By Niall Cook
Worldwide Director of Marketing Technology
Hill & Knowlton
As with blogs, the question of whether companies should “Twitter” is polarising opinion. There are those who believe that social media should be exactly that, and others who think it acceptable for companies to use any channel as a communications channel.
Twitter is – according to compete.com – the third most popular social network behind Facebook and MySpace, with six million users and 54 million monthly visits. It occupies a space called micro-blogging, where people post short messages of 140 characters or less via the web, SMS, cell-phone and desktop applications updating their network of followers on what they are doing and responding to updates from those that they follow.
For many communicators and marketers, it’s a confusing phenomenon. Why do so many people seem to like it, and who really wants to know what I had for breakfast this morning? For the growing number of digital natives it’s pretty simple: they want to connect with each other, and these are their tools of today – like the telephone and cell phone were for their predecessors. They inherently know how to filter what the rest of us consider to be noise. More importantly, they understand how tools like Twitter actually solve information overload, not contribute to it.
In short, it is a growing trend that demands some attention and that’s exactly what smart marketers are beginning to do. Companies like Zappos and Comcast have been widely praised for their use of the service for proactive customer service – such as monitoring for mentions of product issues and making contact with users in order to help solve the problem. But as with any form of emergent media, it is just as easy to end up with a PR disaster on your hands as a result of inappropriate or insensitive use.
So how can you use Twitter for best effect? Well, it is all too easy to sign up for a Twitter username that matches your company or brand (if you’re lucky, it may even still be available) and start ‘tweeting’ and ‘following’ people. But before long you’ll face both ethical and logistical issues that would have been best addressed before wading in, including:
- Should there be a dedicated Twitterer, a group of people, a rota, etc.?
- Who decides what is appropriate/relevant to say or respond to?
- How can you ensure regional/functional parity, given that Twitter is global?
- Do you already have a cohort of active Twitterers in your company? Is what they are saying aligned or in conflict with the ‘official’ line?
- Should a corporate account ‘follow’ other Twitterers or not?
- What happens when a corporate Twitterer leaves the company – how do you protect the account?
- How do you respond to tweets that ask questions you don’t want to – or can’t – answer?
- Are other social media more appropriate for what you want to do and how do they relate to Twitter and vice versa?
- How can you make your anonymous corporate account authentic, personal, spontaneous and natural?
- Why would anyone want to follow your corporate Twitter profile anyway?
Whilst it’s certainly possible to feel your way as you go, it is worth spending some time thinking about and discussing these issues inside your organisation before taking the plunge. Here are five steps to ensuring your company doesn’t become the next case study in the annals of social media faux pas:
1. Register your brand/company name
Even if you don’t feel ready for a Twitter presence, you need to claim your username. Go to http://twitter.com and sign up for an account in the name of your brand or company. If you’re lucky it may still be available. If not, go to http://twitter.com/invitations/find_on_twitter and search for it to see how it is being used and by whom.
2. Stop, look and listen
It’s easy to set up and subscribe to a search of your brand or company name. Just go to http://search.twitter.com and type in a keyword to see what is being said. You can subscribe to the results in your RSS reader or by email at http://www.twilert.com (created by a Hill & Knowlton employee), to get notified on a regular basis.
3. Add value
Chances are that, at the beginning at least, you won’t have many followers. The number of followers is an indication of popularity (it’s why Barack Obama has over 226,000 and I have 371!). Even so, they want to hear from you, so provide useful content that adds value to them – not you.
4. Follow with care
This is the contentious one. There are no right answers, just opinions; so here’s mine. A corporate account (i.e. where the company or brand name is the Twitter username) should only follow other Twitter users when they follow or mention you in a tweet. Having an anonymous entity follow you is a bit like receiving spam – you don’t know who it is or why you’re getting it, you just know that you never asked for it.
If you are going to engage properly with the Twitter community, then you need to be prepared to respond. So reply to every tweet directed at you (the search you set up in step one will tell you when this happens). Use replies (@) rather than direct messages (D) so that your communication is completely transparent.
Once these basics are in place, you can begin to explore two marketing and communications applications of Twitter safe in the knowledge that you’re less likely to fall foul of it’s unwritten rules.
Twitter: The new mobile marketing?
As Twitter moves from the early adopter to early majority group of the technology adoption lifecycle, the Twitter community will become more open and receptive to marketing activities that deliver value to them.
The biggest opportunity for the marketer might therefore lie in direct response. Much has been made in the past of the benefits of using text messaging as a channel for soliciting responses from customers. However, unless SMS is also used to elicit the response, it requires the customer to consciously change their device in order to respond. I believe that consumers are also more cautious about sending texts that reveal their phone numbers to anonymous recipients, in part because of a plethora of scare stories and the use of the channel by unscrupulous companies.
Instead, marketers can now experiment with Twitter for direct response. Rather than use a mobile shortcode and keyword, they can invite customers to “D @company keyword” via Twitter, without any of the inbound or outbound SMS costs associated with mobile marketing. Yet like SMS, the company can use this direct response to begin to build a relationship with the customer via Twitter - and even follow their updates to understand what motivates and interests them.
Twitter for crisis management
During the immediate aftermath of the controlled landing of US Airways flight 1549 into New York’s Hudson River, Twitter really came into its own. By 4:16pm ET there were already hundreds of messages posted about the crash. Ten minutes later, links were being shared to photos taken by eyewitnesses, including the definitive image of the crisis taken by a ferry commuter that was posted at 3.47pm, just minutes after the incident. By contrast, there was no dedicated online crisis response channel from US Airways until around 5.00pm.
Had the company been monitoring Twitter for brand mentions, they could have set up a dedicated feed and been responding to the conversation for at least 45 minutes before their own response site was in place. They could have even prepared for the eventuality by defining keywords and bots to follow/respond with important information well in advance of any crisis hitting.
As the communications environment in which we operate becomes even quicker and the expectations of consumers from those involved increases, Twitter is certainly going to be a key communication channel in times of crisis and there is absolute no reason why companies can’t – and shouldn’t – be incorporating it into their crisis response plans.
For top Twitterers, please click on http://twitterholic.com/
Niall Cook is Hill & Knowlton’s Worldwide Director of Marketing Technology. You can follow him on Twitter @niallcook (http://twitter.com/niallcook).