Social media has obviously given voice to employees in ways that never existed before. Early corporate bloggers were often brand enthusiasts themselves and tended to "get" the brand a gut level; soon enough, voice and tone guidelines became more actively put in play to govern blog writing. But Twitter is different. The nature of the medium encourages users to transmit an interchangeable mix of musings about life, work, daily observations and whatever else. Employees on Twitter are either designated brand ambassadors or simply have personal accounts -- and these lines of distinction help offer guidance. But that line grays with the advent of the "C-Tweet." C-level execs are part-lead ambassador, part-celebrity. Twitter accounts can build a cult of personality and extend a dynamic that has long existed for top CEOs into a broader set of C-level executives.
Among C-level execs, Twitter holds an allure as a seemingly simple vehicle to communicate thought leadership while staying connected to the market. Yet a daily supply of profundities in 140-character increments is a lot harder to pull off than it sounds. One natural obstacle blogs offered was the demand to actually have to write. Twitter is much less intimidating -- and the immediacy and ostensible intimacy of the platform may suggest that it is perfectly alright for executives to say things ranging from "Wow that was a delicious hamburger! Jalapenos, yum" to "Holding firm in my negotiations with Yahoo right now." And herein lies the greatest challenge of the C-Tweet: Where does the voice of the brand end and the voice of the individual begin?
Notable tweeting CMOs include Jeffrey Hayzlett of Kodak (@jeffreyhayzlett) and Barry Judge of Best Buy (@BestBuyCMO) -- each of whom ties his account closely to his brand. And each interprets the boundaries between the personal voice and the voice of the brand a bit differently. Of course, each brand has different social-media agendas that these executives are trying to push forward -- with variables ranging from the brands themselves and the strategic objectives to the audiences they serve (and aim to serve) and the styles of these individuals. Is there a blueprint for doing this right?
Tony Hsieh (@zappos), Zappos CEO, has come to be considered the gold standard for CEO tweeting, thanks to a comfortable style that leverages both the brand he helped create and his own personal voice. And he has gained a reputation for responsiveness and accessibility via Twitter that has come to epitomize the entire Zappos aesthetic. Padmasree Warrior (@padmasree), Cisco CTO, has also built a successful account on Twitter, finding that balance between business and personal that offers some good, relevant insight into the Cisco brand while putting a very human voice on a heretofore more removed role. While Hsieh's efforts are overtly endorsed by the Zappos brand, Warrior's does not carry the official endorsement of the Cisco brand.
As we see more such accounts in the rise of the C-Tweet, three things to think about:
An executive's objectives for a Twitter account are likely a mix of the brand's interest and self-interest. A simple rule of thumb here: If it is conspicuously endorsed by the brand (via the account name or use of the logo, for example), then the objectives should directly align with the vision and mission of the brand. If the brand is merely a description of the executive's occupation, there is more room for flexibility. And, with an endorsed account in particular, have a discussion with internal counsel to set up some basic legal guardrails before you jump in.
2. The commitment
Twitter is a hungry beast. If you're truly in it, you've got to tweet. Conventional wisdom seems to have it at somewhere between five to 10 tweets per day as the minimum for an active account with a healthy following. Generating 30 to 50 compelling, pithy statements (or links or retweets) each week may sound simple, but it can easily turn into a chore. Carve out time in the day to address this need -- to feed the beast without turning this into a distraction.
3. The exit strategy
Admittedly, this is a tough one -- considering the lifespan of Twitter itself and the questions that may exist around its own future. At the end of the day, an executive's account will be more of a reflection on him or her than it is on the brand. Executive impermanence is a fact of life -- and while creating deeper connections between a brand and its key executives can have tremendous value for partners, customers, analysts, employees and investors, an executive's inevitable departure along with several hundred thousand Twitter followers is likely to sting a bit. A strong Twitter following is becoming a brand asset -- and succession planning for the future of this asset is an important consideration. It may be worthwhile to try to mirror an executive's Twitter following within a more overtly corporate account. Or perhaps encourage junior executives to build their own followings, assuming this does not conflict with the points above.
Twitter is yet another example of where brands have to accept a loss of control. In this case, it is not about putting the brand in the hands of the market but in the hands of the people for whom the brand is their livelihood. A certain amount of letting go is a necessity. We will undoubtedly see a few missteps in C-tweets, and we'll learn and move on. Ultimately, the medium may change but basics of branding still apply -- both for the brands themselves and for their executive stewards: Be true, be relevant, be transparent, respect your brand and your customers, don't make a promise you can't keep.
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Jonathan Paisner is brand director at CoreBrand. He works with Fortune 500 clients in areas of brand architecture, strategic alliances and brand messaging. CoreBrand clients have included Cisco Systems, AT&T, Internet2, ADP, TV Guide, American Century Investments and BearingPoint.