The WIP The global source for women's perspectives

Using Twitter: from Conversation to Community

by Charukesi Ramadurai

“First day in Parliament. From the sublime (the historic Central Hall for the Cong legislators meeting) to the bureacratic (8 forms to fill)!” – 12:17 AM May 19th from TwitterBerry

One of India’s newest Members of Parliament, and now Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor tweets on his first day as an acknowledged politician. The former UN Under-Secretary General and author of several books may be the first Indian politician to communicate real-time with the people who voted him in, but he is by no means the first in the world. Just months earlier, on November 5, 2008 what is perhaps the most famous tweet of them all appeared:
“We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks.” [Source: @BarackObama]

It has been easy to write off Twitter as just yet another social communication tool, a fad that is soon to see its end. The application has garnered a lot of bad press from the fact that celebrities have been quick to latch on to Twitter as a promotional tool; from Oprah Winfrey to Ashton Kutcher, Twitter has served as one more place to talk about themselves.

Perhaps led by the celebrity buzz, Twitter has seen phenomenal growth (131% in March alone, according to a Comscore report), however, recent research from Nielsen Online claims that “more than 60% of Twitter users stop it a month after signing up.” Cynics still view Twitter as a ‘status update’ website and therefore pose the question “What do you say after you say Hello?”

From conversation to community and crowdsourcing

“The reason Twitter works is that we recognized patterns in the world. We listened, and we made those patterns more convenient,” says Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey in an interview in Discover magazine. In its simplest form, Twitter is a micro-blogging platform which replicates real world conversation scenarios.

Casual conversation is, however, just one aspect of it. Today Twitter is about community, collaboration and crowdsourcing. The community aspect is defined best by the way Twitter has evolved into a reliable source for news, information and reviews – reminiscent of the early days of blogging when I (and several people I know) looked to trusted fellow bloggers for everything from movie reviews to event updates.

In times of disaster or chaos, as with the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, there is a sense of deep unease combined with anger and helplessness among those affected – directly or otherwise. Says Dina Mehta, qualitative researcher and social media expert from Mumbai, “Twitter helped us all channel this anger, giving us something to do rather than just watch television helplessly.” Mehta was part of the core team that set up and managed the group blog when the tsunami hit South East Asia in late 2004. The same principle of resource mobilization and information sharing has now moved from the blog format to the Twitter format. “People around the world followed our updates and tweeted in, expressing their support for Mumbai,” she adds.

What Twitter has, and in a way that few other social media tools have, is the advantage of immediacy that places it among the most reliable crowdsourcing tools available today. From requests for urgent blood donations to updates on natural disasters, Twitter is being used to disseminate information quickly and effectively. Social media strategist Zena Weist calls this phenomenon communitysourcing, the next level to crowdsourcing, and describes it in her blog as “outsourcing a task to a connected group/community for the benefit of that community.”

Twitter is still buzzing with the latest news and resources on Cyclone Aila that hit Eastern India on May 27th. Updates on the cyclone’s progress [RT @msnindia: #Cyclone only 50 km from Kolkata, likely to hit city soon #Aila] and requests for help and information in the immediate aftermath of the disaster [#Aila 200,000 homeless. ActionAid team says food (dry), tarpaulin, clothes for women and children, healthcare the urgent needs] show that the “community” is out in full force.

The charity: water story

Described on its website as “a non profit organization bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations by funding sustainable clean water solutions in areas of greatest need,” much of charity: water’s recent fundraising activities have revolved around Twitter. A couple of months ago, Twitter communities in 202 cities across the world held events or twestivals to promote and raise money for this cause. So far, the organization claims to have raised $250,000 USD with this strategy, enough to support 55 water projects in Ethiopia, Uganda and India. The organization has over 350,000 followers, rivaling the popularity of many Twittering celebrities.

“Oddest feeling – keep forgetting this is my bedroom, and am surprised when I remind myself. Guess a month of 20 different beds will do that,” posts Paul Smith upon his return. The self-styled twitchhiker decided to make use of the Twitter community’s goodwill and set off on what he calls an adventure for thirty days as part of charity: water’s fund-raising activities.

charity: water may be one of Twitter’s more vocal successes but browsing through the popular hash tag #charitytuesday on Twitter’s search engine throws light on a lot of other quiet work taking place throughout the site.

Twitter as a marketing communication tool

Marketing companies are a natural fit for Twitter and not just for advertising. Many have found several, possibly more imporant uses for Twitter: FAQs, feedback on new products and even market research. Mehta has a personal take on this, “Market research not just in the conventional sense that we know it; from suggestions on the best mobile phone to buy, to the recipe for chocolate mousse, all I need to do is tweet and I will have several responses in the next few hours.”

For marketers, Twitter is a simple way of keeping their ears to the ground, to find out what customers are saying – and sometimes, without even having to ask them. In an article on the best Twitter brands, the most common response to the question of why corporates tweet is “to engage with customers.” Ford, for instance says, “It’s part of a larger social media strategy to humanize the Ford brand and put consumers in touch with Ford employees.” The profile page of Kotak Mahindra Bank, which deals in credit cards, a category viewed by customers across the world with scepticism and mistrust, states, “We’re here to listen, to learn, to engage and to share with the Twitter community.”

Cleartrip, a Mumbai-based travel booking website similar to Expedia has been on Twitter since November 2008. Founder and Director of Product and Strategy, Hrush Bhatt, says he jumped onto the Twitter-wagon intrigued by the conversations already taking place on Twitter around the brand. Bhatt feels that the goodwill created by responding immediately to customer queries and suggestions has led to a multi-fold increase in positive mentions of Cleartrip on the site.

“It is not enough that we post offers and deals,” he says. “We offer light customer support, we post interesting links, we take note of criticism and work on it.” Bhatt’s favorite story is about the time Cleartrip was mentioned in a book on Twitter by social media expert Joel Comm. Bhatt says the first he ever heard of it was through another Twitter user!

What makes Twitter work for marketers of any kind, whether they are addressing customer queries or raising funds, is that Twitter is an opt-in service. Users are people who choose to follow updates from individuals/companies and offer themselves as a captive and willing audience – every marketer’s dream and a far cry from unwelcome marketing communication that gets clubbed with spam.

On the horizon

One of the most interesting uses to which Twitter has been put so far is that of watchdog. TweetCongress in the USA is an effort to connect lawmakers with the people and promote communication and transparency in the process of governance. Their website says, “We believe transparent government is better government. Twitter enables real conversation between lawmakers and voters, in real time. Find your representatives in Congress, follow them and give them a tweet full!”

Sceptics can shake their heads and debate over whether what Twitter offers now is enough to sustain its stratospheric growth in the long run. However, what may be the true measure of its “success” and longevity is the fact that most Twitter-related applications (Twitterholic, TweetDeck and twitterfeed, to name a few) have been developed, promoted and rapidly embraced by Twitter users.

Going from a simple and personal “what are you doing?” to the more globally-minded “what is the world up to?” is a great leap for any social application to take, and all in 140 characters.

– Join the movement! Follow The WIP on Twitter. – Ed.

About the Author
Charukesi Ramadurai lives in Bombay, India – a city she loves, and can never call Mumbai. She has a degree in Social Research Methods and is particularly interested in exploring alternative research methods and in research aimed at socio-economic development.
After years of working as a market and social researcher, she discovered a new passion in photography. She now juggles research with travel, writing and photography. Her articles and photographs have appeared in several newspapers and magazines in India including Hindustan Times, Mint, Himal, Windows & Aisles and India Today Travel Plus.

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