Twitter strikes community chord

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If you've been in a meeting with any of the twentysomethings in your company recently, you may have noticed they're paying more attention than usual to their cell phones. Chances are they're "Twittering," or partaking of one of the hottest and most unlikely new crazes in social media.

Introduced early this year, Twitter is a free online service that lets people communicate in real time to groups of friends using any one of a number of devices, including cell phones. It's basically a form of group instant messaging.

The first time I saw Twitter, I couldn't really figure out why anyone would want it. That's because most people on Twitter are doing nothing. They Twitter about going to work, sitting in meetings and what they're having for lunch. But they also send "tweets" about other topics: what a speaker just said at a conference, some new insight on a topic of interest or a question they need answered.

It's this latter quality that makes Twitter so addictive and that has earned it a rabid fan base. At a recent social media conference, I spoke to several enthusiasts who said they routinely send 30 or more tweets a day. A Forrester researcher recently estimated that 6% of U.S. online adults use Twitter regularly. Some impressive mashups have emerged to aggregate Twitter activity, including Twittervision and Twitterverse. News of the recent Bay Area earthquake was reportedly first broadcast by Twitter users. By one estimate, more than 100 similar services have sprung up across the Internet.

In the months since my initial bewilderment, I've come to appreciate the unique value Twitter provides. This service addresses people's fundamental needs for connectedness and immediacy in a way that other mobile information services haven't. Cell phone companies have done a good job of delivering headlines and sports scores to portable devices for years, but none has enabled its customers to tap into networks of like-minded peers. It turns out that people like sharing with their friends, even if they're talking about nothing in particular.

Twitter is also demonstrating value as an organizational tool. People are using it to organize meetings and pinpoint the location of field representatives. Families use it just to check in on loved ones. And marketers are increasing getting on board. Media organizations such as NBC and The New York Times are broadcasting updates to their followers. Dell is using Twitter to broadcast promotions and specials.

Twitter-like services are just one more inexpensive channel marketers can tap to deliver messages to engaged customers. While b-to-c marketers are currently the first to test this phenomenon, I expect that the b-to-b market, where time and access are at a premium, will soon follow.

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