Twitter Alternatives That Are All Business

Microblogging, or short-form text updates via the Web, has become a hot trend for enterprises that want to help employees share information internally. Here's a look at how three businesses are using Twitter alternatives for microblogging, plus best practices for implementing it.

When Twitter launched in 2006, few people could have predicted how microblogging would change online communication. Today, microblogging, or short-form text updates posted to the Web, has exploded in popularity. As a result, a number of microblogging applications for the enterprise—Twitter alternatives that do just a bit more—have surfaced.

The latest example is Salesforce.com's recently announced Chatter, its new software aimed at connecting enterprise employees through personal profiles and status posts that can detail, for example, current projects or customer visits.

During a speech at the recent Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff referenced the need for collaborative, business-focused tools: "I know more about these strangers on Facebook than I do about my own employees and what they're working on," he said. "I know when my friends went to the movies, but not when my VP of sales visited our top customer."

And that's why more companies are adopting microblogging tools in the workplace, analysts say. "[Microblogging] is fulfilling a need that e-mail can't really do. These fast-blast messages really help people stay in contact without using the heavier tools such as SharePoint," says Jeremiah Owyang, a partner and strategy consultant at Altimeter Group. "And one of the big things that's helpful is that these technologies can be used from mobile devices, so as people continue to travel and are on the road, it's easier for companies to keep them updated."

Read on to learn how three businesses are using microblogging successfully and four best practices for implementing it where you work. See our related story, "12 Microblogging Tools to Consider" for a list of useful microblogging tools that businesses are using today.

Use Case #1: St. Louis Public Radio

Why they did it: Tim Eby, general manager of St. Louis Public Radio (SLPR), was an early adopter of Twitter and "discovered the power of it in terms of communicating information, building community and sharing information," he says. When discussions arose about building a company intranet for the radio station, Eby aimed to make microblogging a part of it.

"Even though we have a small staff—around 33 employees—there were many silos built up across the department," he says. Microblogging, he hoped, would help get his staff talking and collaborating.

After evaluating several microblogging tools, Eby and his team decided on Socialtext's Signals, a microblogging tool that is accessed via a browser, mobile device or an Adobe AIR desktop application and is integrated with a wiki, social networking profiles and "activity streams" (which are similar to the Facebook News Feed).

Gaining buy-in: Adoption of the application was fairly quick, Eby notes, although there was some hesitation among staff members. "Even in an age when people are on Twitter and Facebook, there are some people who haven't embraced social media tools," he says. "Some were hesitant about exposing too much, so this allowed them to embrace a secure, internal tool in a comfortable environment."

To get the skeptics onboard with the project, Eby invited them to join the team responsible for choosing and testing the tools. Buy-in from upper management was just as important, he says. "Multiple departments have to buy into the project, it can't come from the top down or the bottom up," he says. "If you don't have everyone on board with the project—including the organization's leaders—the project is going to be difficult to adopt."

How they're using it: Eby and his staff at SLPR use Socialtext's app partly as a "watercooler" by sharing links to articles people have found interesting and as a way to cut down on e-mail blasts and "reply-alls."

For example, SLPR's receptionist received a call from a listener who heard an announcement on the radio about an event at a local high school and wanted to know more about it. Instead of sending an e-mail blast to all staff members, the receptionist used Socialtext's app to poll the staff, and received an answer in less than five minutes. "There was an immediate response, and we didn't have to clutter e-mail inboxes to get it," Eby says.

Eby also says microblogging has helped the radio station achieve more camaraderie and collaboration. "Our part-time staffers don't have company e-mail addresses, so traditionally they'd miss a lot of our communications," he says. "This tool allows us to communicate internally with them, and they can even update us on what they're doing from the field by sending messages securely through their phone."

Use Case #2: Motorola

Why they did it: With many of its staffers interested in social media sites like Twitter, Motorola decided to look into a new, internal type of communication that would be helpful to employees for disseminating and commenting on information.

The corporate communications department, for example, relied on e-mail to make announcements, says Rami Levy, distinguished member of the technical staff with Motorola's open-source technologies department. "Usually mass e-mails usually get deleted without people reading them, but using a microblogging tool has made people pay more attention and engage in the conversation," he says.

Motorola sought an open-source tool, which Levy says was a challenge because there are "few stable and secure options" available right now. Ultimately they chose a tool from StatusNet, and integrated it fully with the rest of their technology tools, he says. Employees can access it via their desktop, Web, mobile or e-mail.

Gaining buy-in: There were some concerns from management about the nature of information that could be posted to the site and how the information would be controlled, Levy says. "This is a 'you can't control a crowd' type of thing. If you clamp down too hard on restrictions, people won't use it; but on the other hand, you need some sort of structure," he says.

To get everyone onboard, a policy was developed and posted on their website. "We didn't want to make it long and complicated, we wanted to encourage people to talk about things, but make everyone aware that everyone else can see it, and to self-moderate," Levy says. They also encouraged senior management to not only join, but to actively use it during the workday. Levy says this encouraged more activity on the site and made senior management more reachable and approachable.

To spread the word about the new tool, the rollout team partnered with various internal communications groups and created presentations that explained why they might want to try it out. Motorola also integrated an icon on the website that allowed employees to post something directly that they found interesting with one click. "We wanted to keep it public and in people's minds until it got a mind of itself," Levy says. Today, more than 7,000 employees use the tool, he says.

How they're using it: In addition to using microblogging as an avenue for disseminating information and encouraging communication and collaboration, Motorola also participated in a worldwide event where, on Oct. 14, employees performed community service. They publicized the event internally and encouraged staff members post to the microblogging site photos of themselves helping the local community and discussing what they were doing.

They also integrated a geomapping tool that listed where each volunteering employee was located, so others could see in real-time what was happening around them. "It was really cool because it not only showed what people were doing and where, but it encouraged people to converse about it and create new connections among themselves," Levy says.

Use Case #3: Avaya

Why they did it: Avaya, an enterprise global communications company with a distributed workforce of between 13,000 and 15,000 employees worldwide was looking to get their employees to communicate outside their groups, wanted to increase mobility of their sales associates and felt it was important for their employees to be comfortable and knowledgeable of new communication methods that their customers might be using, says Kay Beavers, a member of the worldwide sales technical operations group.

"We're moving away from long-winded e-mails that take hours to compile and where the conversation drags along for days," she says. "We wanted our associates to be quicker, more nimble and more efficient in how they communicate, and microblogging seemed to suit that well."

Avaya has been using both Yammer and SocialCast for about a year, outside the firewall. Currently, they're in the process of trialing inside the firewall.

Gaining buy-in: Beavers says that finding a solution that their IT security team and legal team were comfortable with was challenging. "Legal wanted to make sure we didn't say anything that shouldn't be said and security wanted to make sure it was safe," she says. "It was really important for us to establish best practices at the start of the project." The team initiated conversations with top execs and technical experts, then moved forward to educate employees.

Making sure that there was enough self-training available to employees was important so they could learn at their own pace, Beavers says. The rollout team posted videos demonstrating how to use certain features like tagging, personal replies and customizing their streams. Managers also sought to recognize employees who shared valuable content and comments by reposting their comments and observations. This has encouraged more employees to join, Beavers says.

How they're using it: Because SocialCast's and Yammer's tools can be accessed via a mobile phone, Avaya sales associates are now more reachable, which has helped to improve the time it took to respond to customers, Beavers says. Additionally, the tool has been useful for onboarding new associates, helping them make contacts more quickly and catch up on company news by searching through past conversations, Beaver says.

"[Microblogging] is really much more of a Generation Y communication tool. We wanted to use that to attract and retain those kinds of workers and let them use the tools they've become used to in real life, and not just limit them to the tools their parents use," she says.

Using the microblogging tools has also helped Avaya reduce e-mail and attachment overload; Beaver says employees are no longer afraid to delete e-mails since they can search for conversations and announcements within the microblogging sites.

Four Tips for a Successful Microblogging Implementation

1. Determine the "want" factor. "It's not safe to assume that just because you roll out this technology, it's what people want to see," says Jeremiah Owyang, a partner and strategy consultant at Altimeter Group. If employees are already using Twitter, they're more likely to support an implementation of a microblogging tool. "Microblogging should be a feature that's part of a larger technology set, not a standalone tool."

2. Involve a diverse group early in the process. Tim Eby, general manager at St. Louis Public Radio, made sure he involved skeptics in the planning and testing phases. "Knowing that the majority was onboard brought us buy-in from the rest of the station," he says. "And if you don't have leadership from the organization willing to embrace change, it's difficult to have anything fully adopted."

3. Create buzz. By strategizing with internal communications groups, getting the word out to employees about the implementation became easier, says Rami Levy, distinguished member of the technical staff with Motorola's open-source technologies department. They created presentations and incorporated icons onto their webpages that made it easier for employees to share content.

4. Set guidelines. Establishing best practices at the start of the project was key to Avaya's success. "We wanted to create some sort of guidelines to reduce the noise so the negatives didn't outweigh the positives," says Kay Beavers, a member of the worldwide sales technical operations group. But be careful: "There is a fine balancing line between establishing too many guidelines and letting it evolve organically," she says.

Staff Writer Kristin Burnham covers consumer Web and social technologies for CIO.com. She writes frequently on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google. You can follow her on Twitter: @kmburnham.

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