Twitter: To tweet or not to tweet?

March 30, 2009

All of a sudden, Twitter is everywhere. And it seems everyone (brands and consumers alike) is trying to figure out how to use it. In the business world, anecdotes run the gamut from the cautionary to curious to game-changing.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is to blogging as instant messaging is to email. Driven by a single, simple question (What are you doing?), Twitter users send updates to followers about pretty much anything that they can say within 140 characters. It's often referred to as a "micro-blog." Twitter users simultaneously participate in hundreds or thousands of message streams online or via mobile device, managing them with various applications that enable them to listen to those "tweets" that interest them most.

This simple concept has spawned a complex and powerful new social information and communication medium. Twitter has impacted how news is gathered, how organizations get the word out and how buzz is created and measured. And, with Twitter's explosive growth, more and more brands are jumping into the game. Thousands, actually, according to twibs.com (a new business directory that aims to be the Yellow Pages of Twitter).

So just how does a brand use Twitter to further its aims? The blogosphere is filled with POVs on the good, the bad, the ugly of Twitter, the how-tos, the etiquette, the unspoken do's and don'ts – so no need to go into that here. However, just a few recent anecdotes can demonstrate how companies need to think about Twitter and its impact on their brands.

Pushing the Bounds
There is an explosion of brands participating in the dialog. Brands ranging from ESPN to Starbucks to Dell are supporting very active accounts boasting tens of thousands of followers. Whole Foods has over 300,000 followers, enabling them to communicate instantly with their most avid customers - essentially providing an open discussion forum around the Whole Foods lifestyle, with recipes, promotions, tips, etc. Google had tens of thousands of followers within a day of establishing a Twitter page. Now, one month later, they've got a quarter of a million. Skittles temporarily turned their homepage into a Twitter search result, which published every single Twitter mention of the word "skittles." While this last effort sparked plenty of buzz, the result was an onslaught of Skittles tweets – some positive, some negative, some banal, some vulgar – that all lived, for at least a few moments, right on the Skittles homepage. While the goal was certainly buzz, the effect remains unclear (i.e., Did they sell more Skittles that week?)

The Game-Changer
Companies are using Twitter to reach out directly to customers. Salesforce.com, has built a Twitter-response tool into its customer-relations product. Taking that idea a step further, Southwest Airlines recently used Twitter to surgically poach a traveler from a competitor, by listening to the tweets of a disgruntled JetBlue traveler and offering to lend a hand with a more convenient flight. They did not manage to grab the fare in this case, but they garnered some buzz for it and demonstrated their brand values and social media savvy in the process.

The "Cocktail Party" Rule
A now infamous cautionary tale referred to as "Cisco Fatty" saw a new Cisco hire terminated before he showed up for work because of his tweet about the new "fat paycheck" he'd be getting even though he was less than enthusiastic about the job itself. Cisco's response?: "Who is the hiring manager? I'm sure they would love to know that you will hate the work." There's no such thing as anonymity anymore and people and brands should conduct themselves in the online social world with the expectation that their words will live on indefinitely. Think of it as mixed company at a cocktail party – you never know who's listening and who knows whom. So behave yourself.

The Bottom Line?
Brands that don't have a plan for Twitter need one. At the least, you can monitor the stream with minimal effort and commitment. For many, for now, that is probably enough. Just "listening" can help you avoid surprises and stay attune to trends.

Taking the next step and actually opening an account takes just minutes – but this is a step you really need to think through. The resource issue is probably minimal at first. The bigger questions are the how and the why:

 

 

As with any brand-building investment, we suggest you begin by setting goals and objectives for your effort. Those goals and objectives can range from simply listening to the dialog to supporting a particular promotion to trying to intercept and guide customers. Brainstorm the possibilities, narrow your focus, and determine the right way to approach it from a resource standpoint. Also try to put some metrics and gates on your process so that you can evaluate, learn and course-correct. Each brand and business will approach this medium differently – and the fluid nature of the medium can, today, afford you some time to change course.

Lastly, we're brand people who believe in certain principles about how brands are managed and whether it's Twitter or any social medium, the same basic rules of branding still apply:

 

  1. Be true to who you are
  2. Stay relevant to your brand
  3. Be transparent in how you communicate
  4. Respect your customers
  5. Don't make a promise you can't keep

 

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