The Charisma of Twitter

2010 Volume 13 Issue 4

Twitter is a form of electronic charisma that can attract or repel followers. This article explores the uses and limitations of Twitter and analyzes its success based on the definition of charisma.

[powerpress: http://gsbm-med.pepperdine.edu/gbr/audio/fall2010/black-charisma.mp3]

Twitter birdChances are almost everyone has heard of Twitter by now and the communication phenomenon it has quickly become in the last three years. Twitter is a social networking site that people can join for the purpose of micro-blogging. Micro-blogs, named “tweets,” are short messages of 140 characters or less. They can be sent and received using a variety of electronic tools, including cell phones and computers with Internet access. The new communication style has been embraced by social networkers, news organizations, and businesses alike.

No one really predicted the power this new medium would amass as a communication tool. Twitter has emerged as a marketing force that has exploded beyond even the imagination of its creators. Yet, some decry the abbreviated language the micro messages require. It seems that Twitter is a form of electronic charisma that can attract or repel followers. The fundamental question is: What are the true potential uses for this form of communication in the business world? This article aims to explore the uses and limitations of Twitter and analyze its success based on the definition of charisma.

Electronic Charisma

In an essential way, Twitter is expanding the definition of charisma. Max Weber wrote extensively about charisma and how it results in followers choosing to follow a leader. He defined it as a trait or quality a person possesses that makes others treat them as if they have powers above the ordinary.[1] Powerful words masterfully delivered can result in a mass of people following a leader’s direction.

So how can a series of micro-blogs possibly be charismatic and benefit business? Let’s say you have a leader in front of a conference group extolling the company vision and potential for future success. It’s challenging enough to get people excited to the point at which they want to follow the company, and good luck even getting people in the seats. Now consider Twitter. A person can sit alone in a room and construct a tweet that will be read around the world by thousands of followers. What is in that message can inspire customers to buy new products, inform news media of current events, or form the communication basis for a revolution.

Here you have a captive audience and the stage whereby an organization is able to send out a call to action and solicit followers who are able to bring a plan to fruition. For marketers, the call to action sent to consumers may be for the purchase of a product or service or to entice a visit to a Web site or event. This communication style also easily fits into the rhetorical component of a political or business social movement.

For example, in 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won an Iranian election. Iranian voters who believed the election was invalid took to the streets. The Twitter site was going to perform system maintenance during that time, which would have disrupted communications from Iranian citizens. The U.S. State Department asked the company to keep the site active so protestors and news informants could keep world governments and global citizens apprised of what was happening in Iran.[2] Clearly this kind of networking communication power is valuable because it is efficient, inexpensive, and fast. When Twitter continued to operate in Iran, tweets took on a charismatic quality as they enthralled supporters of democracy while giving Iranian protestors the feeling of being connected. Tweets helped to fuel the revolutionary movement. A mere five years earlier, the protestors would have been isolated from the rest of the world.

There are other instances where Twitter postings have enabled people to communicate more quickly and effectively. For example, terrorist attacks on a hotel in Mumbai in 2008 were quickly described by eye witnesses tweeting staccato messages. The first pictures of the Hudson River landing by the U.S. Airways flight 1549 were sent via links included in Twitter posts.[3] In 2010, Twitter became a lifeline during the Haitian earthquake. Family and friends were notified of victims or reassured of survivals, donations were solicited, names of missing people were tweeted, and resource availability was communicated.[4]

Business Revolution in a Tweet

Twitter goes beyond simple social communication, and that is why businesses began using tweets as marketing tools to build quality organizations. One of the key components of a business is its communication structure. Effective organizations have communication systems that connect executives to front-line managers, managers to staff, staff to staff, and ultimately, the organization to its customers.

Quality control managers must embrace and cultivate the communication link between the organization and the marketplace. In a highly competitive environment it is easy to lose contact with customer needs. It is also common for today’s consumer to feel disconnected from the company making or selling the product just purchased.

If charisma is a trait that makes people see another person as having qualities that inspire confidence and create an emotional connection, then it is easy to see Twitter as a charismatic communication tool. For example, customers who once threw broken products away in complete frustration, and then proceeded to tell everyone they knew can now send a tweet that connects the customer directly to the company’s customer service department. The customer believes the company truly cares about their opinion since the business opened a quick portal into its organizational communication structure. It works the other way too. The company can send out a tweet to thousands of customers in a call to action to buy products or services. Tweets can move people from objectives to results.

Twitter’s creators did not foresee the full extent of the use of Twitter as a mass communication tool and had to quickly adapt the scaling of the project to the demand.[5] Twitter’s designers have managed to do something that would interest Max Weber if he were alive today. They have made it possible to electronically network on a personal basis by placing everyone on the same level without regard for personal interests or associations. Anyone can read anyone else’s tweets, even those of celebrities. There are no secrets, special associations, or friendships needed.

The tweet communication form is being called a content revolution. A number of well-known companies are using Twitter to market their brands.

  • Dockers teased customers with tweets providing information needed to win free khakis during the Super Bowl[6]
  • Tommy Hilfiger tweeted company news to customers as Hilfiger’s Fifth Avenue store prepared to open, hoping that personal dialogue would insure a large store following[7]
  • Dell’s tweets to customers have helped the company to sell millions of dollars worth of products[8]
  • Best Buy uses tweets for customer service[9]

Twitter followersThese are just four examples of large companies that tweet thousands of customers every day. However, one of the great advantages of using Twitter is the company does not have to be large to use it. In fact, Twitter was actually designed for people who wanted to keep family and friends updated with current news.

Perhaps that is why many Fortune 100 companies still do not use Twitter to their advantage. A study released by Weber Shandwick reports that 73 of the top Fortune 100 companies have Twitter accounts, but most do not use the accounts very often, if at all. When they do tweet, according to the study, the tweets “don’t display any personality.”[10]

There is the concept of charisma again. Customers expect tweets to be informative and to have some personality, or charisma. That seems to indicate tweets are viewed by the electronic generation as a social medium as important as the personal telephone call or the personal visit.

What is the marketplace value of Twitter? Currently Fortune 100 companies are using it primarily for company and product news and announcements. They are also using it for customer service. The business practitioner can use Twitter for any of a number of purposes in the marketing arena. As any marketing specialist knows, creating a bond with customers builds customer loyalty. Twitter enables a company to create that bond with little expense and more frequent communication through 140-character, charismatic messages. Here is just a sample of ways to better market services, products, and brands:

  • Issue press releases about events, promotions, sales, and accomplishments
  • Encourage employee tweets to customers that promote the business by sharing ‘insider’ information such as new innovations or products
  • Monitor customer attitudes and opinions about the company, products, or brands
  • Improve the quality of the company workforce by tweeting job openings to those already fans of the company
  • Direct customer traffic to the company Web site
  • Enter a specific market niche difficult to break into in other ways
  • Tweet real-time coverage during company events, galas, new store openings, seminars

The President and CEO of SunGard, Cristobal Conde, believes that Twitter can improve the ability of a business to be competitive by flattening out the organizational structure. Employees are encouraged to tweet personal successes, collaborative information, creative ideas, and general information to other employees. Conde adheres to the philosophy that flattening out the organizational structure by allowing employees to gain recognition from peers builds a stronger collaborative team.[11]

Tweeting Saturation

Acknowledging that Twittering can help build a business by enabling more efficient marketing of brands, the next question is whether the market can become saturated. The answer is that it could from a couple of viewpoints.

First, customers can grow tired of numerous tweets coming from a company. An overly aggressive marketing program can have an opposite effect of what is desired. Inundate people with annoying sales pitches and they will soon remove their names as followers.

In fact, Twitter has specific rules concerning “aggressive following” and “churning.” The former occurs when a user follows hundreds of other accounts to gain attention while the latter refers to repeatedly following and then not following large numbers of Twitter users.

The use of Twitter by businesses has inundated the Twitter software, leading to new limits being put in place. The need for limits indicates a fear of market saturation and a desire to prevent aggressive following. Currently there are limits of 1,000 tweet updates and 250 direct messages per day. One user can follow 2,000 people and over that number additional limits go into effect based on a ratio of followers to following.

Business managers need to be aware that constant flows of self-promoting tweets can give a company a negative image.

Second, the Twitter turnover rate is 60 percent according to Nielson online.[12] The same report states that the audience retention rate is at 40 percent. The opinion is expressed that Twitter will not be able to sustain its phenomenal growth rate unless it increases its user loyalty.

What does this mean for business purposes? If the Twitter audience has a high turnover rate then businesses will have a difficult time getting real benefit from ongoing marketing campaigns. That could greatly diminish the effectiveness of Twitter for business use. Perhaps that is one reason many Fortune 100 companies have not aggressively pursued Twitter as a marketing tool.

“Follow me,” said the Pied Piper

The next phase of Twitter development will be to improve business services by providing “verified account” information, making it easier to communicate with customers.[13] The developers also hope to arrive at a way to interpret collective tweets to find out what moves people emotionally, what interests them, and how they manage information. This would be very powerful knowledge. Jaime Teevan, a Microsoft researcher, has built a career on taking data about people’s knowledge, preferences, and habits to help them manage information. She studies the ways people navigate the flood of information available in the digital age and builds tools to help them handle it.[14] This seems to be what Twitter developers have in mind for the site, but their data is comprised of simple 140-character tweets.

Twitter limits the number of characters for good reason. As one of the Twitter developers said, “We want to make Twitter indispensable, so it tells people what they need to know and what they want to know and hopefully not much else.”[15] Organizations can send messages to staff or customers that get right to the point. It gives a cozy feeling that makes the message receiver feel as if he or she has been hand selected. As a result, the contact becomes a follower.

Conclusion

Is this charisma? Except for the fact the message is conveyed by electronic means rather than by mouth, it certainly has many of the components of charisma. The most important one is that Twitter messages can inspire masses of people. According to a Twitter company report, the goal was to have 25 million users by the end of calendar year 2009. That number will grow to 100 million users by the end of 2010.[16]

It’s a new age in which communication is reduced to essentials. Some people predicted this would happen when e-mail communication was developed. Is Twitter the new Pied Piper of modern society? It would seem so.



[1] Weber, Maximillan. “The Nature of Charismatic Authority and its Routinization” as translated by A. R. Anderson and Talcott Parsons. Theory of Social and Economic Organization, 1947. Originally published in 1922 in German under the title Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft chapter III, § 10.

[2] Morozov, Evgeny. “Iran Elections: A Twitter Revolution,” Washington Post, June 17, 2009 (accessed Sept. 30, 2009).

[3] Julia Angwin, “How to Twitter,” The Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2009 (accessed Oct. 5, 2009).

[4] Judy Keen, “Facebook, Twitter 2-Way ‘Lifeline’ for News, Relief, People’s Statuses,” USA Today, Jan. 14, 2010, p. 7A.

[5] Adam L. Penenberg, Viral Loop, (New York: Hyperion, 2009) 153.

[6] Seckler, Valerie, “From Tweets to Youtube: Brands Creating Content to Gain Attentions,” WWD: Women’s Wear Daily, February 2010, EBSCO (accessed Jan. 28, 2010).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lavrusik, Vadim, “STUDY: Most Fortune 100 Companies Don’t Get Twitter,” Mashable – The Social Media Guide, http://mashable.com/2009/11/17/fortune-100-companies-twitter/ (accessed Jan. 26, 2010)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Bryant, Adam, “Structure? The Flatter, the Better,” The New York Times, Jan. 16, 2010 (accessed Jan. 20, 2010).

[12] Martin, David, “Twitter Quitters Post Roadblock to Long-Term Growth,” Nielson Online, http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/online_mobile/twitter-quitters-post-roadblock-to-long-term-growth (accessed Feb. 1, 2010).

[13] Lvey, Steven, “Who’s Running Twitter?” Wired, November 2009: 151.

[14] Teevan, Jaime, “Using Personal Information to Improve Search Results” Technology Review. November 2009: 50.

[15] Lvey, Steven. “Who’s Running Twitter?” Wired. November 2009: 151.

[16] Ibid.

About the Author(s)

Shirley Black, JD, LLM, is an assistant professor of business administration at South Carolina State University College of Business in the Applied Professional Sciences Business program. She has extensive academic experience with specialties in legal studies, tax, leadership, and professional development.

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