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Heard on the Tweet

Consumers have embraced Twitter and other social networking sites, but is that reason enough for companies to follow suit?

What are you doing? Millions of people worldwide now respond to that question by posting text messages on the social-networking site Twitter. For corporations, though, a more appropriate query might be, “What are you doing here?” That’s because Twitter, a free “microblogging” site on which vast numbers of people offer up personal insights such as what coffee they are currently drinking, would seem to be a curious place to look for customers — unless, perhaps, you’re Starbucks.

In actuality, though, it’s getting hard for businesses to ignore those brief text messages, or “tweets,” not to mention their authors. Twitter’s astonishing rise — it now has between 18 million and 23 million members, depending on whom you ask — makes it a bona fide cultural force, and while 42% of its members say their top reason for tweeting is to connect with friends, 14% emphasize more access and interaction with their favorite company, while 13% say their first priority is to connect with service providers.

Yet while Paris Hilton is a snap to find on Twitter (@parishilton), most companies are not. Ten of the 100 largest U.S. IT companies, in fact, aren’t registered at all, and another 42 have accounts in their name that are occupied by anonymous users, most not connected with the company. (“Twittersquatting,” it’s called.) If you type in “Goldman Sachs” on Twitter, for example, it’s hard to tell which of the four Twitter account names, or “handles,” that appear are really the investment bank. The answer? None of them. (Twitter will suspend such accounts on request if they falsely claim to represent the company.)

Beyond absence or confusion, however, a larger problem looms: many of the companies already on Twitter have “no clue” how to capitalize on it, says Lon Safko, a social media strategist. “It’s like they’re repeating their first experiences with the Web.”

A Corporate Megaphone

Should CFOs care? Many don’t, because they don’t see evidence that Twitter has a direct impact on developing sales leads or generating revenue. “It’s not an area that I spend much time on as CFO,” says one software company finance chief. However, he adds, “there seems to be little downside to having a positive presence out there,” and sometimes he “picks up competitive intelligence from others being a little more forthcoming or simply not conscious of their words.”

But some companies say there’s more to Twitter than that. Dell claims it has generated $3 million in revenue directly from Twitter since 2007, through posting coupons on the site and spreading the word about new products. While the ROI has yet to be quantified, “it’s a low-cost way to make sure the brand is active and recognized,” says Lani Hayward, executive vice president, creative strategies, at $8.8 billion (in assets) Umpqua Bank. “Twitter is an amplifier,” echoes Mark Yolton, senior vice president, community network, at SAP America. “It extends our reach.”

There is a clear dichotomy on Twitter between companies that use it as a corporate megaphone to direct “followers” to Website content and press releases, and companies that stress the personal aspect. There is a similar dichotomy between the frivolous and the serious — sometimes at the same company. Umpqua Bank, for example, sends out “Fun Fact Friday” trivia tweets (Did you know the memory span of a goldfish is three seconds?) but has also trained 40 employees in its customer-care center to respond to complaints via Twitter. “It’s saving us money because it’s saving customer relationships,” Hayward says.

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