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Professional management tools for Twitter: HootSuite and CoTweet

Only a few tools help give multiple users coherent access to the same Twitter accounts. There are the two best.

What's happening in meetings I've been in here is likely similar to what's happening in other corporations: People are gathering to figure out how to use, exploit, or simply not get their companies embarrassed on Twitter. But no matter what we agree to in these rooms (which, in my experience, isn't much), one thing is sure: You can't manage a major corporate Twitter presence on Twitter.com itself. Nor, for that matter, can you in one of the popular client apps like Tweetdeck or the current Seesmic Desktop. You need something built for customer service or brand management. New tools are emerging for just that.

The two I recommend are Invoke's HootSuite, which is in open beta right now (version 2.0 is in private beta), and CoTweet, which is still closed. I've tried them both.

Common features

The products have much in common. Both allow you to control and monitor multiple Twitter accounts, and give other people access to those accounts as you see fit. In both, you can maintain password control of your Twitter accounts -- users need only know their HootSuite or CoTweet login to see their assigned accounts and reply on your company's behalf. You can add or take people off accounts without having to get into the weeds in Twitter itself.

Both products let you post from any of your configured Twitter accounts, or all of them together if you like. And the both support the automatic addition of "cotags," like the short, signed bylines (example: "^RN" for Rafe Needleman) you're beginning to see in multi-person corporate Twitter accounts. You can also set up posts to go out at future times in both products, nice for running rudimentary marketing campaigns.

Both give you stats on links you share from the service. HootSuite uses its own shortener, ow.ly, and its stats are very deep. CoTweet uses the capable Bit.ly but displays only the most rudimentary stats from that service, unfortunately.

HootSuite: Power tool with torque

HootSuite is the geekier tool, and it's more powerful than CoTweet in some ways. The 2.0 version (due out by July) supports multiple columns, like Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop. Its statistics, as I said, are deep. It can show you things like the most influential re-tweeters of your links.

HootSuite will also monitor RSS feeds and send headlines out in your Twitter feeds automatically. That's a pretty slick feature. I've used Twitterfeed to do that in the past (that's how the @Webware feed works), but like the idea of integrating the RSS harvester into a more comprehensive tool.

In the user management category, HootSuite lets you follow or unfollow people from within the client, as well as report spammers to Twitter HQ with one button click.

With HootSuite, you can have multiple people manage multiple Twitter accounts. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

But HootSuite is not what I would call an attractive app, nor one whose functionality is clear at first glance, and that's a problem for a product that's supposed to be used by many people. It's still, though, a very powerful Twitter account manager for professional Twitter publishers and marketers. Current customers include the NBA, Revision3, Reddit, and Steve Case.

CoTweet: CRM meets Twitter

CoTweet, in contrast to HootSuite, is cleanly designed and clearly targeted at the corporate Twitter user. Its big interface difference is that it doesn't have multi-column support in the main window, although it will put all your Twitter account feeds into one column if you like, which is pretty slick. And its search interface is multi-column, so you can monitor several keywords at once; you just can't also see you main Twitter feeds at the same time.

CoTweet lets you assign out tweets you don't want to deal with. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

CoTweet has two very slick features that HootSuite doesn't offer. First, it has a rudimentary workflow system built in. If you see an @ reply come in to one of your accounts and you want someone else in your company to handle it, you can assign it to a person on your CoTweet account. They'll get an e-mail asking them to handle it, as well as a flag in their CoTweet Web page. An elegant system lets you "archive" tweets to get them off your screen when you've dealt with them or delegated them. CoTweet also has a simple in/out board for users so you can make sure you don't assign a tweet to a person who hasn't said they're available to reply to messages. And you can take notes on Twitter users that your co-users can see (like "This is a key customer; respond quickly and respectfully"). It's like a mini CRM system for Twitter.

CoTweet lets you sign in to indicate to other users that you can handle Twitter traffic. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Under the covers, CoTweet has a very important architectural difference from HootSuite: Its servers connect to Twitter using OAuth APIs, not the standard Twitter app APIs, so you'll never run into the rate limiter. CoTweet constantly monitors your Twitter feeds and can e-mail you when you say you're on duty (using the the in/out board data) when @ and direct messages come in. A future version will also be able to alert you when matching search results come in.

I have some minor quibbles with the CoTweet interface, but I believe it's a more important product than HootSuite, especially for companies that want to manage how they react to customers who are on Twitter. CoTweet private beta users so far include the city of San Francisco, Twitter's own API team, JetBlue, Whole Foods, Pepsi, Sprint, and Ford.

One more thing, and recommendations

CoTweet isn't out yet, but will be "soon," CEO Jesse Engle told me. There will be paid service levels and there may also be a free version. HootSuite 1.0 is in public beta, is free, and will be for a while. "Paid functionality is a ways out," Invoke CEO Ryan Holmes told me.

There's one more tool worth mentioning: PeopleBrowsr. I covered this Twitter Web client before. It's still a visual acid trip, even after a recent redesign. But it does nearly everything you'd want in a mutli-user Twitter app, including one key, controversial feature: It manages outbound Twitter campaigns, including the semi-automated sending of messages to Twitter users based on keywords in their posts. That's a marketer's dream, but I do hope it is not abused. See also my review of Twitterhawk.

My recommendations: If you're an individual Twitter power user who has people helping you manage your accounts, give HootSuite a shot. But if you're trying to figure out how to leverage Twitter as a customer service platform, wait for CoTweet.