At nearly 6 months into our B2B Twitter experience, we’ve been more successful at developing a following and engaging our target audience of B2B marketers than I initially expected. These gains have come through a combination of focus – rather than trying to tackle the entire world of B2B social media opportunities all at once, we tackled two blogs and two Twitter accounts with two FTEs – consistent measurement and a healthy willingness to test a wide range of Twitter tactics rather than just following existing “best practices”.
A Look at the “Pro Business Tweeters”
One of our goals when starting on Twitter was to learn the fastest route to a large, engaged group of Twitter followers. We had some advantages in building our @B2BOnlineMktg account, like thousands of subscribers to our B2B search marketing newsletter that we could make aware of our Twitter presence, but we intentionally didn’t use all our promotional power to drive followers. As I’ve said before, we also didn’t use the “spam-and-cull” approach – following hundreds or thousands of Twitter users, seeing which ones automatically follow back, culling out those who do not, following another set of users, and so on – because we want a large and ENGAGED following. What good are 10,000 Twitter followers if none of them pay any attention to what you’re tweeting?
To start getting a handle on how to build a large, engaged group of Twitter followers, we followed a number of more experienced B2B Twitter accounts with 5,000+ followers and started watching for patterns. The follower-friend ratio caught my eye because, after researching many of the existing B2B social media “best practices,” it was clear that there were two very different, and often conflicting, perspectives on the right way to engage in social media.
The first is a view of social media as an interpersonal medium governed by interpersonal rules. For example, if someone wants to be your friend, the polite thing is to shake hands, say “hi”, and try to be friends – most people would consider it just plain rude to walk away. Those pro business tweeters with a follower-friend ratio around 1 seem to be following this norm and with automatically following someone back. Since there’s no obvious, objective benefit to blocking a follower if you decide not to be their friend, follower and following counts grow together.
The other group with a follower-friend ratio on the 5+ range seems to be viewing social media as a mass communication medium governed by mass communication rules, and the pro business tweeters in this group are often larger companies, business media and/or experienced execs at mid- to large-sized companies. From a mass communication perspective, it’s perfectly acceptable and even expected for the relationship to be one-sided or interactive only on demand (such as when a customer has a question). After all, its utterly impossible for someone to follow 5,000+ other Twitter users, let alone 500, and pay attention to all their tweets. If you think reading and processing 100 emails a day is a challenge, try 5,000 tweets.
You see these same styles with newer and much smaller Twitter for business accounts as well – some follow hundreds of others to kick start their own follower base (and then worry about how unfollowing may hurt their reputation) while others follow very few but seem to attract a lot of followers themselves.
How to Build An Engaged Business Twitter Following
If you’ve thought of using Twitter for business and/or find your existing business Twitter presence stalled out with little follower engagement, here are some thoughts to get you on the right track:
1. Twitter is a viable business communication channel, end of story – From what I’ve seen in the past six months, Twitter has a role as a business communication channel for most B2B companies. Whether Twitter figures out a way to monetize its business or not is irrelevant because, if Twitter fails, some other micro-blogging platform will take its place. If you’ve already tried Twitter for your business and struggled to make it work, it’s most likely because the B2B social media rules are still being written. Don’t give up, and keep your eye on this list of B2B social media  resources for the straight scoop.
2. Twitter for business is mass communication – I’m sure I’ll get hate mail for this one but if you plan to use Twitter for business, and you have more than a few hundred prospects/customers/influencers combined, you’re kidding yourself if you think interpersonal norms can govern how you use Twitter or other social media for your business. Why? Because Twitter is incredibly inefficient for forming interpersonal relationships. 140 character tweets are efficient for finding interesting people/content, maintaining contact with existing “friends” (as was the original purpose of Twitter) and asking/addressing simple questions. Establishing more meaningful business relationships through Twitter, though, is highly inefficient – people connect on Twitter, then want to take the conversation elsewhere because going back-and-forth through 140 character bursts is a quick road to carpal tunnel syndrome. For the vast majority of businesses out there, “mass communication” is the model you should follow as you plan your Twitter strategy.
3. You have a business contact list, so use it – As a business on Twitter, you don’t need to build a following like an individual would. This is a key advantage for business Twitter users that’s either forgotten or, more likely, ignored out of some combination of a misplaced desire to not disrupt existing communication channels and the sheer revulsion many B2B marketers feel when considering how a P2P or B2C trend may apply to their business. Get over it. Establish a basic Twitter presence, make your prospects and customers aware of this new channel, and let them use it.
4. Focus on tweet quality over tweet quantity – I covered this finding in my interview with Mark Schaefer about Twitter for business, but we’ve found that tweeting interesting things (e.g., tweets with links that more people click on) has a much bigger, positive influence on follower growth rate than does tweet volume (e.g., making sure you tweet very frequently to keep your tweets in front of your followers). In other words, the best practice for getting people’s attention and interest on Twitter is the same as it is across other business communication channels – talk when you have something important to say. Blanketing your followers with tweets doesn’t work any better than does blanketing the media with press releases about non-issues or hammering a direct mail list with irrelevant offers. One more reason to look at Twitter as a mass communication channel for business rather than a medium ruled by strict adherence to norms of interpersonal interaction.
The next step in our social media experiment: finding out how you use social networking sites. Are you using Facebook to promote your business? Are you finding information and resources on Twitter to help you do your job more effectively? We’ve put together a business social media benchmarking survey to uncover the most important social media metrics, what’s working in business social media (and what is not), and how use varies by company size, industry, customer focus. Everyone who completes the survey by September 4, 2009 will receive a free summary of the results in mid- to late-September, just in time for those graphs and charts to be useful for planning your 2010 marketing strategy and social media initiatives. We’re also holding a drawing for a $2,000 American Express® Gift Card among all eligible respondents who complete the survey. Click here to take the survey.
* * * * *
About the Author: Ben Hanna is VP, Marketing for Business.com . Business.com shares insights about B2B online marketing through @B2BOnlineMktg  — and, in the process, builds awareness of Business.com as a key online resource for solutions to business challenges.