Why I’m a Cow on Twitter

57226892Last week a colleague relayed a story about a friend of his who was applying for a job. On the application was a box to attach a photo. Apparently my colleague’s friend wasn’t aware that she needed to bring a photo. Therefore in an honest attempt to return a complete application she sketched her likeness in the box under the heading “image of applicant.” She didn’t draw a stick figure… she had real artistic talent and sketched a high-quality image. It wasn’t a photo-realistic image of her face, but was an image of who she intended to be on the job. (In listening to his story I got the impression that the sketch included either a cape or mask.)

She didn’t get the job. And she never found out if the rejection was due to her sketched “picture.” If creativity was a skill required, however, I suspect her application ranked high among the other candidates.

Self-portraits are always instructive; they paint the artist both as he sees himself and as he wishes to be seen. Self-portraits can at once expose and obscure, clarify and distort. They offer opportunities for both self-expression and self-seeking. And, to product managers, the fact that people self-describe is one of the most valuable aspects of social media.

On the internet, everyone knows you’re a ______. (fill in blank)

Today self-portraits are crafted from pixels rather than paint. On social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, self-portraits feature background music, carefully manipulated photographs, stream-of-consciousness musings, and lists of our hobbies and friends. They are interactive and invite viewers not only to look, but also to respond. These “portraits” can hold a wealth of information… more than a photo-realistic image.

One of the most popular courses at Stanford last spring was “The Psychology of Facebook.” The course was so admired that a book will be published summarizing the research findings of the class. One of the interesting aspects of the course was to explore the concept of self description… “when a person uploads a profile picture…or lists attributes about him or herself… what persuasive goals drive the selection?”

Social Media = finding your tribe

The idea behind Twitter can be hard to grasp. Facebook is easier… upload pictures of Mr. Sprinkles or the weekend snapshots of the kids and a newsfeed alerts your friends to look and comment. While Facebook is simple to use and understand, Twitter has far more value for product managers.

Twitter is a SMS-based service that allows you to micro-blog using 140 character communication fragments in near real time. People “follow” you on Twitter. That is, they opt-in / opt-out of your Tweets (read: comments) without introducing themselves or asking permission. Followers merely hook on to read your haiku-length thoughts as you travel through the day.

I think Twitter is best illustrated by a scene from the 2003 film Bruce Almighty. Bruce Nolan, played by Jim Carrey, freaks out on live TV, is fired and then offered a new job by an unknown person. At the interview Bruce meets God, played by Morgan Freeman, and is given god-like powers. Later, Bruce starts to hear the voices of people praying (read: “tweeting”). All the voices of people praying were available for Bruce to hear should he decide to listen (read: “following”). Simply put, that’s Twitter… people saying whatever comes to mind and other people choosing to listen.

Companies are playing God, too…

Companies like Zappos are using Twitter to actively pay attention to their customers. When someone mentions in a Tweet that they may be shopping for, say, new a handbag… magically, a tweet back containing a URL to Zappos.com for a discount coupon for Kate Spade handbags appears. Zappos might not be playing God but they sure are listening to their flock.

I do this myself… I’ll type in a keyword like “Red Sox” on Tweetdeck… and anytime someone mentions “Red Sox” I get an alert and can opt to join the conversation or merely observe. All in real time.

Criticism has been heaped on Twitter recently. In the Boston Globe, Tom Davenport, who holds the President’s Chair in Information Technology at Babson College remarked that Twitter is a fad similar to CB radios. Davenport’s main thesis is that you can’t say anything meaningful in 140 characters.

Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff and co-author of Groundswell, a book on social media, disagrees; “I still hear a lot of skepticism about Twitter, but not from marketers.”

Precisely right, Josh.

Amid the ordinary tweets of “I just ate a mango…” are many genuine comments that provide unedited insight on a vast array of topics. There are now services that track in real time keyword topics ….twitter icon

Social media’s value to product management is based on the psychological reality that people are inclined to self-describe and tend to naturally cluster into communities based on common interests.

Social scientists coined the term “ambient awareness” to describe a sense of emotional closeness to people who are physically distant but share digital connections. The glue for pre-digital communities was physical proximity. In the digital world it is common interests that create and sustains communities. Physical proximity is becoming less important.

Okay, so why is my Twitter avatar a cow?

It’s a reference to Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow which is required reading for product managers. In a digital world where most of my followers may never meet me in real life a photo of my face has less value than a “portrait” that describes some important attribute. So you all have homework… and the answer can be found in the Purple Cow.

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2 responses to “Why I’m a Cow on Twitter

  1. I find that the real value in twitter (apart from being extremely cathartic) is finding sub sub sub communities which can relate and advise on daily situations. Such as the daily challenges of a product manager!!

  2. You are so right about Zappos. Last time i mentioned them in my tweet. And they replied to me. It was unexpected. Since then, i love them more.

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