The Value of Twitter, Part I: Recommendation Engine

In honor of Shel Israel’s new book, Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods, which is coming out Thursday and in which I understand I am mentioned, I’m planning to do a few posts over the next several days on the practical value of Twitter for businesses.

I’m really looking forward to seeing the book. At the time I did my email interview with Shel we had not yet become officially active with our @mayoclinic Twitter account, and one of the points I made was that even without lots of interaction it’s smart for organizations to at least claim their “brand” name and automatically tweet with an RSS feed. From a purely defensive posture, it’s wise to have claimed your brand’s name on an increasingly popular social networking site like Twitter, to prevent someone else unrelated to your organization from “brandjacking” you. Our @mayoclinic Twitter activity has changed a lot in the last six months or so, and I hope at least some of that was captured in Twitterville. If not, that’s another reason for me to do a series outlining my thinking about Twitter today, and what I see as its main values for business in general and health care in particular.

On a related note, @PhilBaumann challenged @EdBennett and me yesterday to “sell” the value of Twitter for health care in 140 characters or less. Here was my response:

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That’s as good a summary as I can do within a Tweet, and in this series of posts I plan to expand on those themes. But for the fuller exploration, I’m confident Shel’s book will be excellent.

So here’s my first contribution:

Lots of people don’t “get” Twitter, and the question posed by its interface: “What are you doing?” is responsible for much of the mainstream misunderstanding. Just as Second Life skeptics routinely quip, “But I don’t even have time for my first life!” there is a similarly common (and unimaginative) phrase used dismissively of Twitter: “Who CARES what I’m having for breakfast?!”

I sure don’t. Care about your breakfast choices, that is. But if you’re reading an interesting article online as you slurp your coffee, it may be really helpful to me if you “tweet” the link so I can read the article as I savor my gluten-free Corn Chex.

That’s one of the significant values of Twitter: it enables you to find others with similar interests, and when they see (and tweet about) an online news story that interests them, there’s a good chance you’ll think it’s worthwhile, too.

So while Google’s search engine is great when you’re looking for particular information that you know must be out there somewhere, one of Twitter’s values is that it helps you get notified about things for which you wouldn’t think to search.

So tonight, for example, I saw this tweet from @BradMays:

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I clicked the link and it took me to this story that shows the viewership of the online video site Hulu as compared with the number of viewers for various cable TV companies.

I would never have thought to search for this information, but it’s interesting to me as someone who follows media trends, particularly comparing more traditional delivery channels like cable vs. Web sites.

And because @BradMays is among those I’m following on Twitter, I came across this information and have marked it for future reference. It might well show up in a presentation in the coming months. In essence, he served as an unpaid scout/adviser, helping me find interesting material on the Web.

But I still have no idea what he had for breakfast.

Is all health care local?

This presentation from John Norris caught my eye on Twitter because of how he promoted it through a tweet:

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Give his presentation a review and then I’ll share some thoughts that he stirred in me (since I work for @mayoclinic, and particularly with our Twitter account.)

I think this slideshow has a ton of useful ideas for a hospital interested in using Twitter or similar tools effectively. Phil Baumann’s 140 Healthcare Uses for Twitter is another good read.

When John says “All healthcare is local” that’s true…except when it’s not, just as Tip O’Neill’s “All politics is local” was occasionally trumped by national issues.

I would instead say “All healthcare is personal.”

And social media platforms are, above all, personal.

Most of the healthcare people get is local. But sometimes they look outside of their local for specialized expertise. And part of the power of social media is that it makes that expertise available to a community that can be globally dispersed.

But as John points out, the social tools (including Twitter) can be extremely helpful for a local community, too. Just because a Twitter community can be global doesn’t mean it has to be, or that the only worthwhile Twitter efforts are those with thousands of followers.

Ed Bennett’s list of the hospitals with most Twitter followers was interesting and fun, but as he says, you shouldn’t read too much into it. A hospital with a few hundred followers could be providing a great service and interacting with that local community.

The point is to be of service to the community, whether it’s geographical or interest-based. If the information you provide is useful, and if you can interact with that community, the activity can be valuable both to you and to the people you serve.

For example, people might want to follow and interact with @mayoclinic AND their local hospital (e.g. @InnovisHealth in Fargo, ND), and maybe a service like John is providing in Corvallis, Oregon called @CorvallisHealth. They would be likely looking for different information from each source, and to have different conversations with each.

Twitter lets users (including each hospital/corporate user) decide on suitable goals that meet their objectives. As John suggests, don’t let someone else’s Twitter strategy have too much influence on you. Look at what Twitter can do, and what you can do with Twitter, and decide what makes sense for you.

Then go for it, without worrying about “competition.”

I’m looking forward to learning about lots of other innovative uses of Twitter at the Health Care Social Media Summit Mayo is hosting in October in Scottsdale, Ariz,, co-sponsored by Ragan Communications.

If you’re using Twitter in an interesting or different way, I’d love to hear about it and help spread the word about it. By sharing what you’re doing, you may spark ideas in others. Not that they would necessarily do the same thing exactly, but it may help them see connections they could make in their communities.

And since most health care is local, you can just feel good if someone in another community can gain from what you’ve learned.