business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Content Guy’s Note: Kate’s BlogBeat is a new ingredient in the MorningNewsBeat stew – a regular look at what people are talking about on the Internet, and how it impacts the conduct of business by retailers and manufacturers.

Remember that old television ad that posed the question, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?”

I’ve been thinking about that commercial lately because I’ve been considering the phenomenon that is Twitter. Here’s my question: “Is it noise, or does it matter?”

Opinions are varied. Ben Mezrich, author of “The Accidental Billionaires,” the story of Facebook, referred to Twitter the other morning as sort of the Internet’s version of the Macarena. While the media certainly seems to be mad about Twitter, which – in case you need a description - defines itself as a real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices, and draws 22 million visitors a month, a recent Harvard Business Review study suggested that “twitterstorms” may not be everything they’re cracked up to be since 90 percent of the messages sent on Twitter are being generated by 10 percent of the users. (It is like the old 80/20 rule in retailing, except more so.)

Yet, there are signs that to be part of Twitter is to be part of a national discourse; Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was on Twitter explaining her decision to resign from office, and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), said the other day that he has reached one million followers on Twitter (and this from a man who conceded during the 2008 presidential election campaign that he didn’t know how to email!). The verb “tweet” has been added to our social networking lexicon, and we know that Twitter has played a role in news events ranging from the post-election demonstrations in Iran to the death of Michael Jackson.

And haven't we all wondered who, exactly, is tweeting on Twitter, anyway? Are they making noise, or are they creating something consequential?

I can tell you this. You've never known the power of Twitter until you’ve signed up for it on your cell phone for just 24 hours and felt the full fury of real-time micro-blogging in bursts of 140 characters or less.

It’s too much. For me.

As MNB’s resident social networking columnist, I signed on to (free and very easy to do) and chose to follow 10 sites of interest (news, social media, retail). I then opted to link them to my cell phone for a 24-hour Twitter trial.

What was entertaining for the first hour (wow, another alert!) became a distraction by hour three. Five hours into the exercise I was stressing about the number of messages. By hour 10, I was lagging behind and wondered how anyone could keep up with Twitter and, say, hold down a job, read personal and work email, not to mention check a Facebook page or answer a telephone. And I was just a follower, while the real deal twitter types were tweeting and retweeting their people.

By the 18-hour mark, I had 68 text messages still to be read and a serious case of eyestrain. By hour 24 the next morning, I couldn’t wait to punch “off” into my cell phone and silence the beast.

I was close to becoming a statistic, a “Twitter Quitter.” A recent study by Nielsen Online found that 60% of the people who sign on for an account abandon the site within a month.

But since duty calls, I decided to access my Twitter account on my time, online, as opposed to real-time. It works for me. And my new goal was to get a better understanding of what is fueling this phenomenon. Is it a fad? Is it an effective marketing tool?

If I am a retailer, manufacturer or provider of services, does my company need to be twittering customers to keep up? Or is a strong website and/or Facebook page sufficient?

Here’s a hint at what the answer may be: While researching this column I tracked Whole Foods on Twitter and followed its promotional sweepstakes to boost its 980,000 follower base to the 1 million mark. Within just three days the one-millionth follower was named, and her prize was one million grains of quinoa and a $50 gift card. Since then, another 10,195 followers have signed on.

While five pounds of quinoa isn’t a big lure for many of us, the contest highlighted why Whole Foods and other big names such as Zappos, Coca Cola and Starbucks have made commitments to social media marketing and found their following.

My next column will look at those efforts.

One other thing. If you have a Twitter/Facebook/MySpace story to share, shoot me an email at . I’d love to hear from you.
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