June 28, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
Catching up to the recent swell of government users, Twitter will expand its West Coast office and tap into America's political hub -- by creating a Washington, D.C.-based public policy department.
"Significant numbers" of applications have poured in, and the San Francisco-based company will interview candidates soon, with hopes to make a decision within the next couple months, Twitter Vice President of Communications Sean Garrett said.
With users from the highest levels of government -- Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- to the smallest local municipalities, Twitter's 140-character maximum messages are an increasingly integral part of agencies' public relations.
"You're already seeing diplomacy at the highest level," Garrett said in reference to Medvedev's recent visit to Twitter's headquarters and subsequent press conference with Obama.
But Twitter isn't just for the bigwigs, and agencies don't need thousands of followers to be useful, Garrett said. "It can be very effective within districts," he said. "This is a very critical audience to us."
"Frankly we're really just catching up to hiring people that work beyond simply keeping the site up and developing new products."
The liaison will likely play a role in helping agencies verify accounts, get the most from new Twitter services and better communicate with their constituencies, Garrett said.
"We want to make sure that they are getting the most out of their Twitter usage and ... for those who have not yet decided to use Twitter, they can have a better understanding of the value they can gain from it," he said. "Obviously, strategically is how can they best communicate with their constituencies, how can they create dialogs, how can they make this an effective platform so it doesn't just benefit them, but really benefits the people they're serving."
While Garrett wouldn't say much about Twitter's "fledging public policy department," he said it intends to hire a department head at some point.
The company's expansion to the East Coast comes at a time when social media's values are being recognized and embraced by individuals, businesses and state agencies -- but usage is outpacing Twitter's abilities to keep the "fail whale" from popping up and its evolving business model.
Garrett said it's still a small company of about 200 employees, up from 100 in January and 22 in 2009. Twitter currently has 40 open positions in 15 departments according to its website. On top of adding staff, it's plans to expand and add services, such as the ability to localize tweets and unveil a possible money-making analytics feature, he said.
"Obviously for state legislators or members of Congress who care about a specific district, they're going to be interested in a feature like that," Garrett said of Twitter Places. "... Analytics would allow people see specifically the impact of their tweets -- how many times something's retweeted, how many times a link has been clicked on, etc., so they'll be able to understand the actual impact and be able to better capture the value of their entire usage on Twitter."
The initial plan is to first roll out the analytics service for commercial users or businesses, and then expand its market base if success is seen. But these are plans in progress and subject to change, Garrett noted. "We could provide some level of analytics for free ... these are things that frankly haven't been determined yet," he said. Twitter is planning to make such services available this year, Garrett said.
The company hopes this overall effort to better engage government users and provide services that will make their experience more personalized will be felt by the public sector, which is where the D.C. liaison will assist. "If you have a presence and you're able to use Twitter effectively to get the word out in real time about your opinion and become transparent in how you communicated and make decisions as a policymaker, we're hopeful this can have a positive impact," Garrett said. "And this job will be part of that."
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