Leaving Messages: Comparing Twitter, Text Messaging and Voice Mail

reflectionToday an executive asked me to explain the value of Twitter versus voice mail for a particular mobility use case: she is at a business gathering and talking to “Jack,” someone whom “Barbara,” a friend of hers would like to meet (Barbara isn’t at the gathering but might be able to come by). Should she voice mail or send Barbara a tweet with the Jack’s information and willingness to connect? Read on to understand some of the nuances and virtues of microblogging (Twitter), SMS (short message service, or “text” messages in U.S. parlance) and voice mail.


Leaving messages is actually part of a profound shift in communications that began with parchment and carrier pigeons: asynchronicity. Stone tablets, sheepskin and paper enabled people to capture and transmit information (okay, stone didn’t travel that easily). Web communications are just extending the concept, which is why this is relevant to text messaging as well as Twitter and fellow microblogging platforms Plurk, Pownce, Tumblr et al. For a more detailed but quick read on the business value of synchronous (same time) communications versus asynchronous, see one the white papers I wrote while at PricewaterhouseCoopers Management Consulting, Exploring the Communications Economics of Electronic Communities. I wrote it in 1999, but the principles largely hold true today, even more so.

Comparing Text with Voice for Leaving Messages

adviceCommunication involves a sender and a receiver, and since we’re talking about business value, we need to consider the cost and benefit of each party. For the sender, it’s far easier to multitask when creating a digital text message; if you leave a 45 second voice mail, you could not maintain a conversation at the same time. Keep in mind the use case is a high-value executive gathering. If you texted Barbara, you could be listening to someone, although polity would dictate that you couldn’t be in a one-on-one conversation while texting; if part of a group, you could, depending on age and social mores of the crowd.

Now consider the type of message you want to leave. Text excels at information but not emotional content. In this case, it involves contact information and an indication that Jack was willing to connect. Aligns well with the text value proposition.

The receiver (Barbara) needs to understand the willingness to connect as well as the contact information. Text messages impose a lower cost on the receiver than voice mails. The receiver can glance over the text and pick out the salient information while multitasking. In the context of this use case,

voice mails are attention-hogging, meandering, linear affairs fraught with errors when communicating things like numbers and names.

For other types of messages, they can be extremely useful.

I feel the need to say that trying to use text to relay emotional content is a huge risk you should avoid. If we changed the use case and the executive wanted to leave a message to Barbara about why Jack blew up in the board meeting yesterday (Barbara is having breakfast with him tomorrow morning), voice mail would be much better. Today, some people don’t consider this and even break up via SMS. I always consider, what is the content I’m sharing? If emotional content is key, voice mail is probably better, and face-to-face may be required. But for information only, it’s hard to beat text—and twitter even more so.

Text versus Twitter

twitter-smTwitter travels the SMS network but it is completely searchable later, which can be important in some cases. Voice is worthless for later retrieval or search, and text is searchable and discoverable in the future (SMS is not because telcos don’t enable that to the customer). Let’s say the executive thought she had Jack’s contact information, but she discovers after a month that she doesn’t. If she had left Barbara a voice mail, she would have had to contact her to get the information she gave her! If she had tweeted, she could have just reviewed her direct messages to find the information.

We live in an era in which traditional boundaries and organizations are breaking down. Continuity (persistence) of communication can be extremely useful in maintaining connections with people. On the networked paradigm level, it can be useful for the executive to broadcast to her friends that she talked to Jack and a couple of the key concepts they discussed. How she did this would depend on the social context of her relationship with Jack and the social context around her Twitter friends. Personally, my network is enterprise executives who tend to be older and more sensitive to privacy. So I rarely mention names, but I might say that I talked to a product marketing executive from Motorola about cycling product components through different (geo) theaters.

Let’s say I had twittered when I interviewed France’s finance minister earlier this year.

One of my followers might have messaged an intriguing question for the minister in real time. Or maybe someone messages me asking about a social network project for a French executive group. My point is that microblogging platforms are primarily broadcast communications, but they also have the ability to send private peer-to-peer messages between “friends.”

To return to the above use case, if the executive were a Twitter member she would have probably DMed (direct messaged) Barbara, so no one else would have seen the message. In that case, it would be synonymous with sending an SMS, except it would be searchable later.

Final Shots

  • Twitter comments also hold true for other microblogs, check them out and compare, check out my profiles on the majors [Twitter, Pownce, Plurk, Tumblr] here
  • What are your experiences with leaving messages, of whatever kind?
  • What’s the funniest story you know about someone bungling a message by using the wrong mode, causing misunderstanding?

1 comment to Leaving Messages: Comparing Twitter, Text Messaging and Voice Mail

  • Several things struck me when reading this post. First, there is a presumed sense of urgency in the primary scenario that I don’t think exists. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why Barbara needs to know about Jack or vice versa *RIGHT NOW*. In fact, in much of our communication today, we impute urgency when waiting would be just fine. Thus our addiction (and I’m as bad as anyone else) to our Blackberries. In the absence of any real urgency, the best thing to do is make a mental note and send Barbara an email that night.

    Second, from a social perspective, if it were truly important to Jack that HE meet Barbara right away, then it would be entirely appropriate to interrupt the conversation to reach out to Barbara, and none of the three options would be worse than any other. Otherwise, in my opinion, it would be inappropriate to interrupt the conversation to leave Barbara any kind of message. I am particularly troubled by the notion that it is better to text and carry on the conversation than to stop it in order to leave a voicemail. Despite what my kids think, there is extensive evidence that the human brain cannot multi-task. The best it can do is “micro-slice” and switch back and forth. The reality is that while you’re texting Barbara, you are not and cannot be conversing with Jack, so you enter the realm of rudeness.

    Lastly, I think the growth of asynchronous communication and the assumptions we make about it are interesting. It has become so common that we seem to believe that sending a message equals *communicating*. It doesn’t until you get a reply. This comes up most in situations where there is some urgency, such as the scenario where Barbara is meeting Jack for breakfast tomorrow. In a case like this, no form of asynchronous communication is sufficient because she’s walking into a minefield and needs to know.

    I’m a user and big proponent of the challenge-response approach to spam – I’m happy to hear from you as long as I know who you are and what you want. One of the objections (virtually all of which are bogus, btw) that I sometimes hear is, “Well, what if I’m trying to reach someone is trying to reach me urgently and I don’t know it because they haven’t responded to the challenge?” The correct answer is that someone who has never communicated you before, needs to reach you urgently and chooses to do it via email is someone you’re probably safer not hearing from! Chris is absolutely right that the form of communication needs to fit the circumstance. With all the forms of asynchronous communication available to us, it’s important to remember that sometimes actually talking to the other person is best!

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