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Firms Take to The Tweetable Business Model

By Kim Hart
Monday, March 9, 2009

The Twitterverse is expanding.

Twitter, that microblogging tool that caught on with teens and twentysomethings using it to tell loyal followers what they're doing at any given time -- in 140 characters or less -- is now becoming part of the business strategy for a wide range of brands, from Skittles to Fairfax County.

As exciting as it may be to hear about what your friends, or total strangers for that matter, ate for breakfast, some companies are realizing that a more effective use of Twitter is to mine it for clients, recruit employees and answer customer service questions.

To that end, some businesses are starting to host Twitter tutorials for employees.

Network Solutions, a Web-hosting and online marketing company based in Herndon, held a brown-bag lunch session last week to teach staffers how to sign up for a Twitter account, how to send messages to individuals and how to search for people who may be talking about the company in messages, or "tweets."

Twitter is an easy way to create buzz for a new product launch or to alert customers to a service outage. Earlier this week, the Skittles Web site directed visitors to a Twitter search for the term "skittle" to see what people were saying about the candy. Attendees at conferences and other business-related gatherings already use the service to relate details on an unusually interesting session or to share news announcements.

For example, at a conference focused on global health last month, philanthropist Bill Gates released a jarful of mosquitoes into a room to make a point about the spread of malaria.

"And people found out about that first on Twitter," said Steven Fisher, community and social media manager at Network Solutions.

Shashi Bellamkonda, Network Solutions' social media swami (yes, that's his real title), organized the tutorial, attended by about 30 people. He's a more prolific Twitterer than most, posting anywhere from five to 15 tweets per day about anything from his daily routine to the news. Big companies such as Dell are active in the Twitterverse addressing customer service issues, he said.

Fairfax County government is also experimenting with Twitter, sending out announcements about snow-induced school closings and county board meetings.

Companies are now accustomed to monitoring blogs and other consumer-generated content for mentions of brands -- in fact, companies such as Arlington-based New Media Strategies have made a profitable business out of it. Similarly, Bellamkonda wants Network Solutions employees to take notice of any questions, complaints or other mentions of the company that pop up on Twitter.

W. Roy Dunbar, the firm's chief executive, said it is even more important to communicate with customers during an economic downturn. He said he gives his social media team free rein to experiment with new tools.

"Next time, we'll conduct the meeting entirely in tweets," Bellamkonda said.

It may be a short meeting.

Rediscovering the Internet

The crusade for government transparency and open data -- two of the biggest buzzwords in Washington since President Obama put them on his agenda -- has gained momentum over the past week.

Vivek Kundra, the District's chief technology officer, was officially named as the federal chief information officer Thursday, ending months of speculation about what the brand-new job entails and what it means for how government agencies use technology.

While the answers to those questions are still unclear, the announcement prompted a collective cheer from some local developers. As an example of what Kundra may do with federal technology projects, many of them point to the contest he held last year called Apps for Democracy, which challenged independent Web developers to come up with interesting ways to use government data.

District-based Development Seed, a Web consulting group, mashed together government data and other online resources to create DC Bikes, a site with information about bike thefts, popular bike trails and other information for local bike enthusiasts.

To Ian Cairns, project manger at Development Seed, the experiment highlights the benefits of making government data, which often lies dormant on a basement server, accessible to the general public. Using open-source tools, which allows a number of developers to collaborate and build on existing code, is usually free and allows a greater amount of innovation, he said.

He helped organize last week's DrupalCon, a conference for developers of Drupal, an open-source Web platform that's been used for some government projects, including Recovery.gov, the Web site built by the Obama administration that tracks stimulus spending.

Techies and open-government advocates discussed similar projects at TransparencyCamp, a gathering that took place last weekend at George Washington University. Recovery.gov was seen as an indication the federal government may begin to take advantage of more open-source technology to save money and include citizen input. Other projects, such as OpenCongress.org, showed off its new features, including a lawmaker wiki and videos of congressional sessions.

TransparencyCamp, which was referred to as an "unconference" because of its loose structure (the official schedule was composed of scraps of paper taped to a white board), was attended by bloggers such as Nick O'Neill, author of SocialTimes, as well as transparency advocates such as Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation. Craiglist founder Craig Newmark and O'Reilly Media founder Tim O'Reilly, who is known for his popular line of software books, were also there.

Andrew Raisej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum, a discussion about politics and technology, summed up one of the main points of the camp when he said, "One government can't solve problems for 300 million people, but 300 million people can solve problems for one government."

Kim Hart writes about the Washington technology scene every Monday. Contact her at hartk@washpost.com.

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