In my view Twitter, like many marketing and social media tools, is basically a stage. How you present yourself upon it depends on what talents you have and what you're trying to accomplish.
Below, I've outlined 9 methods of interacting on Twitter. This list should either allow you to comfortably ignore Twitter because none of these methods of interaction are feasible or meaningful for you, or recognize an opportunity for yourself or your business.
This applies both to actual celebrities, and people who are building a brand that can be clearly defined as having a "voice". People like Perez Hilton, Oprah Winfrey and Tony Hsieh of Zappos immediately come to mind. All of them have Twitter feeds and each of them has a very distinct voice. "In waiting room at doctor's office. In addition to magazines, they should offer a selection of paint so people can watch it dry." A recent post from the CEO of a company with projected 2008 revenues of $1 billion. People follow these feeds for a variety of reasons but mainly because they receive something emotionally satisfying from the postings.
The Guide is typically a person or people assigned to seek out messages posted by people who have a question related to your business, products or services. Here is a great case study of a company who did just that and has shared their results. Note that to maximize their efforts they have someone spending 30 minutes per day on Twitter in this role.
The Brand Watchdog
Someone proactively seeks out mentions of their company name or product name and responds personally to each post. Two companies that immediately come to mind are GeekSquad Founder Robert Stephens (thanks @DanielRiveong and @britopian) and ComCast's Director of Digital Care Frank Eliason @ComCastCares. Companies can win big brownie points by having very senior staff members respond to customer service questions. The idea here is that by providing direct access to someone who really knows what they're talking about, companies can prevent damage to their brand from disappointed customers.
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The Customer Support Rep
Very similar to the Brand Watchdog, this too is focused on watching for and responding to customer service questions. But while I would put Frank Eliason in the Brand Watchdog category, this category is usually filled by the unsung Twitter heros (Twiroes?). They are likely handling questions in other (non-Twitter) venues and have added Twitter to the ways they communicate. The catch here is that the expectation is that Twitter customer service reps will actually help you resolve your issue. We'll see how long that lasts!
People and companies will often use Twitter as a way to simply feed followers information about their area of influence. A lot of news is now breaking on Twitter before it hits major publications. But you don't have to be first, just relevant and somewhat consistent. A really interesting take on the publisher model is The Brooklyn Museum who is monetizing their social content and their community by offering memberships to a "socially networked museum membership" for $20 per year.
The Promotion Channel
Unfortunately I think both spammers and ecommerce sites fit into this category. But the ecommerce sites I've seen use Twitter in interesting ways to do promotion and inform customers about products they are interested in. Take a look at Amazon on Twitter. Their feed is a little bit all over the place in terms of content and they don't have an individual person that followers can connect with (which limits conversation and can limit your follower numbers) but they've still managed to collect almost 4,000 followers as of this article. Contests, Twitter only discount codes, free giveaways are all part of the promotion channel arsenal.
Many of the most popular "tweet"ers are those who actively engage with their followers. In essence this is what really makes Twitter unique as a communication tool, although it's also what scares the bejeezus out of small business owners. Being the Conversationalist can be very time consuming, but the rewards are high in terms of building a loyal following and truly connecting with people who are interested in what you have to offer, from whom you are interested in learning and with whom you can build strategic relationships. We're talking several posts per day many of which are directed at specific people.
There are many people who don't post to twitter at all. They use it as an information resource, watching the "twitter trending topics" to "crowd source" their news or following people they find interesting or informative. This can be a great way to use Twitter and learn a thing or two. The key here is to be careful about who you follow — you want people with a high signal to noise ratio usually with far fewer posts but each post is a gem.
Again here it's not about posting information but consuming it. There are many feeds on Twitter (The Onion is one of my favorites) that are purely about entertainment, putting a smile on your face or making you think.
As you'll no doubt notice, some Twitter strategies combine these methods.
If you are not interested in any of the 9 methods above then Twitter is probably not for you. But really the best way to find out is to use it. Sign yourself up - it takes only a couple of minutes to sign up and if you're looking for somewhere to start, start following me and then look at other people who follow me. You don't have to know someone to follow them. You can even sign up under what I like to call an "incognito name" — a name that won't be associated with you or company so that you can experiment without worrying about making an embarrassing mistake. After a few weeks drop the incognito account and sign up with accounts branded for you and/or your company.
On a more serious note, I can't help noting how many meaningful events have occurred in the last few weeks, and the very different way we experienced them. I am struck with the realization that every real moment can be played out near real time on a global scale.
These little 12-17 inch screens and keyboards we've become so intimate with, that bring close the lives of far away friends, over the last two weeks opened up a world of individuals sharing their grief, and made a political maelstrom that might before have seemed "far away," personal in a way many of us have never experienced.
As people, we know instinctively that how the world makes it's way into our lives is changing, dramatically. And not just how it reaches us, but where it comes from, who filters it (if anyone), how we seek it out and find it, that we can share it, comment on it, alter it and then pass it along. As people we struggle with concepts like authenticity while trying to grasp the ever-slipping confines of the personal within the ever-growing realm of the public.
And while those lines are being blurred and redefined, as businesses we must be careful not to loose sight of the very human, once personal context in which we're operating more and more. I think it's keeping sight of this context which in part keeps us authentic and relevant - regardless of the tools we use. While some debate whether or not Twitter is useful, others are simply putting it to work, filling a need, and reaching an audience they would never have reached before.
I thought something I read recently put it well:
"Asking when Twitter will end is like saying, 'When will the cell phone fad end'?...The value of cell phones can't end, it only can be replaced by something that provides the same value and more. Once we have a capability, we never want it taken away from us." -- David Spark, founder of Spark Media Solutions
While you definitely can learn from how others are using tools like Twitter both successfully and unsuccessfully, keep in mind that a) the communication is still yours b) the content is still yours c) everyone is still figuring this stuff out so don't be afraid to dip your toe in the water and don't be afraid to make a few mistakes d) do try to remember that there are humans on the other side of that message. There is something they probably want and want from you. What is it that they're looking for?