Is Twitter bad for business?

One of the more important lessons I’ve learned since starting my first online business is that vanity can be costly, in both money and time.

Is Twitter bad for business?

Expensive and unnecessary company cars, plush offices that were too large, hiring too many people and stroking my ego through countless small purchasing decisions. I’d never thought myself profligate, but a recent clear-out of our company lock-up made me wonder…

Twitter followers put no dinner on your table, and I’m ashamed to admit it took me more than two years to understand that

However, money isn’t the only resource that requires careful conservation, and time is more important still. Few online businesspeople are short of work to fill their waking hours, but they still have to decide each day where to focus their energy most productively. It’s less a matter of what to do than what to avoid, and that’s where services such as Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn become a menace.

Twitter, in particular, is a deceptive time-stealer. Its fundamental unit of success is the follower count, that most insidious of vanity metrics. To increase your followers, you begin by following others and writing useful, informative tweets. You spend time reading your followers’ contributions and visiting their links, as well as generating your own content.

If you have a digital marketing strategy, you’ll put time aside specifically to research and post about the subjects central to your business. Slowly but surely your follower count rises and you become ever more locked into the Twitterverse, prisoner of your own vanity. What’s the point? More followers still? Twitter followers put no dinner on your table, and I’m ashamed to admit it took me more than two years to understand that.

I first tweeted in October 2009, and have since tweeted more than 3,500 times. Many were one-liners, but others required effort, so let’s say on average they cost a minute of my time – that’s around 60 hours, or £3,000 in hard cash. If I’d invested that sort of money in any other aspect of my business I’d expect to see a return, usually in increased sales, but I’ve looked in vain for any measurable benefit from tweeting. And if it can’t be measured, best treat it as though it doesn’t exist.

Return on investment?

Compared with pay-per-click advertising, where once you’ve installed conversion tracking you’re left in no doubt as to whether a campaign is paying off, the contrast is stark. Even when you’re advertising to generate leads rather than direct sales, it’s easy enough to see if it’s working. Yet for some reason, social networks seem to be exempt from the need to prove their worth.

A Facebook page, Twitter account or, more recently, a Google+ presence, is considered essential for any online business, but why? For many enterprises, it’s merely because everyone else is doing it, which results in thousands of pages that are, in the words of the Bard, “full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing”.

Social media can be useful to certain businesses for very specific purposes. I suspect LinkedIn provides a useful channel for companies or individuals who are selling business-related services, although I’ve seen no concrete data to prove this (most of the activity I see relates to job hunting). Facebook might be useful to create a community around your business, but it hasn’t developed into the online shopping destination Mark Zuckerberg would like it to be. But Twitter is the real time thief here. I’m not saying it doesn’t have value as a news service, or purely for entertainment, but its concrete business benefits are minimal.

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