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Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone Tells Bankers to Be Authentic on Twitter

At the BAI Retail Delivery show this week, Stone shared stories about Twitter's early days and offered advice to Twitter newbies.

Yesterday at the BAI Retail Delivery show, a very relaxed Biz Stone, co-founder and creative director of Twitter, told Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard how Twitter got started, why it matters and what he thinks banks ought to do with it. Incidentally [or not, actually, but we found this amusing and couldn't resist sharing], Stoli is featuring Stone in some of its vodka commercials:

How Twitter got started:

Stone was running a blogging software company in New York (Xanga), Evan Williams was running one in San Francisco (Pyra Labs). They got to know each other and both worked at Google after it bought Blogger. The two left to start a company intended to "democratize audio" (Odeo is described by Wikipedia as a directory and search destination website for RSS syndicated audio and video). But Stone says he and Williams weren't emotionally invested in it. "That translated into an indifference, which wasn't good when you do a startup," he says. "We decided to take a break and build something we could be interested in."

Stone became friends with Jack Dorsey (another co-founder of Twitter), who had the idea of working microblogging into SMS text messages to let people check in with friends and find out what they were thinking and doing. They built a prototype in two weeks. "We asked our friends to try it out, and they all thought it was stupid," Stone recalls. "But that didn't matter."

Stone became emotionally invested in Twitter soon after he and his wife bought a house in Berkeley, Calif. "I decided to do a little home repair, because that's what I'm not good at," he says. He was ripping out carpeting in the house during a heat wave when his mobile phone buzzed. It was a text message from Williams saying, "Sipping Pino Noir in Napa after a massage."

Why 140 characters:

The idea was always to build an information network that could be accessed by mobile phones. "There are five billion mobile phones on the planet; there are mobile phones in places where you don't have the web and you're not going to have it any time soon," Stone says. "It's designed to be the lowest-common-denominator way people can network," he says. The 140 characters comes from the fact that the international limit on text messaging is 160 characters. "We wanted to reserve 20 characters in front of the message for the author's name," Stone relates. "We wanted to be device agnostic, so whether you're on a computer, a smart phone, a rudimentary phone in Africa, you could read and create these messages in their entirety."

Stone distinguishes Twitter as an information network rather than a social network. "On a social network, you agree to be friends," he says. "On Twitter, there are millions of information sources available, you browse the site and find whatever interests you, whether it's your local bakery, CNN breaking news, a colleague, or a brand. You shop the site almost like iTunes. Instead of buying music, you subscribe to little bits of information from the sources you care about, in real time." While people can have two-way conversations in Twitter, they're not expected to. They can dip and and out as they choose (versus email, where a quick response is expected). "Twitter is an antidote to information overload," he says.

How companies should deal with Twitter:

JetBlue was one of the first companies to jump onto Twitter, and it took an organic, slow approach. It started out Tweeting short-form press releases that were meaningless to users, Stone says. A frustrated employee Tweeted, "What do you want us to Tweet, what do you want from us?" "The overwhelming response was, that's exactly what we want, now you're being authentic, you're asking us straight-up what we want to hear," Stone says. A flood of suggestions came in and the company began engaging more with customers.

How the addition of advertising will affect Twitter usage:

"From the beginning, we didn't want to slap traditional banner ads all over Twitter," Stone says. "One of our core tenets is do right by users." Stone and his colleagues came up with a way to promote Tweets, trends and accounts similar to Google's approach. If Starbucks, for instance, has one million followers, but wants a Tweet to go to 10 million followers, it can buy key words like "latte" and "coffee." When people search those terms on Twitter, the Starbucks Tweets will show up at the top of the list. Twitter applies a resonance algorithm to all the Tweets to determine if they're interesting to readers. If people are engaging with a Tweet (for instance, re-Tweeting it), that Tweet stays up. If a Tweet's resonance is low, it's thrown out and the advertiser isn't charged anything, Stone says.

How Twitter got past its scaling issues and negative press in the beginning:

"We got through the pressure with a lot of joking around," Stone says. "We tried to have a little fun with it by showing the 'fail whale' whenever the site was down. The fail whale is this uplifting image of a giant whale being lifted by a lot of little birds. The idea was, we know the site is down but we're all working together to fix it. People rallied around that image: People got tattoos of the fail whale, there's a Fail Whale Ale, there's a fail whale conference."

The negative press in many ways was helpful, he says. The fact that people were so upset that they couldn't log on made others sign up in droves. "I would rather have people love or hate Twitter," he says. "The worst thing you could have is apathy, where nobody cares. I would rather have passion at either end of the spectrum," he says.

What banks should do about Twitter:

Stone believes Twitter shouldn't be a time-consuming activity. He recommends using Twitter Search [which of course helps support Twitter's advertising plan]. "Maybe once in a while you jump in and engage," he says. "That super useful. But I don't think you have to hire someone to do it for you."

Stone advises trying to form an authentic relationship with people, building good will with regular visitors every day. "The best time to do that is when things are going well," he says. A bank might listen to what people are saying about it on Twitter and occasionally post links to articles customers might get value out of, or show a picture of donuts in the lobby and invite people to come in for one. Customers that follow the bank may start coming into the branches and commenting on Tweets the bank has made, he says. Over time, a bank can build trust with its Twitter followers, which could lead to people wanting to hear about the bank's products, which could create revenue.

"Don't think of it as broadcasting out press releases, but building a relationship," Stone says. "Make sure you do a lot of listening on Twitter, that's one of the great benefits of it. Type in name of a product, listen and watch what people are saying." He advises bankers to keep it as casual and friendly as is appropriate, "to humanize you a little more."

Twitter's new analytics feature:

Companies haven't had a way to measure success in Twitter, Stone says [however, there are several third-party vendors that offer social media analytics tools that track and mine insights from Twitter]. Twitter will be offering analytics to let companies see, by region, what people think about its Tweets, Stone says.

Could Twitter be gamed:

Any system is subject to gaming, spam or abuse, Stone says, but Twitter has a trust and safety team whose job it is to keep users "safe from evil-doers, people trying to spread malware, hack accounts, or generally trying to game the system" through software tools, he says. The fact that Twitter is entirely opt-in avoids gaming, he says.

The cost for banks of doing nothing on Twitter:

"Social media experts will tell you that if you don't do it, someone else will steal your customers and take business, impersonate you and make you look bad," Stone says. "That's the worst case scenario." But Stone points out that listening in on Twitter and "tuning into the global consciousness and zeitgeist" doesn't have to cost much. "Think of it as a free superpower in your pocket that lets you extend your rolodex, build a lot of good will, and create a name for yourself as an expert in your field."

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