Technology

Twitter's Blackout: Bad for Business


Starbucks, IBM, and other companies rely on Twitter to reach customers. The site's outage could encourage them to speed up implementation of backup plans

Pitching products and talking to customers on Twitter has become so easy for companies, many may forget how they ever did without it.

They got a sharp reminder on Aug. 6, when a hacking attack on the microblogging site left users around the world unable to access Twitter for much of the day.

At IBM (IBM), the outage impeded thousands of staffers who use the site in their work. But Social Media Manager Adam Christensen said it didn't get in the way of pressing business. "The thing that's important to keep in mind is that Twitter is real work, but it's not deadline-oriented work," he says. Christensen says he usually spends much of his day sending messages through Twitter; during the outage he went to meetings.

Things were worse at Stocktwits, which supplies investors information on stocks through postings to Twitter. Work ground to a near-halt as users couldn't post messages. Even after Twitter restored its service, third-party sites that pull information from it were still without service. "We're sort of dead in the water until they fix it," said Stocktwits Chief Executive Soren Macbeth.

Bypassing Twitter

The company has plans to avoid days like this. On Sept. 1, StockTwits will launch a new, downloadable application that doesn't require Twitter to post messages. "That will save us from these types of problems," Macbeth says.

CrowdSPRING, an online marketplace for artists, also found itself unable to communicate with potential buyers. "Once you get customers used to communicating on Twitter, it's hard to tell them to communicate in a different manner," says Ross Kimbarovsky, who co-founded the site.

While casual users may have hardly noticed the blackout, the day served as a wake-up call to Twittering businesses that the service offers no guarantees. "Everybody's investing in all these creative ideas for reaching their customers on Twitter, and there's nothing that says Twitter has to do anything," says Scott Townsend, marketing director for United Linen, a commercial laundry service in Bartlesville, Okla.

In an Aug. 6 blog post, San Francisco-based Twitter blamed the outage on a "denial-of-service attack," in which hackers flood a company's servers with so many requests that they're unable to respond. Similar attacks have hit Facebook and blogging site Live Journal.

A Utility, Like Electricity or Phone Service

To be be sure, Twitter has experienced several blackouts since its founding three years ago. But as the site has grown to more than 10 million users, it has become more stable.

It has also become a more important conduit between companies—including IBM, Dell (DELL), Comcast (CMCSA), and Starbucks (SBUX)—and their customers. "From a business point of view, Twitter has to be thought of as a utility," says Shel Israel, author of Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods (Portfolio, August 2009). "If it goes down, it's the same thing as if the electricity goes down or if the phones are out," he says.

Having a backup plan is the best bet, says Carri Bugbee, founder of Big Deal PR, an agency that helps companies monitor and market their brands on Twitter and other social-media sites. "I just try to tell people Twitter is a great tool for marketing and a whole lot of other things, but it is nascent," she says. "It's free, it's fun, it's really valuable—but you absolutely have to be poised to be flexible."

Ironically, the Aug. 6 Twitter outage may have helped a few businesses by drawing users away from their screens. Brad Nelson, whose full-time job at Starbucks is to communicate with customers on Twitter, says more office workers getting up and going out may have been good for sales. Says Nelson: "We can't serve coffee through Twitter."

Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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