James Naughtiein the Daily TelegraphThe BBC presenter James Naughtie and his producer got into a bit of hot water again recently over a simple Tweet. A few weeks ago it was swearing online, now it is staying at a Japanese “love hotel”. Indeed, the Tweet caused such a fuss within the BBC that the institution sent an email to staff reminding them of social media guidelines and the producer closed down his Twitter account (which suggests the BBC is in a lather over Twitter). The BBC, it seems, is concerned that this personal Tweeting is reducing the status of its presenters and thereby harming the reputation of the organisation. But new research from Pennsylvania suggests that it is precisely this kind of Tweeting which increases believability.

What the research did was to rank the credibility of academics based solely on their Tweets. The academics which were professional and business-like, who Tweeted in a scholarly way were perceived as the LEAST credible. Conversely, the academics who Tweeted in a personal way, with non-scholarly Tweets were ranked as the MOST credible. So, the personal Tweet about James Naughtie standing in a “love hotel” actually increases his credibility, not reduces it.

This study appears, at first sight, to go against common sense. After all, one of the things that increases the credibility of academics is the showing of their knowledge. But that is a false assumption. What really happens is we tend to believe people who are personable, who show us they are real human beings and who appear “normal” to us. We then justify our credibility ranking with so-called “real reasons” to believe them.

Consider this example from my university days. We had two entirely different academics in our department – one was a leading professor, the author of a significant text-book in his field and was quite brilliant. But he wasn’t approachable very much. He was nice enough and very helpful to students, but he was somewhat stand-offish, with an academic air about him. The other was “one of the lads”, who would come down the bar with us and get drunk. who would chat up the female students like crazy, but had no books to his name, did no academic research and was not any kind of expert. Guess which one we believed the most? That’s right – the non-academic – we later justified our credibility of him by saying he had studied the subject for ages, had done research for years and clearly knew his stuff. But it was his personal nature that was at the crux of things. Academically he was poles apart from the professor, who we believed less.

OK, I admit, this is anecdotal and not real evidence – but if you think of your own academic past you will find that the teachers and lecturers you had who were personal were much more relevant to you than those who were strictly academic.

It is much the same in business. The customers who you do most business with are almost certainly the ones who know something about you personally. Online, the companies that have embraced social media in a personal way – such as Starbucks and Dell – are the ones doing the most business through those channels. Everywhere you look, there is evidence that being personal beats being business-like, hands down.

So, why, oh why, do so many businesses avoid being personal on Twitter or Facebook? Why do people want to separate their business life from their personal life online? It is because we look at things with supposed logic and common sense. But as this new study on academic Tweeting shows us, logic and common sense is providing us with false information. Being personal online will bring you increased credibility – not less.

What can you do about this? Start Tweeting about your personal life, mix your personal and business information on Facebook and let your customers know the real you. After all, how else are they supposed to relate  to you? I am assuming, of course, that you think relationships are at the heart of all business. And if you think that, you can ONLY develop them in any depth if you are personal online – not business-like.


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