When Alex Rodriguez admitted earlier this week that he tested positive for steroids, many a Twitter feed were aflutter. The best response came from basketball player Shaquille O'Neal, aka THE_REAL_SHAQ, who wrote: "Ok I admit I ate performance enhancing frosted flakes 2 yrs ago, LOL." Like Britney Spears before him, O'Neal developed his own microblog after learning someone had been impersonating him online. But while Spears was caught soliciting the Harvard University job boards for an "online media manager" to run her account, the basketball player is still authoring his own Twitter feed.
But is Shaq the online rule or the exception? Already, there have been issues with Tweet authenticity; recently, many were crestfallen when Twitterer OHHDL turned out not to be, as many had thought, the Dalai Lama. The account was deactivated after Twitter confirmed that it wasn't really wasn't His Holiness writing all those posts. (Shocker.) Given the exponential growth of the service, there will only be more digital posers to come. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, about 11 percent of Americans online are now members of the microblogging service. That's roughly 6 million people who have become hooked on chronicling their lives—or someone else's—140 characters at a time. Starbucks, Dell and others now all have Twitter feeds of their own.
While some microbloggers are who they say they are, plenty of celeb feeds (Ryan Seacrest's, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's, Barack Obama's) are actually being penned by folks like the one Spears sought out. And the skills she required—experience launching online communities, addiction to MySpace and Facebook, graphic design experience, and a love for "creating relationships"—are the same ones companies need as they venture onto Twitter. That explains why, on the corporate side, business are relying on in-house publicists, marketing managers and new professional blogging firms like Twit4hire to helm their accounts.
You can't just wing it, says Bob Pearson, vice president of communities and conversations at Dell, which has 130 Twitter feeds authored by trained marketing , sales and customer-service staff. He's not a fan of corporate accounts that use tools like Twitterfeed to automate postings from one blog onto a Twitter account. It's a common practice, but often results in convoluted posts. "So many companies just post their RSS feeds into their Twitter accounts," he says. "But why do that? Who cares? If you're going to have an RSS feed, then at least add some of your own personality on top of that." That's why he ensures each Dell feed directly links back to a staff member who also has a personal Twitter account.
The key is to move beyond a pure corporate marketing model to one that emphasizes personality. "Twitter users are smart to the point where they don't just want to be marketed to," says Jennifer Van Grove, an editor at Mashable.com, an online social media guide. Earlier this year, she compiled a list of the best 40 brands on Twitter—and the people behind them, many of whom have earned cult followings that number above 50,000. What makes them so successful? "I'm not engaged unless you're putting a real person behind the brand and making them 100 percent accessible," she says.
Twitter's one-to-one communication—or its ability to simulate it—is what makes the service different from its social networking predecessors. This element of conversation is also behind some corporate successes using the medium. In the past, Marriott has used their account to share details about an attack that occurred at one of their hotels in Islamabad. GM used their feed to further explain the government bailout of the auto industry. These were tough, necessary conversations, providing a two-way feedback of the sort you can't have with an RSS feed.
Not every company has the staff to write with the tact and brevity that a Tweet requires. That's why David Brown started Twit4hire, which launched just last week. His company aims to build clients, charging them thousands along the way, to broadcast tweets on their behalf. More than six companies have expressed interest and nearly 50 applicants have contacted him looking for a job as a professional Twitterer. "Many businesses don't have the resources to spend time writing tweets on a regular basis," Brown says. "Our service would build up followers for these companies."
So far, none of those who've expressed interest in Brown's plan have bitten. Perhaps that is because Twit4hire is so new, or perhaps because Twitter itself is still young. The Web site is still seen primarily as a social-networking tool, not a marketing trick. "Quite frankly, one of the most important things we do with Twitter is listen," says Dell's Pearson. "I don't think you can hire someone to listen for you." Message heard, loud and clear.