Keith Burtis asks a pretty interesting question on his blog today:

I have been working with a few brands of late that have told me that they prefer to have their logo over a human face as their avatar on twitter. At first I had a real problem with this. Personally I love how Scott Monty has created his blended avatar with Ford. I also like the way Olivier Blanchard humanizes his account, but also has branding. Where my question comes in is for organizations that have multiple people tweeting from the same account. You are not able to get everyones face into the small avatar box, but at the same time do people feel like they are being pushed commercial advertising by following a brand logo?

To me, twitter is about being human. My 2 rules for twitter engagement are here please help with defining number three:

1. Create two way dialog with real people to real people. Don’t sound like a press release.

2. Be selfless and of massive value to the community. No one gives a crap about you, what they care about is what you can do for them.

3. (Question) Avatars? Chris Brogan wants to see a human face on the twitter account, but I don’t think that is always possible or even strategically appropriate. Lets explore!

The Avatar question: Logo, face, or a combination of both?

All right. Let’s take a practical approach to this problem:

1. We’ve established that every corporate entity needs an overarching branded account. @Ford, @McDonalds, @HomeDepot, @Starbucks, @CocaCola, @Pepsi, etc. Typically, accounts like these don’t need to be humanized visually. They are simply the brand’s footprint and general presence on Twitter.

2. We’ve also established that someone within an organization who plays a role for that organization on Twitter needs a dedicated Twitter account. Though in many cases, such individuals still use face or logo avatars, the ideal avatar format for them is a combination of face and logo, like @scottmonty, myself, @chadmcmillan and @angbowen to reference a few. (Disclaimer: I lobbied Scott for weeks to add the Ford logo to his avatar, so I may be a little biased when it comes to his design.) 😉

It stands to reason that if an organization has a team of folks whose job includes a certain level of engagement on Twitter, creating avatars that convey both the human (face) and corporate (logo) elements create context, and brand continuity in that channel. (Click here for an earlier post on the art of the corporate avatar.)

General structure of an organization’s Twitter engagement team

So first, let’s look at what that looks like, and then we’ll look at how it actually works in terms of the engagement process.

Here’s how the ideal Twitter org chart looks like (assuming a flat organization vis-a-vis Twitter – Typical a first year model for most companies):


In this made-up example, ABC Corp manages 7 Twitter accounts. Its first twitter account was @ABCcorp, and initially, all of its Twitter activity was handled through this account. But after a few months, the company realized it needed to do two things:

1. Humanize its presence on Twitter.

2. Establish a broader footprint on Twitter to address specific needs.

During the corporate account’s initial test run, ABC Corp realized that it was getting very specific types of questions, comments and complaints: Most were customer service-oriented. Some involved IT, HR and Marketing. And to top it all off, the company’s COO was very interested in playing a part in the company’s Twitter experiment. After some deliberation, 6 key people were added to the @ABCcorp Twitter team (shown in the image above).

An avatar design was approved for official use, and the standard added to the company’s Social Media policy.

The next step involved figuring out whether or not ABC Corp. would own its Twitter accounts or rely on its Twitter team members (twitternauts) to take care of it themselves.

Why role definitions instead of names?

ABC Corp. had two choices when it came to creating its “human” accounts: Let people use their names and even existing accounts, or create company/role-specific accounts. It opted for the latter. Here’s why:

1. ABC Corp.’s CEO wanted to clearly let the public know who was speaking for the company. Using people’s names as their Twitter “handle” didn’t indicate what their role was with the company. He didn’t like that. Although there would have been nothing wrong with it, he prefered that the accounts reflect the individual’s roles within the organization. He reasoned that their names were to be listed in their account profiles, so it wouldn’t be a problem to go this route.

2. ABC Corp.’s CEO also wanted to ensure that the accounts were used strictly within the context of brand engagement. He didn’t trust that every conversation in a social setting would reflect positively on ABC Corp. The 6 Twitternauts were encouraged to also manage personal accounts for their own use, but separate corporate accounts were created specifically for their “official” duties with ABC Corp.

3. ABC Corp.’s CEO realized that if ABC Corp. didn’t own and control its Twitter accounts, any one of the 6 Twitternauts leaving the company would create continuity of engagement issues. This type of problem would be compounded as more and more employees of the company started using twitter in an official capacity. Given #2 (above) he wanted to find a way to make sure that if/when tweeting employees left the company, the accounts through which they engaged the public on Twitter would not go away with them.

By a) owning the accounts and b) naming each account after a specific role rather than the user’s name, a staffing change can be easily addressed: Change the avatar, change the profile info, and voila. Within minutes, the problem can be solved and continuity can be preserved. The account’s followers aren’t lost and the public doesn’t have to search for a new account. Presto.

Note: This isn’t necessarily what I suggest doing, but it is one of several options available to organizations, and for many corporate cultures, roles rather than names may be ideal.

The response process

Okay. So now we have a structure: At the center (or top) of ABC Corp.’s Twitter program is the faceless corporate account. The Brand’s account. The account with arguably the most visibility but the least amount of… character. @ABCcorp is the account through which most announcements are made. Though it engages with fans and customers, these touches are very brief and very light. Typically, 1 out of 10 tweets from this account tend to be some kind of PR or promotional tweet. Links to new blog posts, to press releases, to newly launched microsites, etc. For examples of this, check out @homedepot, @starbucks, etc.

And of course, the @ABCcorp account also gets a lot of requests for attention. We’ve already addressed that the largest percentage of requests for action involve customer service issues. Complaints, requests for support, etc. In this particular example, the request is:

@twitteruser9000x : @ABCcorp I’ve been wondering about what kinds of benefits you guys offer. Is it true that you offer pet insurance?

Here’s what should happen:


In this instance, the inquiry and acknowledgment exchange should look like this:

@twitteruser9000x : @ABCcorp I’ve been wondering about what kinds of benefits you guys offer. Is it true that you offer pet insurance?

@ABCcorp : @twitteruser9000x Great question. Let me hook you up with someone who can answer your question. Do you follow @ABC_HR yet?

At this point, two things can happen:

1. @ABC_HR should be monitoring Twitter (even passively). If so, the mention of his name by @ABCcorp should pop up in his stream and prompt a response.

2. To make absolutely sure that the message (or ticket) doesn’t get lost through in the shuffle, the person managing the @ABCcorp account can ping/email/call/txt or otherwise notify @ABC_HR of the request.

Procedurally, there are many ways of doing this properly. Whatever works best for the organization. What’s important is that the handoff doesn’t end up in a fumble.


What happens next should be fairly simple:

@ABC_HR : @twitteruser9000x Hi Jill. Yes we do. A lot of us are pet owners here, so we want to make sure our furry friends get the nest care possible. 🙂

@twitteruser9000x : @ABC_HR That’s so awesome! Can you tell me more about it?

@ABC_HR : @twitteruser9000x Sure! Check out all the deets here (insert hyperlink) and let me know if you have any questions. BTW, dog, cat, or other? 😀


So let’s recap real quick:

1. Someone addresses a question to the brand’s general account (@ABCcorp).

2. The account manager acknowledges the request in a prompt, friendly matter.

3. The account manager determines who within the team would best be suited to respond to the request.

4. The account manager notifies the best person within the team that they need to respond to a request on twitter.

5. The designated “human” account takes over and engages with the person who triggered the inquiry.

It’s that simple.

Other types of response models

Example A: The indirect complaint

1. Someone tweets about a horrible experience they just had with one of ABCcorp’s products.

2. The account manager for @ABCcorp spots the complaint in his stream. (Via a simple Tweetdeck #search, for instance, his Radian 6 dashboard, or any number of means.)

3. Even though the person with the complaint didn’t address the complaint directly to @ABCcorp, the @ABCcorp account manager acknowledges the complaint. (Or passes it on directly to the appropriate account manager. Perhaps @ABC_cs1 or @ABC_cs2)

4. Response, dialogue, resolution.

Example B: Complaint tweeted to the wrong person

1. Someone complains to @ABC_CMO about a promotion that seems to have vanished once they got inside one of ABC-Corp’s stores.

2. @ABC_CMO acknowledges the complaint but has better things to do than take care of every customer service complaint. He knows he needs to graciously pass off the complaint/inquiry to someone else:

@ABC_CMO : @angry_tweep99 Hi Jack. I’m not sure what happened with that. What store was it?

@angry_tweep99 : @ABC_CMO It was store #123 in Greenville, SC. This is the second time it’s happened this year! What’s going on?!

@ABC_CMO : @angry_tweep99 Sorry about that. Hang on. I’m boarding a plane in two minutes, so let me hook you up with @ABC_cs2. She’ll help you fix the problem right away. 🙂

3. @ABC_cs2 takes over the dialogue. Easy as pie.

In this case, the handoff was completely lateral. The @ABCcorp account didn’t need to get involved.

For bonus points, @ABC_CMO can check back with @angry_tweep99 later that day or the next morning to make sure the problem was resolved.

A few things to think about

1. It makes sense to have an overarching corporate account for the brand. The avatar for the account should be the brand logo/mark. Its @name should reflect the brand as well.

2. It makes sense to create unique “human” accounts for various members of the organization’s team who will be called upon to engage on Twitter. These accounts form the company’s human layer of engagement.

3. For the sake of clarity and brand continuity, the avatars for these human accounts should be a blend of the person’s face AND the corporate logo. Without a logo, the face is just another random face on Twitter. Give the avatar context. Give people a visual cue. Brand the conversation from the start. Let them know that they are being taken care of by a representative of your company.

4. The main twitter account for the brand can (and probably should) serve as the receiving hub for all inquiries and comments.

5. While the main twitter account usually does a fine job of lightly engaging the public, it is not necessarily best suited to pursue deeper and more meaningful engagement, which, after all is the point of being on Twitter.

A) People want to talk to a human being, not a logo.

B) It is difficult to develop a relationship with a logo.

C) People want to engage people inside a company. They want access. They want a link to someone behind the veil.

D) Give people what they want. (See A, B and C above)

Note: It doesn’t cost you anything to create Twitter accounts. Why limit yourself to one corporate account? More to the point, why force a team of people to share a faceless corporate account and make them use silly antics like ^signatures?

(If you don’t know what I am talking about, look for tweets from corporate Twitter accounts with footers like ^MS or ^JS. Those are signatures. They indicate that several people are using the same faceless account. Tweets ending with ^MS might be published by Michelle Smith while tweets ending with ^JS may be published by Jack Smith.)

Why? Why would a company do this? It’s just silly. Give these people their own accounts already.

6. Companies in their first year of Social Media adoption need to start thinking about how they plan to manage online accounts a year from now. It isn’t enough to think about today. Ask the question: As more and more of our employees start using Social Media for us the way they use phones and email, how do we ensure that a) this all remains manageable no matter how fast it spreads across our organization, and b) our brand is conveyed properly and remains true to our standards in the Social Media space?

Hint: Structure and methodology help manage things like this.

The model proposed here is not the only valid one, but I propose that every organization considering how to properly structure their Twitter engagement through Year 1 at least look at how it might work for them. Test it, see what works, tweak what doesn’t, and have fun.

There’s a lot more to talk about, but I think I’ve covered the main points for today.



Special thanks to several of my "Like Minds" conference co-speakers
for lending their profile photos to this post. 😉