Last week Chris Lynch wrote a piece on "Why enterprise microblogging has more practical use for everyday people than Twitter". This followed a piece he wrote the previous Friday on why Twitter would never enjoy mainstream adoption (Why no one owns the social stream (but Facebook does more than Twitter).
I agree with Lynch that enterprise microblogging (Socialcast, Yammer and Sociatext Signals) has significant value as another communication tool, I do take exception to his contention that it's more practical for everyday use than Twitter and that Twitter won't ever reach mainstream acceptance. I also take some exception to his reasons why enterprise microblogging is more valuable than private services like Twitter.
Twitter: Maybe not the Beatles but not Alien Ant Farm either
First let's look at the argument that Twitter won't ever enjoy the mainstream adoption that Facebook does. He relegates Twitter to the domain of technology and media types, not regular Joe's. That may be true now, but I believe it's too early for a final verdict. Lynch uses retention rates to support his argument. While 40% retention may prevent it from becoming as big as Facebook it still has the potential to continue to be a real success story.
On Wednesday eMarketer reported that Twitter will have about 18 million adult users in the United States by the end of 2009 and predicts that this will grow to 26 million by the end of 2010. That's a healthy 11% growth this year and over 15% next year. While it's not explosive growth, it is healthy growth (if my investment portfolio could match this I'd be ecstatic). If you look at web statistics, Twitter has about 3 million unique visitors per day and has been stalled there since July. Facebook on the other hand has 50 million visitors per day and has been flat for the entire year. But while this is an order of magnitude difference, if you compare it to other mainstream media sites Twitter stacks up favorably to BBC's 3.5 million visitors, CNN's 2 million and the NY Times 1.5 million.
And while you could quite rightly argue that the jury is still out as to whether mainstream media businesses are viable, Twitter's business model, which is still evolving, certainly opens itself to some interesting opportunities. According to eMarketer these include paid corporate accounts (which may put Twitter in head to head competition with enterprise microblogging offerings), celebrity authentication and temporal search. Search is an interesting opportunity. It layers value onto existing search capabilities in a way that Facebook doesn't and positions Twitter as a search service that enhances the value of microblogging. Increased use of metadata may also help here (the ubiquitous hashtag).
Twitter: More than another bookmarking service
As far as uses, I think Twitter's openness to the entire user community (which Lynch recognizes) is what makes it really compelling beyond the technology and media communities. New services like groups/lists (including services like Listorious) and broader mainstream adoption are helping users to figuring this out. For example the number one rated Twitter user on Listorious is Liverpool Supporters, a Twitter account run by and for Liverpool FC supporters (with the clever motto "you'll never tweet alone"). While it's 55K followers is dwarfed by the million plus on Liverpool FC's fan page it does demonstrate that Twitter users outside of tech and media users are getting it. As a road cyclist I'd also point out that some of the pro cycling teams Twitter presences have larger followings than on Facebook (Cervelo TestTeam and Garmin Transitions being two).
There are more practical examples as well, that show innovative use of Twitter by regular users. In March suite101.com published an article showing how new teachers were using Twitter to get professional development support and advice from more experienced teachers.I think this use case demonstrates the potential power of Twitter. Since it's much more open than Facebook, it's easier to discover other people with common interests and to begin collaborating with them. Twitter is increasingly used as a communications tool in politics as well. I'm sure there are other good examples and as more people become familiar with the medium more will arise (increasing user adoption).
And that leads to what Lynch feels makes enterprise microblogging tools so much more compelling than Twitter. Lynch give four main reasons: That in an enterprise you know the people so it will aid use and enable you to understand what they're saying; that the communication problem is more real at work; that privacy provides comfort to share; and that value becomes evident faster.
First to the argument that you know the people in the enterprise. If Lynch means this in the abstract then I'll concede that their profiles may give an idea of who they are. But if you're in an organization of larger than a couple of hundred people then you're not going to know them all personally. And if you work in a really large organization you'll only know a very few. In these situations if their profiles aren't completed then you won't get much of an idea of who they are from that information either.
When I worked at IBM, a company of 300,000 my little group in Software Group was about 3,000. Even given the fact that IBM is a highly matrixed organization, there's no way I'm going to know more than a handful of people in my own group and a microcosm of the entire IBM universe. But there are a lot of people with amazing industry knowledge, technical skills and general business skills that would be good for me to know about, as opportunities and challenges arise.
And here I'll agree with Lynch that the communication problem in organizations, particularly large ones, is significant. But the challenge (and opportunity) is in enabling communication to a much wider audience than the people I know. I want to be able to tap into a broader stream of knowledge beyond my limited universe to address challenges as the arise.
In this respect enterprise microblogging has the most value if I use it as a public communication tool that reaches far beyond the people I work with every day to the broader organization and beyond (partners etc.).
To accomplish this the service has to be as public and transparent as possible, while still adhering to organizational security requirements and communications policy. That's why capabilities like groups/lists, metadata and advanced search are required to maximize value in the service. And it's in reaching out beyond your immediate universe to discover individuals and communities of interest that can positively impact challenges that you face you that allows you to realize that value.
And sure it may be a bit overwhelming for newbies at first but I'll bet phone systems and email were too. But with some guidance most will adapt. The example of teachers using Twitter for professional development and advice shows a similar ability to adapt. And that the value of Twitter and enterprise microblogging is, in my mind, quite similar.
So maybe enterprise microblogging vendors should be looking to useful Twitter services like Listorious, metadata, and search and analytics to enhance their own offerings (to be fair it seems that Socialcast has, but I'm not sure about Socialtext). I can imagine that their customers, particularly the large ones, will thank them for it.