Who Owns Your Corporate Twitter Followers?

company versus employee

Pretty interesting account on the New York Times of how Phonedog is suing a previous employee to gain access to the Twitter followers on the account he set up as part of their social media outreach.

By current employment standards in the country, I suppose PhoneDog is fully within their rights… the work you do on company time is typically owned by the company. However, social media has changed both the perception and interaction between companies and their network. It used to be that people were able to stand behind the brand to communicate with the network. We learned through advertisements, brands, logos, slogans and other sponsorship opportunities. The problem is that social media now puts people in front of the company and directly in touch with the brand. My personal belief is, because social media changes the flow of communication, the ownership patterns change as well.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but a simple social media policy would have established this up front. While Phonedog may win the legal war of whether or not they own the initiative, the fact that they didn’t set this expectation in a social media policy was a mistake. In my opinion, I honestly believe their case has no merit based on this alone. I believe it’s always the responsibility of the company to set the expectation on employment and ownership.

Noah Kravitz Beware Tweet

Since no one has a magic ball, you need to think about this with your employees and set appropriate expectations:

  • If you don’t want your employees to own their followers, you can have them manage and communicate out a corporate-sponsored account. Example: Instead of having our employees manage their own accounts, we provide them access to @dknewmedia with Hootsuite and Buffer. I’ve noticed that some people will have the handle be the company name, while the actual name on the account is the employees. I believe that sets an expectation both with the audience and the company on who owns the account.
  • I’ve noticed other companies that had their employees sign up with Twitter with a combination handle and name. For instance, if I wanted to have each employee have a corporate account… I might set up @dk_doug, @dk_jenn, @dk_stephen, etc. I don’t think this is too bad an approach, but I’d hate to see a great following on an account that’s eventually abandoned!
  • The last option, in my opinion, is the best. Allow your employees to build their network and keep them. I know you’re aghast at this, but empowering your employees to succeed is powerful. I love the fact that Jenn and Stephen both speak often about DK New Media on their accounts. If they build an incredible following, I look at it as a benefit of having them employed with us and it’s additional value they bring to my company. It’s also my responsibility to ensure they’re happy and I can keep them here!

Social starts with people, not a company. Those followers weren’t Phonedog followers… they appreciated the handcrafted content that Noah Kravitz was able to develop on behalf of Phonedog. While Phonedog may have paid Noah, it was Noah’s talent followers were attracted to.

My last word on this: I hate the word own and ownership when it comes to companies, employees and customers. I don’t believe a company ever owns an employee nor do they ever own a customer. The employee is a trade… work for money. The customer is also a trade… product for money. The employee or the customer always has the right to leave within the boundaries of their contractual engagement. A company like Phonedog thinking they own those followers may provide all the proof in the world why they were following Noah and not the Phonedog account.


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