taped power outlets.

Five months later, it appears that Twitter has…matured.  The speakers in LA weren’t giddy.  The lead sponsor was Kodak, represented by CMO Jeffrey HayzlettPicture 2, a glossy brochure touting Kodak’s “convergence media tactics” and coupons for 15 percent off Kodak products. You can’t have either duct tape or power outlets in the Kodak Theatre (where the Academy Awards are held) so the crowd was often bigger in the lobby than in the auditorium.

I still had fun at #140conf LA – it is Twitter, after all – but the biz talk was pervasive:  strategy, goals, objectives, processes, systems, results, the four Ps and the four Es, one of which was, of course, engagement.

Nothing illustrated Twitter’s move into the mainstream more than Hank Wasiak‘s assertion that social media is an essential part of a “People” strategy that now must be included with the august and hallowed four Ps of marketing:  Product, Price, Promotion and Place (Distribution, renamed so it can be a P).


Hank Wasiak (site image)

Wasiak, who described himself as a traditional Mad(ison Avenue) Man turned Twitterholic, said that “Consumers want to talk amongst themselves before they talk to you,” and that companies now need to “give up control to get traction.”  He said companies will just not be successful unless they shift from being masters of the universe to maestros.

Software developer and entrepreneur Dave Winer pointed out that “more are talking but it’s amazing how little listening is going on.”  He questioned how relevant could people be if they brag about millions of followers but don’t explain how they got them, or what having thousands of followers really means.

Picture 6 Porter Gale, the VP of marketing for Virgin America, gleefully touted VA’s full fleet wi-fi, power outlets between each seat and Twitter-fueled customer service.  She said these things are “worth more than having your luggage get there.”  Uh, I disagree.

However, her talk did reinforce the need to have a customer service strategy, not a Twitter strategy.  Twitter is just a tool.  I’m confident that Twitter wouldn’t make any difference in the hands of your typical United/American/Delta/(fill in old-school airline here) beleaguered gate agent.


So many news organizations are just using Twitter, Facebook and other social media services as extension web sites with cute homespun ways for readers to post comments and sign up to be their followers/friends/fans.  They’re still just doing that one-way, we are the masters-of-the-universe thing.  They’re asking themselves “How can we use Twitter?” rather than “How can we truly engage our audiences and participate in their lives?”


Picture 7 The panel charmingly titled “Police Chiefs That Tweet” (yes, it should have been “who tweet”) was unexpectedly insightful. I wasn’t surprised police departments were using Twitter.  I just didn’t expect to hear that these traditional government organizations care more about who’s following them rather than how many.

Dan Alexander of Boca Raton, Fla., Scott Whitney of Oxnard, Calif., and John Stacey of Bellevue, Neb. use Twitter as an integral part of their community policing efforts.  Community policing is interacting with residents to help control crime.  It’s a philosophy distinctly different from the traditional law enforcement methods you see on cop shows.  If you’re a police chief, you really have to believe in the power and the effectiveness of the community to embrace this philosophy – and use Twitter.  Twitter helps police officers connect with people they wouldn’t reach otherwise.  It’s a real-time tool they didn’t have before.

Whitney flatly stated that he only wants 200,000 followers – the population of Oxnard.  No one else matters.  Similarly, Alexander follows back everyone from the Boca Raton area, or only “people who will get value from what we have to say.”  He wants true interaction; he won’t follow back someone, for example, from Singapore.


Picture 8 Rob King, editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, had an interesting hypothesis.  He said that news org. social media policies (those proclamations about how reporters should behave themselves on Twitter and Facebook) are based on how orgs. think they should – or shouldn’t – connect with their audiences.  In other words, the more restrictive the policy, the less a news org. wants to truly engage with its audiences.

I’ve always thought that TV has been more audience-focused than newspapers.  For good or bad, TV newsrooms live and die by Nielsen ratings and other audience measures.  It’s got to feel natural for TV newsrooms to use web analytics.

Picture 9 King was on a panel with Tom Jolly, the sports editor of the New York Times.  There was nothing wrong about what Jolly said.  He just didn’t say anything to indicate the NYT, an innovator in some things but a news org. that just uses Twitter as a RSS feed, was leading the charge on using social media to engage audiences.  Here’s a quote from Jolly:  “[The New York Times] has adjusted over time and will continue to.”


I would love to study the differences between newspaper and TV social media policies and how they correlate – or not – with their level of audience engagement.

Similarly, I would love to study the differences in how social media is used by Boca Raton/Oxnard/Bellevue and, say, the community-challenged, formerly federal-consent-decree-driven LAPD.

Maybe we don’t need to study any of this.  Maybe we just need to do it – define our success by whether we are maestros rather than masters of the universe.



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