Could Twitter hurt your reputation?

by Tom Albrighton 27 May 2010 Digital and social, Popular

As you can see, I’ve got a ‘follow me’ button in my navigation, so Twitter is one click away from every page on this site. And that means that visitors’ experience of my online presence might include a sharp variation in tone. Depending on my mood and willingness to Tweet at any particular point in time, a potential client might step from my carefully crafted corporate content to a confession of Cheddars addiction, a sarky comment on last night’s TV or (if they’re lucky) a throwaway observation about search marketing or online copywriting.

When I’m comparing my unique visitor stats to the number of leads I get through the site, this thought gives me pause. Are visitors put off by my Twitter content, or perhaps even this blog? And more broadly, does social media – even when done exactly as the gurus suggest – invariably enhance reputation?

Talking to strangers

Everyone understands that different online media require different tones (I’ve covered it in this post). For most businesses, Tweeting in the same voice as you use on your corporate site would be absolutely deadly, resulting in a desperately dry, po-faced and self-centred feed. While competitors were asking their customers what they did on Friday night, you’d be Tweeting about your dull-as-ditchwater product launch. You’d have no followers, no profile and no ROI.

Does careless talk cost reputation?

However, what works for friends and followers might look strange to newcomers. A prospect clicking through to my Twitter profile will see my last Tweet prominently displayed in 28pt type. If that Tweet is frivolous, or even offensive (a subjective judgement, after all), it surely won’t make a good impression. At the very least, the positive ‘he has a personality’ points could easily be offset by a ‘not very professional’ penalty.

I serve clients from all over the world. What would a visitor from Russia or El Salvador make of a conversation about liking cheesy biscuits, on Monday morning, from someone who presents themselves as a professional? In fact, what would a UK visitor who just didn’t know much about Twitter think of it?

For me, casual Tweets are the online equivalent of having the radio on in the background when you answer the phone. Some people just aren’t going to like it. That’s why, when I remember, I’ll try and make sure that I leave the feed with something relatively sensible or useful at the top, like a retweet from @econsultancy. Sure, it’s inauthentic, but it feels safer.

Unseen damage

I often point out to clients that a poor website can do serious harm to their reputation without them necessarily being aware of it. A site riddled with ancient content, inconsistent formatting and spelling errors won’t have the phone ringing off the hook with complaints. Instead, visitors will come, form a negative impression and leave – almost certainly without comment. If they judge by appearances – and why shouldn’t they? – you’ll simply never hear from them.

When I view some firms’ websites, I’m astonished at the substandard content they leave online for years on end, apparently oblivious to the impression it’s giving. If I work with such firms, it often transpires that they are aware of the problem, and plan to sort it out. But with no negative feedback from the prospects that got away, there’s no sense of a ‘burning platform’ to force them to act.

Reputation bomb

With that in mind, consider a Twitter feed that’s easily accessible from the home page, or actually visible on it (as it should be, according to the received wisdom). It could easily be a reputation bomb primed to explode.

If you’re an active Tweeter who combines business and pleasure in one account (as most sole traders and SMEs do), you’re Tweeting stuff you’d never dream of publishing at your main site (humour, politics, personal life etc) on an hourly basis. And if you don’t mix in some personal stuff, your feed will be too dry. Who’s to say a fantastic prospect might not click into your feed at a time when it shows something catastrophically trivial?

I’m relatively paranoid about Twitter. I aim for friendliness, humour and relevancy and set myself strict rules: no politics, no swearing, no arguing, no boasting about work, no chat about clients. (The one evening I did Tweet about politics, I lost a follower for every Tweet I posted.) But many Tweeters don’t police themselves in this way, giving their language, feelings and reactions free rein. I respect that – after all, I’ve argued before that we should market honestly and be ourselves in social media. But some Tweets are so pointed that they elicit a sharp intake of breath as you read them. Does the author really want those words online?

Broadcasting trivia

We’ve all seen the alarmist, ill-informed articles in mainstream media about the perils of Facebook, when in fact it’s easy enough to restrict access to your page (or at least it was, until the privacy options started to look like this). Twitter, as most people choose to use it, exposes your posted content far more widely.

Each Tweet lives forever at its own URL, and Google now searches Twitter in real time, more efficiently than ever before. And it might not index the Tweets you want it to. For example, my highest-ranking Tweet on a search for my name (mercifully on page 2) is this effort (presumably because of its keyword density for ‘Tom’):

Not offensive, but hardly inspiring, and undeniably trivial. On balance, probably not a URL I’d want a prospective client to see. And it could have been worse.

But it doesn’t end there. You can opt to have your Tweets syndicated to third-party sites. One such is LinkedIn, surely the most pin-striped and buttoned-down of all the networking sites. It’s a place where serious job-hunting and reputation-building is the order of the day (along, it seems, with an ever-increasing volume of discussion spam). But depending on when a potential client or employer visits, your carefully edited CV could be gatecrashed by the most hasty, drunken, offensive Tweet you’ve ever Tweeted. That’s why I haven’t, er, linked in my Twitter profile to the site.

Imaginary walls

In my experience, although most people’s Twitter accounts are unprotected, in practice they still Tweet as if their accounts were somehow private – everything is ‘between friends’ in terms of both content and tone. Others go further, treating Twitter like a confessional, or even a diary – despite having thousands of followers. Certainly, many Tweets clearly originate with the urge to unburden rather than the need to communicate.

You might regard your Twitter account as more ‘personal’ than your business content, with a clear division between the corporate and social worlds, but in reality the distinction may be largely in your head (and not in your client’s).

This can apply to other types of social-media content as well. Many of my blog posts, for example, are primarily of interest to other copywriters, marketers or media professionals, and not really aimed at general business readers (i.e. my potential customers). Sometimes, the resulting comment discussion will stray into areas, such as pricing, where an honest response isn’t something I’d really want my clients to read. So, as with Twitter, I have to think carefully about everyone who might be reading, rather than imagining there’s some kind of invisible wall between my main site and the blog. It’s important to remember that anyone could be reading anything, at any time.

What do you think? Should we worry about the reputational risk of social media, or have we entered a new, more relaxed age where saying something online is no different from saying it in the pub?

  • Thanks to Sarah Turner of Turner Ink for the conversation that inspired this post.

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