Finding the balance between personal and professional on Twitter

I had the pleasure of being a guest at the Bliss PR Agency in New York City this week and the staff loaded me up with questions. Here was a particularly interesting one from Ben Weiss:

What is the proper balance between personal and professional outreach on Twitter? If I am using my account to promote company and client content, is it also appropriate to carry on conversations on a personal level about sports, a great recipe or my favorite charity?

This is a great question and one that I have to address on two levels, philosophical and practical.

At its heart, Twitter is a business networking tool … which is what many companies and individuals don’t understand. They view the platform as just another way to broadcast company press releases. By trying to force-fit old “broadcast” media thinking into this new platform they are sub-optimizing Twitter at best and hurting their brand at worst.

Think of yourself in another networking situation … say an industry conference or a chamber of commerce meeting. Would you stand there and read press releases? No, of course not. You would seek out great people to connect with, discuss subjects that are interesting to you and them, and look for ways to work together. Twitter can work exactly the same way.

So even if you are playing a business “role” on Twitter, there is no reason you can’t be yourself, unless you are a naturally mean and sucky person.  If you are in that category, you either have to not be mean and sucky or not use Twitter. And if you are truly, chronically mean and sucky, you will probably will fail at business any way, let alone Twitter, so it’s better that you find out sooner than later I suppose.

When networking, the most powerful relationships are built on trust and friendship, so it’s OK to let people know a little bit more about what is going on in your life, including your love of sports, charity, and family.  As you go throughout your day, just tweet what is interesting to you, as long it is appropriate and professional.

In most cases, I don’t think it makes sense to have both a personal and business account. You’re not two people and being yourself is not only a great way to build your business network, it humanizes your company brand.

Somebody told me yesterday: “I just do NOT follow a company logo account on Twitter. Why would I?”  I think that sums up the sentiment for many.

Now let’s look at practical realities. Even if you have this concept down, maybe your company doesn’t. If your job is to be your official company Twitterer, you may have marching orders to follow a role or social media policy that has you tweeting behind a logo. Here’s what you should do in that case: follow the company policy. Don’t lose your job over Twitter. You can still work to change attitudes over time.

There are several compromises or hybrid strategies to blending personal and professional approaches on Twitter:

All business all the time. In some cases it is entirely appropriate to “broadcast” over Twitter. Here’s an example: Citi has a site that only broadcasts job openings. They really don’t need to engage in a conversation and they’re not even trying. Notice that they follow nobody. They have jobs, people want them … and they subscribe to the account.  It’s that simple. They could probably work to build a community, but why?

Tweeting under cover — Many of the world’s most important brands have teams of tweeters engaging with the public behind a corporate logo. Like this example from McDonald’s Twitter account, the initials of the tweeter show up at the end of each tweet and following a link in the Twitter bio leads you back to profiles of the individuals providing the tweets. Certainly a great option to humanize the brand and still operate under one brand banner.

Blending personal/corporate — In some cases there are corporate accounts assigned to individuals. When that person moves on, the profile is still owned by the company. One example of this is @sharpiesusan who tweets on behalf of Sharpie pens. Susan has built up a faithful following but when she moves on to another job someday, this brand equity will stay with the parent company Newwell-Rubbermaid and Susan will simply be replaced.

This also works well in a customer service situation. In the example above, ATT has accounts set up for the representatives that can be moved over to other representatives as they change and take on new roles.

So those are a few examples and best practices but I’m sure there are many more. What challenges are you facing blending personal and professional content on Twitter?

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  • My personal preference is to have a corporate account with a human face and name attached that is largely business, but with a personality that mirrors that of the organization. Then, support that with many, many personal accounts that express their own interests and values while also staying largely within the lines of acceptable use as far as being a representative of Company XYZ goes. This allows a company that receives props or complaints to its main account to have one of its employees respond on its behalf should it choose to. Tools like CoTweet are awesome for that because of how you can track, assign, and attribute all of the activity. I’m sure other tools do a good job with that too. I’m just most familiar with that one.

    While Zappos does not exactly follow that model, I (like many people) often cite its use of Twitter as a great demonstration of where my clients could get to and how they could be using the medium. Frequently of course, organizations choose to stay with a single logo account, whether it has a personality or not, and then might have one or two employees that engage with their own accounts, but that is often only because those people are Twitter enthusiasts and not because their is some internal push to get staff engaging on behalf of the brand.

    In Grizzard’s case, we have a largely impersonal, more broadcast-focused corporate account and then a small, but growing, group of us that bring the personality on behalf of the brand when we can insert ourselves on its behalf. Should anyone have critiques or suggestions though, I’m not saying we or our clients can implement everything, but we are constantly seeking constructive criticism 😉

  • I live this dilemma every day. I am not our company’s official Twitterer, but my Twitter handle has one of our flagship products in the name.

    I try to be a personal advocate for brand while also being ‘just me.’

    Sometimes I wonder if it would be better if I split myself into 2 personnas, but then I would just have another set of problems.

  • Mark

    The thing I love about twitter is the engagement element. But I am also here for business, to develop my profile, brand, ideas and hopefully attract clients. I have a few accounts I use for different purposes.

    I am not sure if I can get over the contradiction of having accounts for personal and professional purposes. I was considering setting up a new blog for my business. At the moment I have a personal blog with some posts that are business related but more from a personal angle.

    I will have to decide whether I am going to launch a new blog or keep the existing one and just update/revamp it. I suppose I have to decide between a personal branding focus or a professional focus but obviously from business development/marketing perspective there are other factors to take into account when developing a focused business strategy.

    I think I may have to take a similar approach to what you do in the end. As always it is about getting the balance right so I am effective in securing business but still engaging and don’t lose my “voice”.

    Your post for me is very timely and as ever you have given me lots to think about.

    Thanks Mark

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  • Mark,

    Thank you for providing great examples of companies doing it their way. We need more examples and less theory in the social media world.

    My Twitter account is a combination of professional and personal, but the primary focus is business. People who follow me will see some banter between me and my friends, but I’m always aware that I am representing my company. I try to move conversations to DM, email, or phone before they go too far. Sometimes it is a tough call and not one I would want to delegate.

    Thank you again.

  • I love this post Mark. I have to maintain two Twitter accounts and i really think just letting me do my thing on Twitter the way I have been is a better idea (my bosses don’t listen to me)

    A lot of companies get on Twitter and use it as a megaphone, and you can use it that way, but then I think you really miss the best part of Twitter which is forming relationships with others.

    I loved reading this, and will be sharing it on Facebook.

  • Going to be the doubting Thomas or Tina here Mark. Twitter may be a business networking tool to you (and me for that matter) but for thousands it’s been a waste of time, something they don’t get; others they love it as a real-time way to IM or ‘text’ virtual friends they’ve met elsewhere, then of course those poor spammers trying to give away free iPads. Plenty of different uses, different motivations for Twitter.

    That said.. it is very different for a big brand vs an individual like myself. I like you McDonald’s examples, seen Coke and Bing do the same w/ the initials and identifying the corporate tweeters. But I doubt they spend 25 tweets live chatting about what happened on DWTS the other night or a snarky, profanity laced rant post on marketing or fast food chains, not the best fit for the brand. Like you said, they are playing a role and that kind of stuff is best reserved for a personal account.

    IDK.. I get the need to be real and personable on Twitter, it’s how it works best for me. Still a far cry from the full disclosure, truthy transparency. Now it’s quitting time early for wine and cards night, later. FWIW.

  • That’s a great approach Eric. Constant learning.

    While many people criticize the broadcast approach — and certainly it can be annoying — it can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Not many of us had it down perfectly at first. Sounds like you’re taking a patient approach!

  • Hello Mark.
    From what I’ve seen lots like to use twitter like a razor blade, personal close to the skin or heart of the matter, and it seems like they get too close… Others, like me for instance, like to learn how to use twitter like a butter knife spread myself around the toast, personal but not so much that I get too involved with being ignored.
    New to The Tao…Billy

  • Sounds like an exhausting option! I can barely keep up with one of me!! Thanks!

  • This is great advice: well-organized and well-timed! We’re setting up our social media policies at the moment, and this is great food for thought. It’s something we’ve all thought about, but perhaps not confronted directly: thanks for putting a well-thought-out opinion in such a convenient place! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Also, I (/we 😉 totally dig the sculpture photo you used!

  • I love the way our company handled it. There are official company accounts on Twitter and Facebook and a couple of local market Twitter accounts (we have stores across the US) like the one I’m commenting under. We all use the same color wheel avatar but are known by different names.

    It still amazes me to hear someone is managing multiple accounts, at first being “official” and then next being themselves and owning their content. If you still have your actual job to perform like I do that could get a bit tricky. And since I too own the content of this local account while being held accountable to a few rules, I choose to infuse my own personality.

    I have been asked a few times if I am a real person and have usually responded with a link to my Linkedin profile or shout back, I’m Cheri. That usually reassures people who want to communicate.

  • Thanks, Mark. Yeah, definitely. I think it really helps too to follow the Jason Falls method of organizations having many social media policies that help paint the lines for people so that they feel comfortable knowing what is safe and what is not. That’s something I’m still working on 😉

  • I personally had an issue blending professional and personal content on a blog but I think I got that resolved now 🙂

    This is something we are looking to tackle with a few client accounts. One way of doing this is leveraging the audience we already have. In the past, many posts have been product centered. However, looking at what interests the fan base outside the product (sports, coming attractions, shows etc) is the next key objective.

    I think you draw a great balance here between the two, especially with the parallels you draw with events. Well played

  • This is a thought-provoking post, Mark–so much so that I’ve actually shelled out five hard-earned bucks for the Kindle edition of The Tao of Twitter.

    I’m not sure if you discuss this topic at greater in the book though, so I’ll just ask here: You sagely advise against having both a personal and a business Twitter account. But what happens when you, as an employee, don’t control the account?

    I’d be inclined to argue that in that situation, you should have your own Twitter account that you will always control, at least if Twitter is something you personally value. Otherwise, you risk losing the Twitter network and personal brand equity you’ve built if you leave your employer.

    But with two accounts, the problem then becomes how much overlap, if any, will you allow between the two? Do you avoid discussing work-related topics on your personal account? And do you keep your best personal stuff off your work account because you want to save it for your own? It gets very tricky very fast…

  • I have two accounts… one is strictly personal, and mostly for my photography. The other is still my own, but I use it to tweet things I’m interested in plus some stuff from the company I work for.

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  • Ah man! I haven’t gotten past you got to go see my Bliss friends!

  • Great post! I try to keep personal and professional content separate, but that doesn’t always happens. At least 95% of my twitter content is professional.

  • Anonymous

    It is cool to see two planets I admire align; {grow} and BlissPR. As per usual, you’re check on the pulse of all things related to social media marketing (and PR) are immediate, insightful and absolutely smart. Thanks Mark!

  • It sounds to me like you ARE the brand, Kenny. I think if you just focus on being your self and making an attempt to connect to people in a meaningful way you’ll do great. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

  • Superb comment. I once had this advice from the social media director at GE. He said, “Remember that no matter how casul the conversation it is still a conversation about your company.” Solid advice that aligns with your comment. Thanks!

  • Well, you certainly “get it” Nancy and are undoubtedly on your way to great success with your down-to-earth approach. Thanks for your comment!

  • Agreed Billy. Both are great!

  • The whole transparency thing kind of bugs me. I am not going to be transparent and I don;t particularly wnat others to be transparent if that implies disclosure about things that may not necessarily have to be disclosed. What I do expect is honesty. And I think that is something we can adhere to whether we are tweeting on behalf of ourselves or a company. Agree?

  • And me? I’m a jagged piece of glass shredding everything in my path in a continuous and reckless act of destruction. Or, at least that is what I’ve been told : ) Love the comment. Thanks Billy!

  • You’re welcome and I’m glad you appreciated the artwork too. Sometimes it just works out. That sculpture seemed perfect.

  • So I guess this begs the question … why use a company logo instead of a face. Your customers are telling you it’s confusing and impersonal. I get the whole brand awareness thing. but I’m looking at this colot wheel and still have no idea what your company is. Here is some recommended reading. Let me know what you think: Your company’s single biggest mistake on Twitter http://bit.ly/f4S6T8

  • Thanks Drew. Hopefully your customer work is a case study in the making.

  • An excellent question. Here is a blog post that answers your question, at least in part. It explores a real example of Twitter account ownership issues. Is social media the new corporate star-maker? http://bit.ly/d8yFzZ

    A recent example of this “ownership” issue occurred when Frnak Eliason left his well-established posiiton at Comcast and had to start over building a new Twitter account at Citi. Frankly I think Comcast did the right thing. They had been paying Frank to build this equity on company time so it is not unreasonable for them to expect to own it,

    In the end, I think it is very important to establish and maintain a personal brand in any job you do. It’s a new way of looking at things but ultimately can increase your value over time to both you current employer and an unknonw future employer. Thanks for the tremendous question and comment John! You pushed us in some new directions on this one!

  • It all gets back to your strategy. Glad you found a system that works Kristi. Thanks!

  • A real pleasure. I go to talk about blogging with the whole staff. See what happens when I actually get INVITED some place??? : )

  • Kind of an interesting concept actually. I guess I could argue that since I am my brand that 100% of my content is professional.

  • Awww shucks. Your ears were probably burning today! Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  • Dandrews

    Mark – this is definitely something that I have wondered about and your post is enlightening. I definitely don’t think people find me sucky and rarely mean so maybe I’ll try striking more of a balance.

  • I have to agree with you Deb! Thanks!

  • Enjoyed the post!

  • Great post – as always. I think I understand how to handle this with my own business, but I’m not clear on what is the best approach for non-profits. I’ve been asked to advise a couple and I wonder if the approach should be the same or if they should remain strictly focused on their business, i.e. charitable activities.

  • Mark – thank you for another clear presentation of the benefits and struggles with twitter. You have shared some valuable information here (and in your book) that has made my twitter experience much better in all its pieces and parts.

    My picture now appears on my corporate account because of lesson I learned here. Thanks again!

  • Anonymous

    This post and the “single biggest mistake” post are gnawing at me right now.

    I have my own Twitter handle (which I’ve built into a comfy blend of business and randomness), and I’m also the primary Tweeter (but not the only one) for our corporate Twitter account (also a pretty good blend of corporate info, curated links, and interactivity).

    But here’s the real issue…my husband and I own the company, and I don’t want my mug on both accounts…he doesn’t really want his picture on the corporate account (programmers…), and a photo of the two of us seems a bit “American Gothic.” What’s a tweeter to do?

  • Yes. Makes me think of the ‘true vs. accurate’ line in ‘Absence of Malice’ in ideas of true and honesty. I don’t disclose a ton of stuff I shouldn’t or just don’t want to disclose but I consider myself truthful, honest and even somewhat transparent per my strategies. FWIW.

  • May I suggest getting a dog and putting his mig on your twitter profile lol

  • Which is why I have decided to just walk the line and have 1 account and mix the personal and the business!

  • Hi Mark, I like your input re; having one account for both personal and business. It makes sense.

    Now that you’ve opened this can of worms in my mind, it’s bringing up many pros/cons of both.

    The last thing I needed today, but necessary : )

    Thank you sir!

  • I think the approach I have outlined above applies even moreso for non-profits. At least in the best practices and case studies I have seen there is even less social media “selling” on the non-profit side than with a company. It’s all about relationships and awareness.

    I’ll give you an example. A leader for a local non-profit was a popular and recognizable social media personality. He used his own picture and let his personality come through. But in his photo he was drinking from a mug with the name of the charity on it so the connection was unmistakable. For some reason a few months ago, he switched from his picture to just a charity logo and is “broadcasting” more. I think this much less effective than when he was simply a guy connecting to people in the community. Hope that helps!

  • Outstanding Dave! Nice to hear from you.

  • It might help if I knew a little more about your company and what you’re trying to accomplish. It all starts with goals. If you’re trying to position yourself as a mom and pop business, then why not have a couple picture? Tell your husband to get over it. Business is business. Give me a call and we can hash it out in more detail if you like. Thanks for the good question Rose Mary.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much Mark. Good food for thought…and Dino, we have a cat 🙂

  • Cat will do just as well 🙂

  • Ha! Hate to make you think like that. : )

  • Great article Mark. I think sometimes we do worry too much what others think of us and Twitter can become a real hindrance to personal and professional relationship development in that regard. If we are able to be ourselves, we genuinely engage with people of like minds, both personally and professionally.

  • I would love to see an avatar of a cat with the Twitter bird hanging out of its mouth. In fact, it should be Keyboard Cat : )

  • Well said Nicole. Nothing to add to that! Thanks for commenting.

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  • Beth Rubin-Gabor

    Mark,

    This is a great reminder that building professional relationships takes time, energy and thought. You do need to be yourself and represent your personal and professional brand well. My Twitter @whereitblooms is a combination of business/personal. People know what I do but I make an effort to connect personally with many people… through common interests. It’s human nature to want to work with people you “like and trust” and we are more loyal to brands that reflect that.

    Great article!
    Beth

  • Thanks Beth. Sounds like you have it rocking!

  • Thank you for the article. It’s not the point of this article, but it continues to be frustrating to hear the growing monotony of Twitter disclosure/disclaimer rules that have already impacted Health, Finance and now Real Estate. Can’t wait for the flurry of lawsuits set to begin over what was (or perhaps WASN’T) Tweeted.

    P.S. I own Conuiti Social Business Media and these are my own opinions!!!

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  • Anonymous

    We love twitter, its helped us build http://startupsacrossamerica.com
    We use @startupsmap to tell people about the map .We have over 22,857 followers

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  • Oh, there already have been lawsuits! Pizza joint hit with $2 million lawsuit http://bit.ly/7VYiwi

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  • Great points, Mark. I especially like how you used the in-person networking scenario to illustrate good rules of engagement on Twitter. A mix of business and personal chats build relationships in “real life” – so it logically follows that they do so on Twitter. Thanks for your post!

  • Well said, Jennifer. It really get down to common sense. Igniore the technology. Just be a person. : )

  • Anonymous

    Personally I decided to have 2 separate Twitter accounts. The one I use as a personal account also has a business side attached to it but I feel much more comfortable tweeting about my favorite sports team scoring and engaging in a more laid back way than the other. The other account I use specially for business, engaging with others in the industry and positioning myself as a professional.

    I tried doing both in one but I found it really overwhelming, I was constantly rethinking my tweets and it just made it a chore. Not sure anyone else has felt this way but splitting my accounts into two has really helped me focus.

  • This is a common question. In general I recommend only one account. Think of it this way. If you were ata business networking meeting, you don’t just discuss business. You might talk about your kids, a recent trip or a news event. This helps people get to know you as a person and build trust in you that will lead to business benefits.

    The great value in Twitter is that it is networking on steroids but the core philosophy is no different. If you only talk about business you’re not letting people get to know you. Also, I find that Twitter is primarily a business tool, unlike Facebook which is primarily a personal networking platform. So on Facebook, yes, I do have the accounts separate, but on Twitter I’m “one person.”

    I wouldn’t “think” Twitter through too much. Just be. Does that make any sense?

  • Anonymous

    Absolutely, makes perfect sense. I overcomplicate things, I know 🙂

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  • Really appreciate the post, Mark. I agree re: one account for personal brand and multiple hybrid accounts for large corporations, but what about the in-between company? The 10-20 employees? I chucked the dual-account experiment when I was a solo entrepreneur, but after career pivoting to representing a small biz online (due in no small part to the personal brand equity I built up), I tweet behind a company logo — very little broadcasting, mostly sharing industry related news, and some engaging, though not nearly as much as on my personal account. Still evolving, but seems to work. I’ll peek in here on your blog and watch for your generous advice along the way 🙂

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  • Kate

    I just finished reading your article and I
    find myself still having a few questions. I personally use social media
    i.e. facebook and twitter to promote my own interests such as museums,
    graphic design and art in general. I use LinkedIn to promote my resume
    and be active in groups to promote myself and my skill set. Recently my
    company has started using social media and are encouraging us to use our
    own social media outlets to promote our company and brand. Not that I
    don’t want to lend a hand to my company but my social media outlets
    serve their own purpose for me and I don’t feel that I should intertwine
    my personal goals for social media with those of my company.
    Whats your take on this?

    Should employers encourage their staff to
    use their personal social media outlets for their gain and promotion?

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  • Guest

    I just stumbled across this post when coming up with a strategy to simplify, collapse, combine, and condense my various online presences.

    In particular, I’m considering unifying  my personal and professional twitter accounts into a single stream. I’ve found that the editorial overhead of maintaining two accounts — in addition to many others for specific work projects — stifles creativity and the ease of expression so much so that I end up not tweeting.  Your thoughtful post as well as the comments have convinced me to at least merge my personal and professional streams.  Thanks!

  • Really good point! I’m glad the post was helpful.

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  • This is why I have a super secret “personal” account where I can dish about my trashy reality TV addiction…

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