Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Debunking Jakob Nielsen on Twitter

When I made the transition in 1999 from direct marketing to internet marketing, web usability guru Jakob Nielsen was a huge influence on my thinking, along with Seth Godin, Robert Scoble, Doc Searls, and Cluetrain Manifesto. Having said that, I think Nielsen is totally misguided when it comes to Twitter.

Jakob Nielsen is a great source of good information on web usability. He is a very poor source of good information on social media, being dismissive of blogging from the get go, and continuing his bizarre tirade in a Special Report in Business Week in May of 2009.

What I find astonishing is Nielsen's utter lack of comprehension of SEO power in Twitter tweets, the urgency of CEOs to step down from their ivory towers and be transparent (Nielsen justifies CEO paranoia about public statements), and the whole purpose of social media.

Twitter is micro blogging. Nielsen, a website-oriented specialist, has disdain for blogging in general, and micro blogging even more so. Nielsen simply embodies an old fashioned corporate philosophy that is now counter-productive, to say the least.

I will use my old running commentary method in my debunking of Jakob Nielsen's remarks in Business Week  on CEO usage of Twitter: my comments are in red bold type.

Here is my quick critique of the "Jakob Nielsen Critiques Twitter" article in Business Week, an interview with the Great One conducted by Rebecca Reisner.


Are you surprised to see so many CEOs tweeting?
Well, there are always people who jump on the latest bandwagon, no matter what it is, but I do think it's surprising that CEOs would have the time to tweet, since they can't just toss off a sentence without repercussions the same way a normal user can. One of my former bosses once said that he had to be very careful what he said because tens of thousands of people in his organization would actually take it seriously and act on it. So if he said something that was easily misinterpreted, it could steer the company in the wrong direction.

Streight says: Nielsen right off the bat seems desperate to condemn Twitter, as evidenced by his combining the time factor with the paranoid angle: CEOs have no time to tweet and must be super cautious about what they say. 

This only perpetuates the myth that social media has to necessarily be time-consuming and that CEOs should be opaque, unapproachable, distant from the customer base. 

How ridiculous to say that an employee might pay attention to what the CEO says, and actually act on it! Like that's a bad thing. Why worry about misinterpretation of a CEO tweet? Can't the CEO be explicit and word things precisely, so there can be no rampant misinterpretation? 

One tweet is going to "steer the company in the wrong direction"??? LOL

Do you think it's a good idea for CEOs to tweet to their customers?
Mostly no. Posting on the Web is the modern PR, and the CEO's job is to articulate the company's vision and direction, which requires more than 140 characters. Being perceived as a wise guy or a shallow thinker is not going to do your stock price much good. We have just completed a usability study of investor relations info on corporate Web sites, and one of the big reasons individual investors turn to companies' Web sites is to find the CEO's vision and take on the company's and industry's direction.

Because users don't want to read very much online, this information should be addressed concisely, but not as concisely as in a tweet. Better to write something deeper (or post a video clip, since investors also want to assess the CEO's personality by watching him or her speak), and then announce that, with a link, from the company's general Twitter update, as opposed to in the CEO's personal tweet.

Streight says: Wake up and smell the coffee Jakob! Twitter is obviously not a tool for droning on and on with mission statements and corporate philosophy. Twitter is a tool for interacting with customers on a regular guy basis, joking around, giving advice, providing tips, proving your expertise by sharing relevant links and opinions.

Nielsen is correct in saying you should use Twitter to disseminate links to your videos and other online material -- but nobody wants to interact with an anonymous "Corporate Presence" in social networks. They want to interact with a real individual person, warts and all.

CEOs can provide a lot of good information in 140 character tweets, or a series of them, to meet customer needs for clarification and to respond to complaints, using Twitter as a resolution tool.

Is Twitter is a fad or here to stay?
Something like Twitter is certainly here to stay, even if that specific company could go the way of Excite and Geocities. Being early doesn't guarantee success if a better implementation of the same idea comes along. But fundamentally, this micro-announcement service does serve two needs: to post updates with low overhead and to follow a concise stream of updates.

Streight says: Nielsen seems to be complimenting Twitter in a begrudging, semi-reluctant manner, while still taking a cynical swipe at it by warning of better tools that might come along someday.

Do you think the growth of Twitter is a threat to individuals' ability to concentrate?

If you care about productivity, don't check your Twitter feed while you're trying to get work done. Disruptions are deadly for productivity because it takes several minutes to reorient the brain every time you go off track looking at something else. Stick to checking updates once per day—for example, during lunch. All the tweets will still be there.

Streight says: Check your Twitter feed as often as you want, frequently in fact, so you can respond quickly to customer questions, complaints, and praise. You can always postpone your reply if you deem it not urgent to respond, but it is a good idea to monitor, or have your staff monitor, Twitter and Facebook feeds.

I don't think companies should ban Twitter use during business hours because it does have its business uses, as previously discussed. But companies could cash in major productivity gains if they advised employees on how to minimize disruptions. The growth in social media can become a major drain on the economy unless people learn how to be in control of their time instead of allowing external updates to be in the driver's seat.

Streight says: Wrong. Companies should ban Twitter use during business hours, except for the staff who are in charge of the company's social media work. Tweeting for personal reasons is similar to using the telephone or email for personal reasons at work. Except in real emergencies, employees should stick to their jobs while at work and leave their online socializing for their private time, when they're not on the job. 

Are you a fan of any particular organizations' tweets?
One example of good business use of Twitter is the CDC's stream of updates on the H1N1 influenza. I have two recommendations for improved usability of this account: (a) Spell out the full name (Centers for Disease Control) in the bio, because not everybody knows the acronym CDC; and (b) link the "Web" field directly to a specific page about H1N1 instead of a generic page about all possible health emergencies, including many that are not of current interest.

Streight says: Of all things for Nielsen to praise: the Big Pharma Bail Out Flu hoax perpetuated by the corrupt Centers for Disease Control! Nice going...

Rebecca Reisner is an editor at BusinessWeek.com


Having said all this, I still maintain that you don't know zilch about website design if you haven't read Jakob Nielsen's books on web usability. Just ignore what he says about blogging and social media, and you'll be fine.

Click image below to visit Amazon page for his Designing Web Usability masterpiece.

Here's another wonderful book: Homepage Usability. Click image below to visit Amazon page.


josephmartins said...


What is your vision of CEO-consumer interaction?

As someone who ran a company and engaged customers daily on multiple forums and blogs, I can say it does not scale well. In fact, as the customer base grows it can rapidly become impractical. At the peak, I found myself spending 30-40 hours per week just interacting with customers...unsustainable.

So I ask, what sort of information sharing and what degree of interaction do you believe is appropriate for a CEO? Concrete examples would be helpful.

josephmartins said...

Curious why there was no response to my question. I left my blog name and the question was clear and direct.

steven edward streight said...

I'm not Rebecca, but I'll speak for her.

CEOs can interact with customers on a blog, and this is so old hat I'm not even going to go into how the CEO manages their time to do so. I just know some CEOs at colossal corporations who blog quite successfully.

Ask your peers how they do it.

You can delegate. Have staff answer generic questions or queries not directed to you personally.

A CEO doesn't have to personally engage customers on Twitter, though. Comcast Cares is a good example, it's customer service specialists who respond to customer complaints and questions via Twitter.

I've received much help and money saving discount deals from various corporations, including BestBuy, Mens Wearhouse, FedEx Office, via Twitter.

josephmartins said...

Hi Steven, I somehow confused myself and mistakenly attributed the post to Rebecca. Sorry about that.

While it's fine for a CxO to engage customers through occasional blog posts, tweets and other social media it should not become a distraction throughout the day.

In my opinion, delegation is the only reasonable solution especially as a company scales.

steven edward streight said...

Yes, Joseph, CEOs should delegate their social media postings and interactions, to some degree...but they should also respond personally to specific online community member remarks, questions, complaints...as often as humanly possible.

To entirely delegate your social media work, leaving it to others to represent you and your company, is risky.

All CEOs can spend 15 minutes a day jumping into their Facebook page to say something, like something, share something, make a proclamation of some sort.

I know CEOs of huge multi-billion corporations who personally blog daily, at least a paragraph or two.

It's not that time consuming to share your expertise, little doses at a time.

Seth Godin is a great example of what CEOs can do. He is a busy professional, but he posts a few sentences or paragraphs every day.

Instead of CEOs thinking of reasons why they can't do it, they should think of how they can do it.

Being personally available to any customer, to some small degree, is a huge competitive advantage in a world where more and more is outsourced and companies are perceived to be uncaring, inhuman, unresponsive.

Customer service remains the Achilles heel of the vast majority of businesses. Social media is a powerful tool to overcome this vulnerability.

ComcastCares on Twitter is a good example. The CEO has delegated social media, but high level people are available and they solve customer problems quickly.

Julie said...

If you want to keep up with a Twitter account, without posting to Twitter, you can copy the RSS link to a reader (such as Google Reader) and get all the updates whenever you check the reader.
I do this with Twitter, and a lot of other things like some stuff I'm watching for on Craig's List.