Just Whose Twitter Account Is It Anyway? Social Media Policy and the Enterprise
In late December, a story exploded on Twitter concerning the court battle between Noah Kravitz and the site Phonedog over ownership of the followers for the @ Phonedog_Noah Twitter account. The facts everyone agrees on are that Noah was an editor for Phonedog starting in April 2006, that the @ Phonedog_Noah account was set up after that, and that when he left PhoneDog in October 2010 he took the Twitter account with him, renaming it @ NoahKravitz.
After that, everything else gets murky: Did Noah initiate the Twitter account, or was he instructed to start it by Phonedog, using a naming convention they devised? Was there an agreement that Kravitz would occasionally tweet about the company after his departure, as he told The New York Times? And why did Phonedog wait eight months before deciding to sue Kravitz, claiming that the 17,000 Twitter followers he had when he left constituted a “customer list” that they valued at $2.50 per name per month.
When the courts unravel this, it could have broad impact on how Twitter is used in the Enterprise, not applying to just this situation, where a hybrid @ Company_User name was used for the account, but also to corporate liability for the contents of branded accounts and to employees who Tweet about their business lives exclusively under their own names.
Easy Answers Are Not Always Good Answers
The easy answer for enterprises is to draw a sharp line. Prohibit employees from tweeting about work under their own names and exclusively use a brand name as the Twitter account name. This would avoid any disputes over what was most responsible for building the size of a Twitter account’s following—the personality of and content generated by the Twitterer or the efforts and expense the company put into promoting the account. It would also make ownership of the account clearer: If it is named solely for the company or brand, the company owns it.
However, even within the social media world, Twitter is in some ways unique. Facebook and now even Google+ have separate kinds of pages for businesses vs. individuals. On Facebook you “Friend” an individual and “Like” a business or organization. On Twitter, an account is an account: The quality of a Twitter the content tweeted and the personality that comes through define the account and are responsible for how fast that number of followers grows. Restricting all of the organization’s Twitter output to generic corporate communications and links only to well-vetted pages can stifle the Twitter account’s growth by taking the “social” out of social media. Despite the increasing corporate use of Twitter, great utility for many organizations and some quite successful corporate and branded accounts, the biggest followerships still are for individuals or organizations that project strong personalities. For example, @ OReillyMedia has a substantial 39,000 plus followers, and O’Reilly’s @ Radar Twitter feed for its joint blog on emerging technologies has almost 21,000 followers, but O”Reilly founder and president @ TimOreilly has over 1.5 million followers.
In the fall of 2011, at least one big tech publisher transitioned Twitter accounts named for the editors of some of their smaller brands to the name of the publication they edited. Since then, Twitter accounts that once offered observation and analysis and links to relevant articles elsewhere are now essentially an RSS feed for the publication going out by the Twitter channel, and the number of Twitter followers has stagnated.
Besides limiting the success of social media efforts, too restrictive a policy could also inhibit recruitment of talented social media consultants. Too open a policy could lead to inconsistent messaging and to accounts built up through corporate resources leaving the company and going to a competitor.
Two things are clear:
- The time to establish account ownership is when the account is being set up.
- Every company has to have a clear, written social media policy—and they have to review and revise it at least once a year to make sure it is neither opening the company up to losing valuable prospects when an employee leaves nor strangling nascent social media efforts and stifling recruitment of social media talent.
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