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Twitter: Building Businesses Tweet by Tweet


Entrepreneurs are finding the fast-rising microblogging site to be a useful tool for reaching out to customers

Here's what happened when Chris Savage, the chief executive of Wistia.com, searched for the phrase "private video sharing" on Twitter, a social networking site. One post he found read, "A teacher requested a private 'video sharing' Web site so that specialists can observe student behavior—can anyone refer one?"

That got Savage's attention. He e-mailed back: "Still looking for a private video sharing site?"

Minutes later came the reply: "YES! It's the first request for one—thought I'd hit up my tweets before [I] go digging."

Savage: "Cool. You may want to check out Wistia.com. Full disclosure, I'm the CEO; -)"

While this exchange may seem a bit cryptic, Savage is one of a growing number of business owners to whom it makes an awful lot of sense. Savage frequently trolls Twitter looking for sales leads for his five-person, $1 million company, which makes software that facilitates video sharing through a private network. Although Savage has been using Twitter for only a year, it's already helped him find 12 new clients for his Lexington (Mass.) company. "This is a no-cost way of marketing," he says. Because Twitter provides a public forum, each post becomes a form of promotion as other users follow Savage's posts. "You are building a reputation; people can go back and look at your Web site and the quality of your content, and you are becoming part of the community," Savage says. Other business owners are using Twitter for market research and to keep an eye on customer service issues.

BREVITY'S BRAWN

Twitter distinguishes itself from MySpace (NWS) and Facebook by relying less on picture-laden profiles and more on posts of fewer than 140 characters, referred to as "tweets" or "microblogs." Twitter's simplicity is paired with a powerful search function that allows users to mine others' updates in real time for useful nuggets. "Twitter lets you stay on top of what is happening within your client base," says Chip Lambert, owner of Network2Networth, a business development consultancy in Phoenix. "You can look at conversations and reposition yourself, your products, and your services in a way that appeals to the market you are reaching out to."

An estimated 5 million people use Twitter, according to Cambridge-based Forrester Research. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone says businesses "that are not quite big enough to make an impact on the Web, or to spend resources there," have been some of the earliest users of the site. He says some San Francisco-based coffee shops and bakeries have sent tweets to tell their customers about specials or products they may be out of that day. One Los Angeles taco truck uses Twitter to tell customers where it will be that day. "Businesses use this as a hybrid between marketing and customer service," says Stone. "They use the Twitter Search to track mentions of their products and services and as a way to begin a conversation."

Like any online forum, Twitter may not be for everyone. Its immediacy and conversational nature make it a boon to those whose products and services may take a bit more explaining or back-and-forth. And it can be a time suck. "One of the major drawbacks is that [Twitter] is very addictive," says Savage, who has 800 followers and in turn follows just as many. He uses a popular add-on called Tweet Deck, which lets members organize messages by category.

GETTING STARTED

Joining Twitter is easy and free. You create a user name and password, then log onto the site. (You can also sign up to have tweets delivered to your mobile phone.) Once inside, there's a big box at the top labeled "What are you doing?" While you could start by typing something as mundane as "I am drinking my coffee and checking out Twitter," you'll see tabs on the right that say "following," "followers," and "updates," enabling you to follow others whose posts you find interesting. Once you've been posting for a while, people follow you too. A certain viral element takes over, and soon you may wind up in the middle of a Twitter community with common interests.

You'll also find thousands of irrelevant posts. "It is easy to get lost and sidetracked," says Lambert, who suggests entrepreneurs think strategically about how they might use Twitter. A mortgage broker, for example, could follow discussions people are having about new tax credits, learn what advice they're getting and which sites they're linking to, and then compose a suitable message to address them.

The viral component of Twitter has helped Andra Watkins, founder of Positus, a consulting firm based in Charleston, S.C. She joined Twitter about six months ago, and at first found it a bit daunting. "I did not grow up using these tools and it has taken me time to develop the voice and approach," she says. Still, she has built a following of 600 Twitterers—friends, colleagues, bloggers, and potential customers. She in turn follows about 600 other people, including a group from her home state of South Carolina—85% of whom she figures could help bring in business. She also follows influential bloggers and those with large Twitter followings, in hopes of establishing a dialogue with them, and keeps tabs on her competitors. Watkins sometimes sends out tweets that have nothing to do with her business, such as a few complaining about exercise. "It makes me more approachable," Watkins says. In the past six months, she's found 10 new paying clients through Twitter.

Other business owners, like Michael Coffey, chief executive of BlueCotton in Bowling Green, Ky., are using Twitter to enhance customer service. The 25-employee, $4 million company lets customers design their own shirts online. For the past two months, two of Coffey's factory workers have used iPhones to snap pictures of completed shirts, and then to send photo tweets to customers right before shipping. "Customers have some anxiety when they purchase shirts online," Coffey says. The tweets help alleviate those concerns—and have won new customers who spot the designs on Twitter. "Having people follow BlueCotton is a feather in our cap," Coffey says. "It helps create real fans of the company."

Return to the BusinessWeek SmallBiz April/May 2009 Table of Contents

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Twitter

Social Media Business Success

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