Who owns your Twitter followers?

Twitter: would you take your followers with you?
Twitter: would you take your followers with you?

Employees represent firms on social media, but who 'owns' the audience - user or brand, asks Rachel Barnes.

What is the real value of a Twitter follower? This is a question that has largely been ignored by brands in the nascent years of the platform.

With 100 million active users a month - an 82% increase from the start of 2011 - many of whom tweet during their working day about their brand and related topics, Twitter is now central to many businesses' communications plans [Read Intel Q&A, below].

The social-media network has become a workplace tool to talk directly to consumers, as well as a breaking-news resource and a place to share knowledge. Nonetheless, as industry and job-related tweeting has become a pillar of the site, a controversial issue is coming to the fore: who owns a user's followers - the individual or the brand they represent?

Now this question is facing a legal test, in the US. Mobile phone site PhoneDog is suing a former employee, whose role was, in part, to tweet and blog for the company under his handle @Phonedog_Noah. He left, and his 17,000 followers went with him when the brand was dropped from his account name.

PhoneDog put a value of $340,000 on the followers - $2.50 each a month for the eight months following his departure. In its statement, the company explained its stance, "The costs and resources invested by PhoneDog Media into growing followers, fans and general brand awareness through social media are substantial, and are considered property of PhoneDog".

The law in the UK

In the UK, those who head social-media policy for brands are keeping a keen eye on the case to see what repercussions there might be for their business.

There is no clear-cut answer about a brand's legal position in the UK, warns Mark Smith, media lawyer at law firm Osborne Clarke.

"One of the reasons the PhoneDog case is attracting a lot of attention here is precisely because the position under UK law has not been established in a decided case," he says.

"A company could in fact make a case for ownership where the employee is tweeting as part of their job, even if the issue has not been dealt with in writing, as in the PhoneDog case." [See more comments in the Need To Know box, below].

The issue arose last year when several journalists in the US and UK switched to rival organisations. With a simple tweak to her Twitter handle, the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg went from @BBCLauraK to @ITVLauraK, taking her 60,000 followers with her.

Car-maker Hyundai Motor UK is one brand taking the issue seriously. Last year, it lost a senior member of its communications team to a rival, with the Twitter account - a combination of staff name and Hyundai - switched to the new employer.

Although she would not be drawn on ownership, a spokeswoman says the company is "in the process of putting a social-media policy in place".

For Asda, many of its staff Twitter handles include the supermarket brand name and these are officially considered property of the company. This is primarily for those in its communications department, which oversees its Twitter presence.

The retailer, which has 27,000 followers of its official @asda account, adopted this policy from the outset, and so has not faced the issue of taking ownership from those who tweet on its behalf.

"Our policy is that if someone leaves, then the Twitter feed is either closed or moved to someone else in the team," explains Nick Agarwal, strategic communications director for Asda. "We pride ourselves on recruiting people with personality, which is why our social-media face is also a personal one. We see an increasing role for people within our business - not just in communications - to be the 'face' of Asda within social media."

The fact that a Twitter user name contains a company moniker would not necessarily mean that it belonged to the company, however, says Smith, although it could be a useful piece of evidence.

It would also be an uphill battle to argue that an account set up by an employee prior to joining a company now belonged to it, even if the tweets they then made were work-related, he warns.

As Twitter continues to grow and users start to amass significant numbers of followers, brands must address the issue, whether opting for an open policy as with Intel (see box, left) or taking ownership, as with Asda.

For many companies, the issue of ownership is yet to be addressed in their social-media policies, if they even have one. However, as a brand's most prolific tweeters increase their follower numbers from hundreds to 10s of thousands.

Ford's head of social media in the US, Scott Monty, has 64,500, for example - the question of what happens to a brand's social-media presence if that person leaves the business must be considered.

Inside view: Intel Q&A

Becky Brown Director for social media, Intel

Intel's goal is for employees to become "active social media practitioners" on its behalf, ownership remains with the individual. It discourages staff from using Intel in their personal Twitter handles, but requires them to disclose their affiliation if tweeting Intel-related content.

Who owns the relationship with followers - the individual or the company?

We believe that employees own their personal Twitter accounts and have guidelines that address disclosure relative to their roles at Intel. Ultimately, employees have the relationships with their followers on their personal handles, and we believe this relationship is theirs to continue should they choose to leave the company.

How can you ensure tone of voice for your social-media presence if you do not 'own' the accounts?

We certainly believe that tone of voice is important both for personal Twitter handles and official Intel Twitter handles. We encourage our Intel Twitter account operators to use an authentic voice and follow our guidelines when tweeting on behalf of Intel, or through the Intel accounts they operate and manage.

How do you quantify the value of Twitter followers to Intel?

We have yet to place a specific value on followers, but are in the process of exploring more in this space, particularly as it relates to social-media ROI. We believe followers have different levels of value, depending on how influential they are and how passionate they are about engaging with our brand.

Intel tends to assign a range of value to campaigns that leverage Twitter and the associated social engagement with the campaign. We have set up an approach that looks at light, moderate and heavy engagement. I can envision something where we would assign greater value to those followers that heavily engage with Intel over time on Twitter.

Need to know

Osborne Clarke media lawyer Mark Smith on the top considerations that marketers must weigh up as Twitter becomes a key consumer communication tool.

Clearly worded social-media policies Companies should state who owns the Twitter accounts used by employees in the course of performing their duties. If social media is particularly relevant to the role concerned, the company should consider including similar wording in the employee's contract of employment. It is much cheaper and easier to spell out who owns a Twitter account in advance rather than litigating the issue after the event.

Consider including the brand name in any Twitter handles This will strengthen the argument that the account belongs to the company. Providing links to the account on the company website and via other relevant channels (eg the company's Facebook page) may also be useful evidence.

Put it in a contract It will be much more difficult for a company to argue that it owns a Twitter account if the employee had established the account prior to joining the company.

If the company wishes to acquire ownership of such an account, then it may be best to do this via a separate agreement or specific wording in the contract of employment relating to that particular account.

Spell out ownership If an employee is leaving a company and the ownership of their Twitter account is not clear-cut, then the company should consider getting the employee to sign a written agreement to resolve the matter if possible.

This could assign all rights in the account belonging to the employee to the company or vice versa.

Divide personal from business followers Companies should consider stating in their social-media policies that employees are not permitted to add business contacts made during the course of their employment to their personal Twitter accounts, as this will allow the employee to easily retain details of business contacts in the event that they leave.

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