Why Getting a Twitter Coach Is a Smart Idea

By Aliah D. Wright May 27, 2009

At first blush it might seem downright silly to hire someone to teach your senior management team how to post short, pithy comments with video or links on web sites like Twitter, Facebook, Jaiku, Tumblr, Flickr or any of a number of social networking sites.

But seriously, a coach?

“I think it’s fabulous,” said Gerry Crispin, SPHR, a principal at the consulting firm CareerXroads, and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Technology and HR Management Special Expertise Panel.

“I think it’s important to have someone who is experienced with a tool who can share with you how other people are using it.” He’s not alone.

“When people first go to Twitter they think it’s one thing and then they come back and start learning about it,” says Beth Carvin, president and CEO of the 9-year-old Honolulu-Hawaii based Nobscot Corp., which specializes in retention management and HR metrics.

“A coach would be a good way to help you get started and [learn] how to use the site from a business standpoint as opposed to a personal Twitterer,” she said.

Think Before You Type

It’s also a good way to keep people from making mistakes.

Some people have posted things on Twitter (and elsewhere online) that have come back to haunt them. Consider:

  • Cisco Fatty; someone who disparaged working for Cisco after getting the job.
  • A VP for a PR agency denigrated the city of Memphis by saying he would “die” if he had to live there, angering the clients in the city where he made a presentation.
  • A Canadian reporter unleashed a profanity-filled tirade on Twitter against a source for the entire world to see.

So with all that could go wrong, why Twitter? The answer is simple, HR experts say. Twittering can be good for business.

At three years old, Twitter is one of the fastest growing micro-blogging sites online. More than 17 million people (and counting) are spouting their stream of consciousness in real time on the site in 140 characters or less. In fact, according to comScore Inc., the site had a 131 percent increase in U.S. visitors from February to March of 2009 alone. Conversely, however, the site has only a 40 percent retention rate, according to Nielsen Online.

You might think that people really won’t care that you had ham and cheese for lunch, but as HR professionals, your employees are undoubtedly using Twitter to reveal just that and more. They’re reading the posts of others. Some are finding it useful to network, get news, view video links or join protests. Some are celebrities. Some are sports figures. Some are musicians. Some are sitting in cubicles right next to yours.

It could be incredibly easy to dismiss social networking as an HR nightmare. Let’s face it. Many HR professionals are afraid their employees might be wasting time, potentially exposing proprietary information or risking a security breach. But there are indeed benefits to using Twitter.

Speaking the Language

Some experts maintain that, done correctly, social networking on sites like Twitter and Facebook not only increases a company’s visibility in a positive manner and helps manage customer complaints, but it also can facilitate innovation, productivity and collaboration. It can be a good way to improve communication significantly, interact honestly with customers, and foster collaboration.

“There’s a critical demographic out there that we’re not engaging with and I think this will inform us how to engage them because we’re talking to them and we would never have been,” said SHRM COO China Miner Gorman, who has been Twittering since early spring 2009 and has more than 1,100 followers. Gorman used three “informal” coaches to help her Twitter.

“First you have to understand the language of Twitter,” explained Michael Long of therecruiter.com, who coached Gorman. “You have to remember to be concise and write things that will get people interested.” The second challenge is the communication method used within the message itself. For example, he explained, “anytime you see a word with a pound in front of it [also known as a hash tag], that’s the topic of the Tweet.”

But that’s not all. “To understand how to use Twitter is also to understand how to listen to social media,” Long said. “It’s about spurring conversations, but also about using aggregators [like Tweetdeck] and Google alerts to bring in posts and links that are pertinent to your information,” he added.

“Whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or wherever a company has a presence, you have to be careful what you say,” said Michelle MacPherson, a social marketing guru. But you want to make sure you’re a part of the conversation in case your company is being disparaged online.

MacPherson used Motrin as an example. “They put up an ad, and for three days people on Twitter were speaking negatively about the ad. Motrin didn’t have a public presence on Twitter to alleviate the backlash or respond to the complaints. People need to be on Twitter. People are talking about you and about your brand.”

Learning how to use hash tags, how to reply to people and how to make posts private can be overwhelming—at first. “It’s very wide-ranging,” says Kimm Viebrock, a career coach and consultant for Soaring Mountain Enterprises in Bellevue Wash., who is working with two clients on how to use social networking to expand their businesses. “Everybody from job hunters to people trying to build their own business networks, entrepreneurs and CEOs” are all on Twitter, and they’re all starting to figure it out, she said.

“For a lot of people, the thing they have trouble with is: They don’t get it. They don’t understand what it is and how it can help them. They think it’s the people ordering coffee, and what somebody had for lunch and it’s so rapidly being repurposed in new ways, they’re not seeing what those purposes are and they’re having trouble imagining how to use it themselves,” Viebrock says.

So what should you do if you’re learning how to Twitter?

“Pay attention, listen, and see what other people are doing first. See what intrigues you or interests you, regardless of whether it’s work-related. See what business activities you can mimic,” Viebrock said. Look at things people are doing “that make you crazy, and do the opposite.”

But the most important thing is to engage.

“If you’re just sitting, watching, and you’re not engaging yourself, it’s like trying to taste food through Saran Wrap. You’re missing the most important part of it.”

Part of the challenge of encouraging HR professionals to Twitter is to get them to take risks, added HR blogger Laurie Ruettimann, who can be found at her web site punkrockhr.com.

“With HR practitioners we see risk in everything, and really social media tools are very forgiving,” said Ruettimann, who also coached Gorman.

Even if someone posts something they shouldn’t have, “it’s up for a week or two then it moves on.” She said people should remember one thing when they’re communicating online: “You’re not as important as you think you are.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Tweet with her at 1SHRMScribe.


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