Will businesses be all aflutter over Twitter?

11 Feb 2014

Stephen McIntyre, managing director of Twitter in Ireland and Twitter's head of EMEA

When US Airways Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River off midtown Manhattan in January 2009 after it struck a skein of geese and lost engine power is when Stephen McIntyre, MD of Twitter in Ireland and Twitter’s head of EMEA, realised the microblogging platform had become a cultural phenomenon.

“That stands for Twitter as one of the big defining events,” the former Google executive said.

Since then, many other events have dominated Twitter: the death of pop star Michael Jackson, the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama winning his second term as US president, to the recent three-try 28-6 win by Ireland over Scotland in the RBS 6 Nations Championship rugby union tournament.

“In Ireland, Twitter reflects the conversation that could be happening around watercoolers, dinner tables or pubs,” said McIntyre.

Birth of Twitter

Twitter began in 2006, when a group of tech workers sat in a San Francisco, California, playground and brainstormed a 140-character messaging system that would be better than SMS (short message service) for telling groups of people what each of them was up to.

Now Twitter, considered one of the jewels in Dublin’s tech crown, has hired more than 140 employees in the Irish capital. It aims to have 200 by the end of this year.

“One hundred forty characters! And unlike our product we’re not going to just stop at 140,” said McIntyre on what has to be one of the hardest fought-over tech projects in Europe.

Twitter joins a coterie of the who’s who of born-on-the-internet companies that have nested in Dublin, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Groupon and Salesforce.com.

McIntyre joined Twitter from Google two years ago, shortly after Twitter announced it had selected Dublin over other prominent tech locations in Europe, such as London or Berlin.

McIntyre, who studied electronic engineering at Trinity College Dublin, cut his teeth in the mobile-phone industry, working for several years at Nokia and then Ericsson.

“I was out of Ireland for about nine years and I came back in 2005 after doing an MBA and joined Google when it was a relatively small office and I stayed there for six and half years.”

In that time, Google in Dublin grew from an initial 100 employees to more than 3,000 today. Similarly, rival social network Facebook, which came to Dublin initially to create 40 jobs, is hurtling toward amassing 1,000 employees.

While McIntyre wouldn’t be drawn on Twitter’s growth plans for Dublin, he said Dublin has proven to be a rich hunting ground for the talent the company requires. In September, Twitter announced that having reached the 100-employee mark, it was going to create another 100 jobs in order to have 200 employees by the end of 2014.

“We currently have at least 20 to 25 distinct roles available, from public policy to sales, marketing and engineering, at various seniority levels. At the moment, there are 15 different functions in Dublin, including HR, sales, engineering, policy-making – a whole cross section of the company as we get closer to our goal of 200,” McIntyre said.

He said talent availability continues to be a strong factor in Dublin winning major internet projects.

“The Dublin of today is different from the one I came back to in 2005. Several years ago it wasn’t easy to find people with online skills or specific language skills. Now it is,” said McIntyre. “Ten years ago, you would have been hard-pushed to find people with deep sales and marketing skills relevant for the internet business. Now we have a lot of very senior people and a lot of the roles that exist now didn’t exist when I left college.”

Definition of Twitter

Often the question gets asked, ‘What exactly is Twitter?’ Is it a messaging service? Is it a social media site? Is it a software company? Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, has described it as a next-generation media company, yet McIntyre said he doesn’t think of Twitter in terms of labels. Instead, he said he thinks of it as a global town square, where people come together for debate, humour, commerce and conversation.

“There are lots of ways you can use Twitter but the three needs I think it addresses are the discovery of content and breaking news, connecting with people you might otherwise never have met in the real world and, of course, self-expression,” McIntyre said.

From the playground eight years ago, Twitter has evolved into an internet colossus that has more than 200m users and more than 2,000 employees. In 2012, the company raked in revenues of more than US$317m and had its IPO on the New York Stock Exchange in November.

On the business of Twitter and its core purpose in Europe, McIntyre said advertising is the primary business model and the company makes its money through promoted tweets, promoted accounts and promoted trends.

In November, Twitter included Ireland along with the UK and Canada in the roll out of its self-service advertising system that allows firms to buy promoted tweets, accounts and trends with their credit cards.

The next evolution of Twitter, it has been rumoured, will see it deploy e-commerce, potentially using Stripe, an e-payments technology developed by brothers John and Patrick Collison, from Limerick.

Brands that use Twitter

Major brands, such as Coca-Cola, the NFL, Paddy Power and Innocent Drinks, use Twitter to good effect. Dan Germain, creative director, Innocent Drinks, recently said using Twitter is “fishing where the fish are”.

McIntyre agreed. “Innocent are great on Twitter and they have cultivated a unique voice that is coherent with their brand. Even before any businesses were advertising their products on Twitter a lot of the most engaged and successful users on Twitter were actually businesses who used the platform to express themselves and connect with existing and potential customers.”

McIntyre also cited taxi app Hailo, which used Twitter to grow its user base in Dublin. “They had a tone of voice that resonated, they tweeted about the weather, events in the media or if the DART wasn’t running. They inherently got Twitter in a way that shows exactly how successful you can be on the platform.”

Other brands using Twitter to maximum effect include Bord Gáis, which uses the platform to promote the under-21 hurling championships, and Aer Lingus, which uses it to handle customer service in a friendly, conversational way, McIntyre said.

He added this is a trend, generally speaking, that has been going on for years. Just like search 10 years ago, people are grasping the importance of it.

“There are relatively few businesses in Ireland who would say social media is not important to them,” said McIntyre.

Push for change, from top to bottom

The companies that most effectively embrace any sort of strategic change will be the ones that push that change all the way from the top through the organisation, McIntyre added.

On the cultural and media impact of Twitter and the crossover with business, McIntyre said the coming years will be interesting.

“Even looking ahead to the rest of the 6 Nations, there will be an interesting set of opportunities for businesses that take advantage of conversations that are likely to happen,” he said.

“It’s hard to know exactly what’s going to happen at those matches – a team wins, a team loses, good decisions, bad decisions – but there are going to be all sorts of moments that while unpredictable are plannable for businesses that are savvy.”

There are few reasons for traditional businesses not to be social media savvy in 2014.

“The amazing thing about most of these new tools is that they are free to start,” said McIntyre. “I would encourage business owners to just start listening at first, get on it, follow competing businesses or commentators in your space and get a sense of what’s going on.”

McIntyre said he believes it is no accident a virtual bridge has been built between Ireland and San Francisco, and this is evident not only in terms of the multinationals that are in Ireland but also the start-ups popping up in cities such as Dublin and Cork.

“It is certainly true that the links between Ireland and Silicon Valley feel a lot stronger than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” said McIntyre.

“Perhaps the biggest change is the level of ambition and you can see that ambition in entrepreneurs who make it and entrepreneurs who fail and start again.

“We’re globally-minded, not just a country off the edge of Europe, and global markets are at our fingertips.”

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 9 February

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years