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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tweeting in Flocks: Multi-User Twitter Apps Compared

by Mark Pannell

Editor’s Note: We invited Spoke social media wingman, Mark Pannell, to write the following comparison of two of the most-used multi-user, web-based Twitter apps. If you recall, Mark brought his expertise to bear for our ongoing Twitter use survey. We at Spoke have spent time with both platforms reviewed below, but have lived with HootSuite (1.0, and now 2.0) the longest. We encourage you to try both services and let us know if your conclusions match ours.

As Twitter becomes a more popular tool for marketing, CRM, and customer support, organizations are flooding to participate in the conversation. While Twitter provides an outstanding platform for facilitating that interaction, its web interface is not exactly ideal for efficiency. Toggling back and forth between @replies, DM’s, and search results could slow an organization’s usage to a crawl. In a medium built around immediacy, a better set of tools is needed to leverage Twitter for business use.

Two key players have emerged in the race to meet the needs of businesses in the Twittersphere and they couldn’t be more different. CoTweet is the app of choice for heavy-hitters like Ford, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola. Their friendly rival, HootSuite, is used by the likes of Revision3 and the Whitehouse (yes, that Whitehouse). HootSuite’s first foray into this arena offered a host of features that were innovative at the time, but have become commonplace since its release. For the sake of a fair comparison, we’ll be putting CoTweet up against the upcoming HootSuite 2.0 (Beta), which features a more robust set of tools compared to their initial offering.

As different as the user experiences are between these two services, they share some core features. At the very least, one should expect support for multiple Twitter accounts, multiple users, scheduled tweets, and integrated URL-shortening. Check, check, check, and check. Both platforms also allow users to automatically insert their initials at the end of tweets to uniquely identify themselves to readers. CoTweet calls them CoTags. HootSuite calls them Auto-Initials or HooTags. I call them initials.

But that’s where the similarities end. For a pair of web-based services heavily-focused on delivering similar results, they go about it in completely different ways. Let’s take a look at them as standalone entities rather than competitors for a moment.

The most noticeable attribute of CoTweet is its utilitarian design. Like a Madison Ave. maven yammering on his Bluetooth, CoTweet clearly means business. The layout is obviously intended to mimic an email inbox, a familiar environment for most.


The CoTweet dashboard with default skin


The CoTweet dashboard with optional Guy Kawasaki skin (for power users)

From the top panel, a user’s list of available accounts is represented by the associated Twitter profile picture. Hovering over those avatars reveals a list of each account’s users and displays who is “On Duty” (I told you it was all about business). Within a large organization with multiple users, it’s good to have a visual indicator of who is responsible for follow-up at any given time. The On Duty settings can be altered, as well as new users added right from that dropdown list.

A unique feature of CoTweet is the ability to assign tweets as tasks. When paired with the CoTags option, this becomes a powerful tool for CRM. Let’s say a customer had a bad experience and brought his tale of woe to the Twitter community. One of your assigned users spotted the dissatisfied customer within a keyword search relevant to your organization and reached out to him or her to help resolve the situation. If that customer wanted to continue the conversation after the user was no longer on duty, their tweets can be assigned to that initial user for follow up at a later time.

Aside from the ability to distribute “labor” to each of an organization’s assigned Tweeps, the interface isn’t as significant of an improvement over the default Twitter UI as one would expect from such a popular tool. The Inbox, Outbox, And Follow-Up tabs on the left sidebar still require toggling back and forth to access multiple sets of information. The features that appeal to business users make CoTweet evolutionary for organizational use, but not revolutionary.

If CoTweet screams “business,” HootSuite screams “Web 2.0 App.” It’s a little more vibrant, but no less powerful. At first glance, its components appear to be in disarray, but a huge plus for HootSuite is its customizability. The screenshot below is just one example of an unlimited number of layout possibilities.


The HootSuite dashboard

Users can create a tab for each account to which they contribute. Within those tabs, columns can be created for the home feed, @mentions, DM inbox, DM outbox, sent tweets, pending tweets, and favorited tweets. Column options are also available for keyword tracking, search terms, and user groups. All of these can be added and arranged on the fly with the ability to drag and drop nearly everything on the palette. A simple slider is used to resize the columns in real time.

Once customized to a user’s liking, HootSuite offers all of the information that the user wants in one place. Think of it as a more feature-rich, web-based, multi-user TweetDeck or Seesmic Desktop. The customization of the experience is far more than a parlor trick. With the ability to stretch an account over multiple tabs, there’s truly no limit to how much information can be made readily-available.

Another big plus for HootSuite is the ability to add an RSS feed to an account from within the dashboard. This allows an organization to auto-tweet blog updates without the need to utilize a third-party service like TwitterFeed. Once you dig into the HootSuite experience and get past the visually stimulating UI, it becomes obvious that the app was built from the ground up around efficiency.

Let The Feathers Fly
As both CoTweet and HootSuite offer a robust set of features which make them appealing for organizational use, personal preference really does become a factor. Some might be turned off by the busy design of HootSuite while others might dislike the minimalistic UI of CoTweet. But beyond the aesthetics of each app, it’s the underlying mechanics that make the difference.

While CoTweet uses the popular bit.ly URL-shortener, HootSuite utilizes their proprietary ow.ly service. The advantage goes to HootSuite here. Although bit.ly does provide a nice collection of analytics, CoTweet requires the user to access a third-party app to view them. HootSuite’s integrated statistics module allows for quick, one-click access to this information. Individual tweet statistics are new for HootSuite 2.0, providing total clicks and user ratings.

It’s also worth mentioning that throughout testing of both apps, I experienced numerous error messages and failures within CoTweet. One error required me to remove my personal Twitter account from the dashboard entirely after changing my password on Twitter. Over the course of the next 48 hours, I was never able to add the account back into the suite without getting an error message. If the CoTweet team had established themselves as actively engaged in the needs of their users, this might be slightly less concerning. But a quick glance at their Twitter profile (with 14,000+ followers) shows a team more focused on boasting their accomplishments than engaging their user base.

I eventually submitted a support request to resolve the issue. Within fifteen minutes, I received notification that they were looking into and attempting to resolve the problem. But after an hour, there was neither a resolution nor any further follow-up. Dog years have a lot in common with social media time and an hour is too long to wait to get an account back up and running.

HootSuite, on the other hand, didn’t error out once during my testing. But that’s not to say that the app doesn’t experience occasional errors. The difference here is that Ryan Holmes and his team at Invoke Media are absolutely dedicated to the satisfaction of their users. With nearly 78,000 followers on Twitter, their profile page shows a company consistently reaching out to users to discuss even the most minor issues. Some of these issues aren’t even specific to HootSuite, but rather to the general Twitter experience.

If someone had asked me to pick a winner based on first impressions before I had any experience with either of these two apps, I would have given CoTweet the nod without any reservation. As the choice of a multitude of large enterprises, CoTweet’s dominance seemed pretty cut and dried. But hands-on experience with both products presented HootSuite as not only a worthy competitor, but superior in many ways.

The accessibility of information and the customizability of how that information is displayed are clearly checks in HootSuite’s column. If the team added the ability to assign tasks/cases similar to CoTweet’s system, HootSuite would be the hands-down winner. As it stands, both services offer time-saving tools which make them a better option than the Twitter web interface, but not by any means perfect solutions. To keep track of who is doing what within a large organization, CoTweet might be the better option. But for sheer efficiency, accessibility, and customization, HootSuite continues to lead the race.

Editor’s Note: On March 2, 2010, CoTweet announced it was being acquired by email marketing software outfit ExactTarget. We’re anxious to see if/how the two firm’s offerings get integrated into a single platform. Congratulations to both companies.

Update: On June 24, 2010, HootSuite announced the release of HootSuite5. The update adds several major features and hundreds of tweaks. We’re so impressed that we splurged (ahem, free download) on a copy of Fluid—a HootSuite deskptop client for Mac.

Bravo, HootSuite. Bravo.

If you enjoyed reading this piece as much as we enjoyed writing it, you might also like: CoTweet vs. HootSuite: Battle of the business Twitter apps

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