4 Social Media Secrets You Can Learn From Elon Musk

Using Twitter for customer engagement and brand-building is a no-brainer, but so many major CEOs are still not using the tool to their advantage. Here's how you can overcome the anxiety and dive into the Twittersphere.

Elon Musk dominates when it comes to Twitter.

Tesla Motors’ CEO writes frequent, lively posts about Tesla and its Model S electric sports car, along with observations about his professional and personal interests, from space travel to movies.

Recently, one of his tweets touched on two of his main passions: He posted a link to a YouTube video created by two recent college grads as an ad for Tesla. The video shows a little boy climbing into a Tesla in his garage and imagining he’s piloting a spaceship.

“I love it!” the billionaire raved to his nearly 600,000 Twitter followers.

Musk clearly recognizes the role Twitter can play in building a corporate brand and bolstering an executive’s image. He uses the microblogging service to share news about his ventures in 140-character blasts that promote Tesla in interesting ways, and they also underscore his image as a curious, energetic, agile business maverick.

At a time when storytelling in business is all the rage, Twitter allows CEOs like Musk to play the role of an accessible, engaged, transparent brand narrator. In today’s hyper-connected, information-driven world, Twitter is the modern PR outlet that allows a CEO to build engagement and trust among customers, employees, investors, and journalists.

In fact, our 2014 Global Social CEO Survey of 1,000 U.S. and U.K. employees at companies of all sizes, found that 82% of respondents believed a CEO’s active engagement on social media enhances their reputation as forward-thinking, trend-setting leaders.

But too many CEOs don’t know how to use social media. Although Twitter has more than 240 million active users and is now eight years old, CEO.com and Domo found last year that almost 70% of Fortune 500 CEOs have no presence whatsoever on major social media outlets and, amazingly, only 28 among them are on Twitter.

Some CEOs claim they don’t have the time to spend on social media, which is a valid concern. Others fear being too accessible to critics and ending up on the firing line if there is a crisis. In many CEOs views, the immediacy of Twitter means a lack of control and the possibility of gaffes.

But social media engagement doesn’t have to be anxiety inducing, and it can actually be leveraged as a tool for better leadership.

Here are four secrets that can guide CEOs on the path to successful engagement and brand-building in the Twittersphere:

1. Own your Executive Brand

If you don’t take ownership of your own CEO brand, somebody else will. And what’s the downside of being a social media wallflower? Trolls love a social media vacuum. When executives fail to speak for themselves, social media handle squatters are all too happy to fill the void and shape a brand story by setting up fake accounts and impersonating brand insiders.

Just ask Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, whose name was hijacked and transformed into “Lloyd Bankfein” and who was touted as CEO of “Goldmine Sachs” on Twitter.

And United Airlines is probably not laughing at @FakeUnitedJeff, the fake account of its CEO Jeff Smisek:

2. Humanize Your Brand

Increasingly, companies are seeking leaders who personify the company’s brand 24/7. One business leader who has mastered the art of real-time branding on Twitter is Warby Parker cofounder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal.

Blumenthal's Twitter bio notes that the eyewear company executive “loves helping people see.” His 7,000+ Twitter followers are treated to images from Warby Parker’s work overseas as well as more whimsical posts, such as pictures of pies on March 14--“Pi Day”--and pictures of cool new toys Blumenthal enjoys with his son. This is a great way for the founder of a company that makes fashionable eyewear more affordable for more people to show that he--and Warby Parker--are accessible, too.

Similarly, more than 4 million people follow Richard Branson at @RichardBranson. The swashbuckling Virgin CEO’s Twitter bio reminds us he is the “tie-loathing adventurer and thrill seeker who believes in turning ideas into reality.” One moment he tweets about Pakistan’s brave young heroine Malala; the next, he notes that Virgin is constructing a new green building. His tweets suit his image and his conversation style.

Apple’s Tim Cook, IdeaLab’s Bill Gross, and Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff are other CEOs who share professional and personal interests on Twitter, which seem sincere and are very engaging. While Gross recently posted live stream photos of the Total Lunar Eclipse for his followers, Cook tweeted on Earth Day about Apple’s commitment to the environment. Benioff, meanwhile, celebrated Salesforce’s 15-year anniversary by tweeting a video that showcased his company’s commitment to social good through the Salesforce.com Foundation.

3. Don’t Show Up and then Fall Silent

Last spring Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer used Twitter to trumpet the company’s acquisition of Tumblr and to invite her followers to support East Palo Alto Charter School. She also used the social media platform to apologize for making a comment that was viewed as disparaging of professional photographers, which helped quell critics.

Unfortunately, Mayer, who has more than a half-million followers, now only occasionally composes an original Tweet. Mostly, she re-tweets posts from others--so often, in fact, that folks who’ve noticed her inclination to do this have posted tweets saying they will open a Yahoo account or get an exclamation point tattoo if @marissamayer retweets their tweet--which she then does. It’s time for Mayer to take control of her tweets and use the social media outlet to make her seem like a more comfortable, accessible leader.

4. Use Twitter as a Leadership Tool

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella seems to understand the importance of being socially present and engaged in his new role. In his first post since 2010, he tweeted:

Recently Nadella enthusiastically took to Twitter to boast that Office software made for iPads shot to the top of the charts at Apple’s App Store. “Looks like it’s a pretty productive Friday for #iPad owners!” Nadella tweeted, along with a picture showing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint as the three most popular free applications at the App Store. This is a nice way for Nadella to show that he’s more socially savvy than Steve Ballmer who, at last check, wasn’t active on Twitter (although there are more than a half-dozen fake Ballmer handles).

CEOs would be well-served to remember that many of the world’s greatest leaders were highly skilled communicators--from Winston Churchill to John F. Kennedy to Steve Jobs.

When CEOs express opinions on issues they care about, it makes them more accessible as human beings. Having the courage to reveal personal values and take political positions builds trust, and strengthens the leadership of the individual as well as the brand.

Social media outlets like Twitter make it easy for CEOs to transform how they relate to customers, analysts, partners and employees, and will help redefine the culture of leadership for a modern world.

[Image: Flickr user pestoverde]

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3 Comments

  • D Grant Smith

    Hey Ann, these are great suggestions for incorporating Twitter and succeeding with it. Too often I see folks using Twitter just as a pitching tool, which negates the effectiveness of it. This is especially true in the music industry where a band will send blanket direct messages to folks asking them to check out a video. Where the most success happens is when you use Twitter (and other social channels for that matter) to build real connections with people through conversation. Yes, make the pitch to get folks to your site and your brand. But only messaging in that way takes away from the effectiveness.

  • I think the real and only key to Musk's success with Twitter is that HE HAS 600,000 FOLLOWERS. Pretty much anything he does with that kind of momentum, can be claimed as a success in some for or another. I have 18 followers (oops just dropped to 14), and make the same claim.

  • D Grant Smith

    Visfor, there's nothing wrong with 14 followers and committing to incremental growth. I have 761 and have been adding a few folks each week. Slow growth helps you build real connection with the people who are following you, versus suddenly having 10,000 people follow you. How do you connect with 10,000 new people at once? Best of luck to you in growing your presence. Send some tweets out to people who share your interests and they'll help grow your followers.