Companies & Industries

In Business, Early Birds Twitter Most Effectively


Companies can work wonders before Twitter's vast interactive audience of consumers, but it's best to start slowly and build credibility

Like so many others, Lionel Menchaca, Dell Computer's chief blogger, thought Twitter was "fairly worthless for business" when he first looked at it in March 2007, but trying new social media tools was part of his job. Menchaca opened an account and started posting links whenever he posted on Direct2Dell, the company's oft-praised corporate blog, where he serves as principal author.

The results exceeded his expectations. When he posted a link on Twitter, people clicked on the URL in minutes. They commented often—and at Twitter, rather than on the blog. They were the first viewers to spread word of his new blog posts. Twitter moved fast and sent his words further than any medium he had previously encountered.

But that turned out to be less than half the story. Listening to others turned out to be even more valuable than distributing what he wrote. Menchaca discovered that by using the Twitter Search feature, he could monitor and sometimes join conversations about PCs. "Tweeters," as they call themselves, regularly posted links to relevant content he might otherwise have missed.

Menchaca's experience is far from unique. Businesses, ranging from the largest multinationals to home-office practitioners, often come for one reason and are surprised to find greater value in some other aspect they hadn't considered. The surprise plus can bring help in marketing, sales, recruiting, feedback, support, sales or just getting closer to geographically scattered networks (as has been the case with IBM.)

Business uses for Twitter are proving to be as diverse as those for the telephone or e-mail. They generally break into two categories: ways to follow customers and ways to increase efficiency.

Recruit clients and soothe consumers

Companies are joining Twitter for the same reason politicians attend the funerals of famous people: It's where they can find their constituents and hold close, informal conversations with them. For example, CrowdSPRING, a tiny Chicago-based startup, uses Twitter to find buyers and sellers for its online professional graphics marketplace. (Business buyers declare what they want to see in a new logo or website and then, on average, 70 designers bid on each project.)

Conversations start in Twitter and then spread beyond the platform's seamless boundaries, rapidly reaching customers, vendors, recruits, and partners in a wide variety of markets. You can find potential customers on Twitter and perhaps snag a sale. You can also find conversations with consumers who are unhappy with your products and assuage them quickly and publicly.

Twitter may owe its blastoff to the dive the economy took. Microblogging became a much-discusssed option just as businesses began axing marketing, advertising, and public relations budgets and reducing their participation at conferences and social networking events. Because of those cuts, companies understood they still needed to reach out to customers. Twitter turned out to be a less-expensive and more efficient way to achieve this.

Twitter works well with other social media platforms, such as blogs, video, and audio podcasts, creating a whole new kind of interactive integrated communications solution. It is proving not just faster and cheaper—but more credible. Surveys consistently report that people tend to trust their Twitter friends more than formulated company messages. Users increasingly rely on one another for tips on what to buy, watch, read, or listen to.

While Twitter shares similarities with phones and e-mail, there's a major difference: It works best in public. Anyone can see real people in a company trying hard to help.

Avoid one-way, targeted marketing

Comcast, North America's largest cable carrier, has a 10-member Twitter support team. Tens of thousands of tweeters witness employees trying—with customary success—to help customers. Conversely, consumers do not witness call-center conversations and the greatest failures among those interactions tend to make the most noise in the marketplace. Surveys show measurable improvements in Comcast's customer satisfaction ratings since the company began using Twitter for customer service.

Of course, Twitter is no elixir. Companies who try to use the tool as yet another marketing arrow in their quiver—one that mostly carries targeted, one-way messages—usually fail.

While Twitter has had remarkable results in times of crisis, companies that jump in just when an emergency is breaking have joined too late. Their customers don't know they are there. It takes time to establish your credibility in Twitterville and you need to understand how it works before that credibility gets tested.

It also takes time to understand how this deceptively simple-looking tool works. Nearly everyone I interviewed in my recent book mentioned how confused and disoriented they once felt. According to Twitter founder-CEO Ev Williams: "People are pretty much clueless when they first try Twitter."

A smart business will start early. Nearly every company cited in the accompanying slide show stumbled and fumbled for a while before they discovered how Twitter could help business in many ways.

Shel Israel is author of TWITTERVILLE: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods (Portfolio 2009).

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