Some people think that social network website Twitter is all about sycophants fawning over celebrities like Stephen Fry, while the self-obsessed drone on about what they had for lunch. And, to an extent, they're right. But to limit your understanding of this microblogging phenomenon would be missing a massive opportunity especially if you're a printer.

For Twitter is actually an international platform where nearly 200m users have a multitude of conversations across a massive range of topics every single day. Whatever your trade, it is likely that somewhere on the website there will be potential and existing customers, as well as a wealth of information about your market all of which you can get access to for free. No wonder then, that a host of print companies are already on board. The problem, however, is that while the website is a potential gold mine for those who know how to use it, for those who don't it's a possible disaster.

For the uninitiated, Twitter ( was launched in the US in 2006. It enables users to post messages, or 'tweets', of up to 140 characters to the website as a whole, to their followers only, or to specific people through the '@' symbol. Unless a profile is set to private, you can follow anyone you like, and providing you are not set to private, anyone can follow you. This means your tweets appear on followers' 'news feed' and followers' tweets appear on your's. It's estimated the website's users post 140m tweets every day.

Now it's personal

"There are many different types of conversation happening, not just the celebrity stuff, but also business conversations across a wide range of people and industries," says Oc Business Services marketing manager Darian Simms.

Capitalising on these conversations for sales, endorsements, brand building and market and trends insight has quickly become the focus of many print companies. An added factor in getting involved has also been the kudos that comes from "doing social media", with brands hoping to seem 'with it' by signing up.

The latter raises a laugh from those print companies that have been on Twitter for some time. Rik Penny, director at Wiltshire printer RipeDigital, joined in 2009 in a personal, not business, capacity, having been tipped off about the website from friends in the IT industry. He says that far from being with it, many printers only succeed in showing themselves up by failing to grasp what Twitter is about and he believes the first mistake is to choose a corporate, rather than personal, identity.

"My account is personal," he explains. "It is me that people get to know, that people follow, that they interact with. This is where some printers are going wrong; users of Twitter want a personal connection, they don't want faceless interaction."

Jim Cunliffe, business development manager at print broker FaceMediaGroup and another early adopter, agrees but says that this doesn't stop you using an identity that still shows what you have to offer. While Penny uses his own name, @rik1p, Cunliffe has adopted the moniker @flyerboy_uk, which lets everyone know what he is offering without having to use the company name. He says Twitter is a lot more accepting of pseudonyms of this ilk than company names.

If this is the case, then the likes of EFI, HP, Canon, Arjowiggins, Manroland, even this very publication, and many more print companies using their brand name for their Twitter accounts are possibly showing themselves up. However, Deimante Buivyte, marketing manager at Manroland, argues that putting too much weight on the importance of a username is foolish.

"There are pros and cons to both the corporate and the personal approach," she explains. "However, the issue is less about the 'identity' of the account holder and more about the content and the manner of the delivery. If the Twitter account does carry a corporate identity, it will over time develop a character based on the person or people feeding the account, so personality will eventually shine through, regardless of the username."

It's a good point: whether you can see yourself having a chat with Manroland_AG rather than rik1p probably would depend on the personality, i.e. content, of each's Twitter feed, but here lies another issue Cunliffe and Penny have identified from the new print companies hopping on board: they just don't understand what they should be tweeting.

"The trouble with a lot of the printers is that they use Twitter as a sales channel, just tweeting promotions constantly rather than engaging in any real way," says Penny. "If you are just pushing sales messages, they won't follow you. 'Social networking' ought to be exactly that: interaction in a social way."

Cunliffe adds: "With the big companies, they are invariably paying some agency to sit there and bleat out sales rubbish they just don't get it. I could be in the garage on my way home at 11pm and I'll tweet asking what colour flowers to get my wife and I'll get responses offering an opinion. I'm engaging people, and off the back of that they will remember me. That's how to get your brand out there on Twitter."

Social etiquette

A quick look at the feeds of some of the companies attracting Cunliffe and Penny's ire and you can see their point reams of sales pitches make for unattractive reading. Cunliffe believes they are playing a numbers game stick a promotion out to 40,000 people and you're likely to get a bite. But sporadic and untargeted sales pitches offering bland promotions is as ineffective as old style blanket DM campaigns. Manroland's Buivyte says the problem is that the 'social' element of social media can be problematic for larger companies and so sales pitches are perhaps an easy option.

"The 'social' in social media presents an interesting challenge for corporates how corporate or social should a company be