One study that caught our eye recently is Latitude’s “The Future of Gaming”, which profiles today’s gamers and describes how game enthusiasts and game developers alike see the future of the gaming landscape changing.
Unsurprisingly, the original stereotype of the lone gamer – young, pale, somewhat anti-social and (let’s face it) male is woefully outdated – the self described “casual gamers” who participated in the study were a mixture of males and females with an age range of 15-54. More interesting than the demographics of contemporary gamers however is what the study reveals about their motivation in playing the games of today, and what they want from the games of tomorrow.
Today’s gamers are undeniably social; over three quarters of the participants in Latitude’s study use social media several times a week, and over half cite “socializing or meeting new people” among their motivations for gaming. While the observation that there is a demand for digital games with a social media aspect is not unexpected (given that FarmVille, for example, is currently the most popular application on Facebook), one fascinating finding is that gamers want to see future games that actually increase the amount of face-to-face social interaction. This desire for blurring the boundary between the gaming environment and the real world is also reflected in the motivation “do more good for society”, reported by nearly a quarter of the study’s gamers, and the novel observation that gamers increasingly play in the digital world for real-world gain is nicely summed up in Latitude’s report with the quote “acquiring a meaningful personal goal is the reward for playing”.
Exergaming is now so prevalent that the UK government reference it in their Anti-Obesity campaign. Image: Aardman Animations Ltd.
One obvious example of mapping virtual (digital gaming) to actual (physical benefit) is the lucrative business of Exergaming, and indeed over two thirds of the gamers in Latitude’s study view games as a medium for improving personal wellness. The desire for game-driven self-improvement is not limited to health and fitness however, since 75% of those interviewed want to see more games applied to the area of learning and education in the future. Clearly the idea of making learning fun to increase success is not new, but the huge interest in educational gaming suggests that a shrewd game developer could take this one step further, and couple the demand for educational games with the findings of Prof. Daphne Bavelier at Rochester University, who has done some fantastic research showing that video game training (a minimum of 3 – 4 days a week playing action video games for the previous six months) leads to a significant increase in performance on a broad range of general learning tasks, unrelated to the tasks required to play the game itself.
Being big techie geeks here at jUXtworks, one of the most exciting aspects of “The Future of Gaming” study is the gamers’ expectation that future games will have access to their mood states. In a world where the Zeo sleep machine can wirelessly read your brain waves in real time in order to wake you up gently, it is easy to imagine a gaming console that can access the frequency of the player’s brain waves (a well-known measure of someone’s emotions and mood state) and then modify aspects of the game accordingly.
From here it seems a small step to mind-controlled games – another evolution in gaming technology that gamers are keen to see. The field of Assistive Technology R&D is already focused on enabling people with severe disabilities to communicate with digital media via brain waves, so teaching a game interface to recognize the brain patterns associated with commands such as “move left”, “reload” or “release the Angry Bird now” seems completely plausible.
Despite all the futuristic changes that Latitude’s study participants hope to see in the gaming landscape, apparently some things remain constant, as 95% of the gamers surveyed still reported the traditional motivation of “enjoyment and relaxation” in gaming. In summary this study suggests exciting ways to both enhance the gamers’ enjoyment in the digital world, and to increase the relevance of their game experience to the real world – an ambitious mission statement to be sure, but one that, we would argue, is very achievable given today’s technology.
We have seen the gaming future, and, above all, it is fun!
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A fantastic analysis on the ”why” Angry Birds is so popular and successful:
The usual question: Over the past 30+ years as a consultant in the field generally known as human factors engineering (aka usability engineering), I have been asked by hundreds of clients why users don’t find their company’s software engaging. The answer to this persistent question is complex but never truly illusive. This question yields to experience and professional usability analysis.
The unusual question: Surprisingly, it is a rare client indeed who asks the opposing question: why is an interface so engaging that users cannot stop interacting with it? This is a difficult question because it requires cognitive reverse engineering to determine what interaction attributes a successful interface embodies that result in a psychologically engaging user experience. This question pops up when products become massively successful based on their user experience design – think iPhone, iPad, Google Instant Search, Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Kinect.
The interesting question: Recently clients have asked about the phenomenally successful casual computer game Angry Birds, designed for mobile phones, tablets and other platforms. For those who don’t have a clue what Angry Birds is all about, here is a quick synopsis. The game involves employing a sling shot to propel small cannonball-shaped birds with really bad attitudes at rather fragile glass and timber houses populated by basically catatonic green pigs. The basic thrust of the game is to bring about the demise of the pigs as quickly and expertly as possible by collapsing the pigs’ houses on top of their (sometimes) helmeted heads. Obviously, this sounds like a truly dumb concept. However, there is a catch.
Why is it that over 50 million individuals have downloaded this simple game? Many paid a few dollars or more for the advanced version. More compelling is the fact that not only do huge numbers download this game, they play it with such focus that the total number of hours consumed by Angry Birds players world-wide is roughly 200 million minutes a DAY, which translates into 1.2 billion hours a year. To compare, all person-hours spent creating and updating Wikipedia totals about 100 million hours over the entire life span of Wikipedia (Neiman Journalism Lab). I say these Angry Birds are clearly up to something worth looking into. Why is this seemly simple game so massively compelling? Creating truly engaging software experiences is far more complex than one might assume, even in the simplest of computer games. Here is some of the cognitive science behind why Angry Birds is a truly winning user experience.
Simple yet engaging interaction concept: This seems an obvious point, but few realize that a simple interaction model need not be, and rarely is, procedurally simple. Simplification means once users have a relatively brief period of experience with the software, their mental model of how the interface behaves is well formed and fully embedded. This is known technically as schema formation. In truly great user interfaces, this critical bit of skill acquisition takes place during a specific use cycle known as the First User Experience or FUE. When users are able to construct a robust schema quickly, they routinely rate the user interface as “simple”. However, simple does not equal engaging. It is possible to create a user interface solution that is initially perceived by users as simple. However, the challenge is to create a desire by users to continue interaction with a system over time, what we call user “engagement”.
What makes a user interface engaging is adding more detail to the user’s mental model at just the right time. Angry Birds’ simple interaction model is easy to learn because it allows the user to quickly develop a mental model of the game’s interaction methodology, core strategy and scoring processes. It is engaging, in fact addictive, due to the carefully scripted expansion of the user’s mental model of the strategy component and incremental increases in problem/solution methodology. These little birds are packed with clever behaviors that expand the user’s mental model at just the point when game-level complexity is increased. The process of creating simple, engaging interaction models turns out to be exceedingly complex. Most groups developing software today think expansion of the user’s mental model is for the birds. Not necessarily so.
Cleverly managed response time: A universal law of user interface design is “the faster the response time, the better”. True enough, there are applications where this is patently true. For example, Google has made this a mantra for their systems. However, surprisingly few software developers realize that response time management is actually a resource that can be leveraged to add to the quality and depth of engagement of a user interface. The surprising point that is often misunderstood is that not every aspect of the user interface needs to be or should be as fast as possible. Programmers uniformly have a really hard time with this one and few game designers take advantage of this potent variable. In most commercial software interfaces, response time management is completely overlooked even by those who claim to be UI design experts. The developers of Angry Birds managed response time in a way that goes far beyond simply “faster is better”.
For example, in Angry Birds, it was possible for the programmers to have made the flight of the birds fast – very fast, but they didn’t. Instead they programmed the flight of the angry flock to be leisure pace as they arc across the sky heading for the pigs’ glass houses. This slowed response time, combined with a carefully crafted trajectory trace (the flight path of the bird), solves one huge problem for all user interfaces – error correction. The vast majority of software user interfaces have no consideration for how users can be taught by experience with the system to improve their performance. This problem is a vast and complex issue for screen-based trading systems where error correction is not only essential, but also career threatening.
In Angry Birds game play the pigs also take a long time to expire once their houses are sent to bits. In many play sequences, seconds are consumed as the pigs teeter, slide and roll off planks or are crushed under slow falling debris. This response time of 3-5 seconds, in most user interfaces, brings users to the point of exasperation, but not with Angry Birds. Again, really smart response time management gives the user time to relax and think about how lame they are compared to their 4 year old who is already at the 26th level. It also gives the user time to structure an error correction strategy (more arc, more speed, better strategy) to improve performance on the next shot. The bottom line on how Angry Birds manages response time: fast is good, clever is better.
Short-term memory management: It is a well-known fact of cognitive science that human short-term memory (SM), when compared to other attributes of our memory systems, is exceedingly limited. This fact has been the focus of thousands of studies over the last 50 years. Scientists have poked and prodded this aspect of human cognition to determine exactly how SM operates and what impacts SM effectiveness. As we go about our daily lives, short-term memory makes it possible for you to engage with all manner of technology and the environment in general. SM is a temporary memory that allows us to remember a very limited number of discrete items, behaviors, or patterns for a short period of time. SM makes it possible for you to operate without constant referral to long-term memory, a much more complex and time-consuming process. This is critical because SM is fast and easily configured, which allows one to adapt instantly to situations that might otherwise be fatal if one were required to access long-term memory. In computer-speak, human short-term memory is also highly volatile. This means it can be erased instantly, or more importantly, it can be overwritten by other information coming into the human perceptual system. Where things get interesting is the point where poor user interface design impacts the demand placed on SM. For example, a user interface design solution that requires the user to view information on one screen, store it in short-term memory, and then reenter that same information in a data field on another screen seems like a trivial task. Research shows that it is difficult to do accurately, especially if some other form of stimulus flows between the memorization of the data from the first screen and before the user enters the data in the second. This disruptive data flow can be in almost any form, but as a general rule, anything that is engaging, such as conversation, noise, motion, or worst of all, a combination of all three, is likely to totally erase SM. When you encounter this type of data flow before you complete transfer of data using short-term memory, chances are very good that when you go back to retrieve important information from short-term memory, it is gone!
One would logically assume that any aspect of user interface design that taxes short-term memory is a really bad idea. As was the case with response time, a more refined view leads to surprising insights into how one can use the degradation of short-term memory to actually improve game play engagement. Angry Birds is a surprisingly smart manager of the player’s short-term memory.
By simple manipulation of the user interface, Angry Birds designers created significant short-term memory loss, which in turn increases game play complexity but in a way that is not perceived by the player as negative and adds to the addictive nature of the game itself. The subtle, yet powerful concept employed in Angry Birds is to bend short-term memory but not to actually break it. If you do break SM, make sure you give the user a very simple, fast way to accurately reload. There are many examples in the Angry Birds game model of this principle in action. Probably one of the most compelling is the simple screen flow manipulation at the beginning of each new play sequence. When the screen first loads, the user is shown a very quick view of the structure that is protecting the pigs. Just as quickly, the structure is moved off screen to the right in a simple sliding motion.
Coming into view on the left is a bevy of bouncing, chatting and flipping birds sitting behind the slingshot. These little characters are engaging in a way that for the most part erases the player’s memory of the structure design, which is critical to determining a strategy for demolishing the pig’s house. Predictably, the user scrolls the interface back to the right to get another look at the structure. The game allows the user to reload short-term memory easily and quickly. Watch almost anyone play Angry Birds and you see this behavior repeated time and again. One of the main benefits of playing Angry Birds on the iPad is the ability to pinch down the window size so you can keep the entire game space (birds & pigs in houses) in full view all the time. Keeping all aspects of the game’s interface in full view prevents short-term memory loss and improves the rate at which you acquire skills necessary to move up to a higher game level. Side note: If you want the ultimate Angry Birds experience use a POGO pen on the iPad with the display pinched down to view the entire game space. This gives you finer control, better targeting and rapidly changing game play. The net impact in cognitive terms is a vastly superior skill acquisition profile. However, you will also find that the game is less interesting to play over extended periods. Why does this happen?
Mystery: You probably do not know how to recognize it, but Angry Birds has it. To add context to this idea, mystery is all around us in the things we find truly compelling. The element or attribute of mystery is present in all great art, advertising, movies, products, and not surprisingly, interactive games. The idea of mystery in a user experience as an attribute for increasing user engagement is embedded in the idea of mystery (conceptual depth). We all experience the impact of mystery when we view a cubist period Picasso, recall the famous Apple 1984 super bowl ad, or listen to Miles Davis. He is said to have described jazz as playing the spaces between the notes, not the notes themselves. Mystery is present when you pick up an iPad for the first time. Why are the icons spaced out across the screen when they could be clustered much closer together to save space. Why does the default screen saver look like water on the inside of the screen?
Mystery is that second layer of attributes that are present but undefined explicitly, yet somehow created with just enough context to consume mental resources in subtle and compelling ways. At its most basic level, experiencing mystery in what we interact with makes you ask the question, “Why did they do that?”. What we mean here is, “Why did they do that? – A good thing, not “What were they thinking? – A bad thing. If you think carefully about the experiences you have in the ebb and flow of life, you realize that the most compelling are those that force you to think long and hard about why a given thing is the way it is. For example, why did Frank Gehry create the Guggenheim Museum Bilboa using the shapes he did? The famous architect could have created any shape concept, but why did he choose those shapes? It’s a mystery – we do not know and probably neither does he. What we do know is that his creation is cited as one of the most important works of contemporary architecture. In the same way that a building can captivate millions of sightseers, the element of mystery (conceptual depth) can help sell a few million copies of a simple interactive game.
Angry Birds is full of these little mysteries. For example, why are tiny bananas suddenly strewn about in some play sequences and not in others? Why do the houses containing pigs shake ever so slightly at the beginning of each game play sequence? Why is the game’s play space showing a cross section of underground rocks and dirt? Why do the birds somersault into the sling shot sometimes and not others? One can spend a lot of time on the Acela processing these little clues, consciously or subconsciously. When users of technology process information in this way, it is very likely that they are more deeply engaged than without these small questions.
How things sound: Over the past 15 years, the neuroscience of music has taken a huge leap forward. This new research is just beginning to tell us why music adds such a strong emotional component to movies, advertising, theater, and of course, new media of all types, including casual computer games. Employing the power of audio stimuli including structured music often adds a critical level of engagement for users of all forms of technology. Angry Birds’ audio effects and music seem simple but are, in fact, very complex. The use of audio effects and carefully varied melodic music lines works to enhance the game play engagement level. Many games do this but few do it expertly. The audio in Angry Birds serves to enhance the user’s experience by mapping tightly to the user’s simple mental model of conflict between the angry birds and the loathsome pigs. This concept, known in film production as “action syncing”, provides enhanced levels of the feedback for users at just the right time. For example, in Angry Birds, we hear the birds chatter angry encouragement to their colleagues as each prepares for launch. We hear avian dialogue as the birds arc toward their targets and hear the pained response from their victims when they strike their targets. The pigs are by no means silent. When the avian interlopers fail, they are often egged on to try just one more time by the snickering, grinning pigs. These consistently applied audio elements reinforce the player’s interactions and deepen engagement by emphasizing the anthropomorphic qualities of the main characters of the game and providing clever enhanced feedback during critical on-screen behaviors. What about the actual melodic music shifting from the foreground to the background without apparent reason? This musical thread running through the game play experience is mysteriously familiar and easily understood in the context of the overall theme of the game. Where have I heard that melody before? This combination of audio feedback is varied just enough that parents sitting in the next room are rarely prone to demanding an end to game play based on distracting musical repetition. Perhaps this explains the high number of hours spent playing the game!
How things look: Angry Birds has a look. One might characterize the visual style of Angry Birds as a combination of “high-camp cartoon” with a bit of greeting card graphics tossed in for good measure.
This leads to a more interesting question: How does visual design impact success in the marketplace? I routinely get this question from clients who are undertaking large redesign or new development projects. Decades after it first surfaced in automobile design, visual design is still the most contentious aspect of designing compelling user experiences. Designers (mostly of the UX stripe) routinely sell clients on the concept that the visual design (graphic style) of a given interface solution is a critical factor in success. This assumption seems to make good intuitive sense. However, the actual working principle is counter-intuitive. In most user experience design solutions, visual design (how things look) is technically a hygiene factor. You get serious negative points if it is missing, but minimal positive lift beyond first impression, if a user interface has great visual design. When we conduct user engagement studies for clients (not the same as usability testing), we routinely see data that strongly supports this theory. This concept does not apply to all user experience design problems, but in most cases it holds well. The ultimate question is how much visual design is enough? Even more important than good or bad visual design is appropriate visual design. On this metric, Angry Birds again has just the right set of attributes. The concept of appropriate visual design is in itself complex as designers generally apply too much rendering and engineers apply none, which often leaves the actual user staring at the equivalent of an engineering prototype (Google) or alternatively, World of Warcraft. After decades of experience in user interface design, I can predict fairly accurately the corporate software development bias of clients by simply examining the user interfaces of their products. I cannot imagine Google as anything but engineering-driven, despite the apparently large number of UX designers hired in recent years.
Measuring that which some say cannot be measured: How does one measure visual design in this context? There are several well-understood methodologies for assessing the appropriateness of visual design that we employ in development projects. These research methods make objective that which is thought to be only subjective. Visual design can be measured, rated, and scaled to the benefit of users and those who develop such interfaces. The actual dimensions of appropriate and winning visual design vary widely, depending on the application but in game design two factors reign supreme. First, the visual design must be memorable and second, it must convey the desired attributes of the game play model.
So memorable is Angry Birds that the developers have deals for real world “brand extensions”, including Angry Birds stuffed toys, t-shirts, and all matter of off-the-wall consumer goods that make BIG profits. The simple visual design of those tiny cartoon-ish birds is so compelling and simple, it brings an additional level of continuous interest to the game play experience. Of note too is the world the birds and pigs inhabit which changes in strange and subtle ways with every level. Visual design is another critical dimension of the success of Angry Birds, which leads to the ultimate question: Is Angry Birds the best it can be? Not by a long shot!
We are left with the notion that a cognitive teardown of a truly compelling user experience is vastly more interesting and insightful than simply answering the opposite question: why is a given user interface dysfunctional? To summarize, in the context of Angry Birds, success is bound up in slowing down that which could be fast, erasing that which is easily renewable, and making visual that which is mysterious and memorable. Over the past 10 years, our firm has conducted user engagement studies on hundreds of user interfaces. The vast number did not get one principle right, much less six. You go Birds! Your success certainly makes other Angry and envious.
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Tags: Angry Birds, Gaming, strategy, User Experience, UX
A few take away points from the recent “Inside Social Apps” conference:
Five Things We Learnt at Inside Social Apps 2011
Mobile gaming was one of the hot topics at the Inside Social Apps conference held in San Francisco last week.
The event was packed with developers looking for ideas and insight to increase discovery, user engagement, and profitability for their social games, while speakers include luminaries such as Google’s Eric Chu, CrowdStar’s Peter Relan, ngmoco’s Jason Oberfest and Playfish’s Kristian Segerstrale.
Here are some highlights of the talks and bar room discussions.
1. Mobile is the new social
Most, if not all, social gaming companies are building mobile-integrated games or focusing new development exclusively on mobile platforms with fast-moving Facebook gaming outfit Crowdstar now dedicating a third of its resources to its mobile business.
2. Nowhere to hide
Facebook is officially the most downloaded free app on iPhone and has over 200 million mobile users. The majority of users still access the site via a mobile browser but Facebook is pushing apps hard and has even created a Java app for the millions of users on feature phones in developing countries.
Similarly, Sony Erickson has announced that its all new devices will be preloaded with a Facebook app and single sign-on.
3. Not if but when
Lack of in-app payments is blamed for Android’s low profitability (98.4 percent of all downloads on Android are free). That said, key social companies including ngmoco consider Android a platform with major growth opportunities. After all, everyone knows that behind the scenes, Google is working hard to get such features and operator billing live.
4. Crossing over
Differences in play style and usage patterns are cited as main reasons why single social titles have not yet proven successful on both Facebook and mobile platforms. However, the company that first manages to square this circle will have hit the next great gusher of social gaming.
5. Don’t forget the kiddies
With around half of OpenFeint’s customers being iPod touch users, the under-13 audience should be always considered in game design. In addition, think about the differences in terms of how this audience uses and indeed treats devices. The trend of handing off your smartphone (aka the pass back phenomenon) is the primary cause of sticky iPhone games, and sticky iPhone screens.
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A quick summary of social gaming revenue predictions for 2011- can’t wait to see how much will be attributable to mobile!
Farmville and other social games won’t be needing Farm Aide support for 2011. According to a recently released eMarketer report, social gaming will reach a billion dollar business this year.
Not that the techsphere is reeling from the news. Considering the massive growth of Facebook and Zynga platforms for social gaming lately, this impressive statistic is hardly surprising, though it’s nice to have the numbers to back it up.
According to the report, nearly 62 million Internet users, making up 27 percent of the online audience, will engage at least one game on a social platform monthly this year, a sizable increase from the 53 million who did so in 2010. US consumers will spend $653 million on social gaming for 2011, a hearty boost from the $510 million they spent last year.
“Forecasts of audience and revenue growth present an opportunity for marketers to promote their brands through social games,” said Paul Verna, author of the forthcoming eMarketer report. “Implementations include branded virtual goods, custom games, virtual environments within existing games and lead-generation offers. Some campaigns even combine virtual and real-world items, expanding the gaming experience beyond social networks like Facebook and Myspace.”
While revenues from virtual goods will continue to be the cash cow of the social gaming world, other business aspects of social gaming are expected to grow as well. The report predicts ad spending on social games will grow to $192 million in 2011, a 60 percent increase over last year.
Ad spending should increase 41 percent next year. In fact, rapid growth in ad spending will help to grow total revenue shares from 14.1 percent in 2010 to 20.5 percent in 2012, surpassing lead generation as a source of developer revenues. Though such offers have been a powerful source in the market for social gaming, lead generation tactics will lose favor as marketers pursue games as brand-orientation tools. However, virtual goods will continue to hold steady with a 60 percent share of the market, the report concluded.
“Even though fewer than 6 percent of US social gamers spend money on virtual items, these avid players will produce revenues of $653 million in the US alone this year,” Verna said. “This is the largest segment of the social gaming economy, and one that marketers are increasingly turning to as a branding vehicle. We expect to see more branded virtual goods as social gaming matures over the next two years.”
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When developing nations make the leap into modern technology, will they take the same steps that developed nations did? In an Ideas Project video posted a few months back (http://www.ideasproject.com/idea_person.webui?id=4700), Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales says no. He observed that the technologies that modern internet technology is based on will not be what people in developed nations started with. Quite the contrary, says Wales, developing nations will jump right on with broadband and mobile broadband technologies.
“They are going to go from no access to broadband/mobile broadband, for a lot of reasons. For one, technology has moved forward … we know better now,” says Wales, in the video.
That’s right, instead of the progression that developed nations saw – from 1200 baud modems to 2400 baud to 56k modems – users in developing nations will skip to the fast, modern technologies used by internet users.
Indeed, it seems that Wales might be onto something. According to statistics from the International Telecommunications Union (http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/material/graphs/Internet_users_03-09.jpg), internet users in developing nations grew significantly between 2006 and 2009. In fact, there are now more internet users in developing countries than in developed ones. Furthermore, fixed broadband connections are on the rise in developing nations (http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/material/graphs/Fixed_bb_98-08.jpg).
So, for developing countries, broadband will be the 1200 baud modem. The entry, which will come at a far lesser cost then what developed nations paid to get here, will be swifter and easier.
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Things are a’changin’ in how companies disseminate information and it’s creating a more open experience for both employees and customers -social software entrepreneur Ross Mayfield believes we have the ever-growing world of social media to thank.
In a recent Ideas Project video http://www.ideasproject.com/content.webui?id=4415, Mayfield outlines the transition of methods used to get things done. “The big shifts in organizations that are leveraging social sharing software … is a shift from need-to-know to need-to-share,” says Mayfield. “There is a different way that people are learning to communicate.”
So, how can this need-to-share atmosphere benefit you?
- It encourages collaboration and the sharing of ideas.
- It speeds discussions, particularly with the use of internal microblogging software
- It makes information-sharing fast and easy.
- It opens up a dialogue, allowing you to understand your customer’s perspective and needs
- It increases usability for your customers.
- It makes customers feel more personally attached to your brand.
Developing a presence online in the social media sphere is key. Your company should start with a useful, engaging website that offers customers a place to find key answers and information about your business – and that information should be easy and intuitive to locate.
Facebook is another useful tool. Create a fan page for your business, and share information about special sales, happenings and news mentions there. Also, encourage fans to post there too. The key is to give customers a space where they can get something that they can’t get elsewhere. Likewise, Twitter is a great tool for businesses to interact with customers. Be sure to monitor for brand mentions by using a Twitter search tool, like the one available with TweetDeck.
However, in the world of social media, it’s important to note that you only get one chance to get it right – and even a single errant tweet or post could become a big problem. So always think it through before you post!
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