Read any good tweets lately? Written any? No? | July 27, 2009
By Andrew Terefenko
Twitter is, in the company’s own words, “a service for friends, family and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” More specifically, Twitter is a free microblogging service that allows users to send short messages to people who have agreed to receive them. These messages are called “tweets” and each must be no longer than 140 characters. In addition to the real-time communication aspect, tweets are also searchable, allowing individuals or companies to conduct research.
Why open this article with a dry definition? Because most people, and especially business people, aren’t familiar with Twitter. If you’re among that group, you may be leaving a hole in your marketing and audience research efforts. After all, in May there were 19.7 million Twitter users in the U.S. alone, according to Compete.com (http://bit.ly/twitstats), and wouldn’t it be useful to tap into some of those millions?
If you’re asking how you can get the most out of this social-media phenomenon, you’re in luck. Backbone sat down with several Canadian professionals who use Twitter daily and asked why and how they tweet.
1. Engage your community
One-on-one contact with customers has always been the goal of marketers, product managers, sales reps, etc., but the vehicles to gather that information were usually slow and expensive. Twitter is neither and companies are noticing, including tech giant Microsoft. “Microsoft uses Twitter as a communication channel with customers and we alert people to upcoming promotions, such as the Tech Days Canada [training conferences],” said David Crow, Web platform evangelist for Microsoft Canada.
In addition to these broad marketing initiatives, Microsoft also engages with individual customers using Twitter. “We had a customer move to Canada from Boston and he forgot his Office 2008 DVDs. After he complained on Twitter that he couldn’t install it on his machine again without those DVDs, Microsoft delivered a new set of disks after talking with him,” Crow said.
The advice: alert your customers to your Twitter account and don’t hesitate to help them out on a case-by-case basis. It supports customer relations and builds goodwill.
2. Embrace real time
Brad Ross, director of corporate communications for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), said the company has been using Twitter to inform subway riders of route closures and detours and even to deliver instructions during emergencies. This kicked in during a large blackout last January during which Ross sent out tweets to help riders get around the city with most of the subway services shut down.
Ross started using Twitter in December of last year. He is responsible for developing more effective communication methods, but even he had initial difficulty finding a practical use for Twitter. “It really came home to me during the blackout. Twitter allowed for quick hits, without having to bother with mailing lists, automated services and stuff like that. The light went on for me that day for how useful Twitter is for handling service disruptions on a small and large scale.”
And the day-to-day applications are even more useful. “Someone can comment on the TTC’s operations or ask a personal question to me. They’ll get a quick response, and the TTC might build on that feedback,” Ross said. “Of course, changes won’t happen right away, but by engaging with the riders, Twitter lets us see what they are thinking and feeling. You get almost a pulse from day to day.”
Microsoft has also been using Twitter as a feedback engine for an upcoming program. “The Office 2010 team is using Twitter to collect responses from users on how to improve the program, with really great improvements coming for Outlook,” Crow said.
The advice: Use Twitter for what it’s good at: taking a real-time pulse of your community.
3. Enhance internal communication
People typically look outward when they think of Twitter: customers, consumers, business partners. But the service works as well with people in your own office, according to Dave Fleet, senior consultant for communications agency Thornley Fallis in Toronto. “We use a Twitter-based communications method called Present.ly that lets us ask and answer each others’ questions in real time,” Fleet said. Present.ly sticks with Twitter’s 140-character limit but adds features such as privacy, attachments and firewall compatibility. “I joined Twitter in September 2007 after hearing about it through word of mouth, and since then I’ve met suppliers and landed new clients [through it] and I’m always on the service.”
The advice: The same elements that make Twitter work with a bunch of strangers can also improve communication with your own staff. So look inward too.
But wait a second
Isn’t it possible Twitter is simply the latest gotta-have industry trend? Won’t this just blow over in a year? Maybe. According to Compete, Twitter’s growth is slowing and it’s important to note that not everyone is in love with the service. Jon Arnold is an independent technology and telecom analyst in Toronto and an avid Twitter non-user. “Twitter has great utility for certain things, but nothing beats voice and personal contact. Meeting with clients and employees face-to-face is still the best way to get things done. [Twitter is] just another way to disengage from reality.”
To be fair though, Arnold added, “Where speed is concerned, Twitter eliminates the friction point of the industry. It’s so efficient that you can stage hour-long promotions on short notice and still draw sizeable audiences.”
Fleet offered similar cautions. “Don’t ditch old tools that do their particular job better. This is a two-way tool, not one-way like older applications, so results will be different. It’s got a lot of potential for companies if they use it the right way and don’t just dive in head first.”
Furthermore, Twitter may never be a direct revenue stream. “I would not try to sell something on Twitter. People are turned off by spam and marketing ploys,” Ross said. Fleet echoed this: “People don’t want to be shouted at and aren’t looking to buy stuff on Twitter.”
Fleet also wrote on his blog that consistency among communication channels is important; work to ensure customers don’t get mixed messages through new- and old-media marketing tools.
The caution: Don’t get too caught up in Twitter. It’s shiny and new and cool, but it’s not all things to all people.
By Andrew Terefenko
Google is still king but Twitter’s unique content model may actually push it to search’s forefront, according to Microsoft Canada’s David Crow. “Twitter could replace Google as a search engine, given that it gives you results based on what people are saying, not based on what has been said.” If people are talking about a business and it pops up often as a search term, it could be a positive indicator for growth.
A frontline view of Twitter’s potential potholes
Note: the author, who wished to remain anonymous, works for a large enterprise company in Toronto and is on the team managing its use of Twitter.
Using Twitter as a business tool may be all the rage right now, but before your company jumps headfirst it pays to take a step back and assess the potential risks. Our large financial services firm did just that, and discovered the main danger lay in the fact that we were treating Twitter differently than other Web content. This may be due to its potential for immediacy.
We also found, however, that adhering to the same acceptable-use policies that apply to other external communications (e.g. don’t talk about clients, don’t divulge company secrets, don’t say anything you don’t want quoted in the press, stay on brand) is most of the battle. On the other side, there is a risk inherent in not getting involved: you may not know what people are saying about you.
Look before you tweet: 3 questions to ask
1. What’s your strategy?
Why are you considering Twitter? How will it add value? Is it on brand? How will you link? If you don’t have answers you aren’t ready to tweet.
2. Who is listening?
Consider your audience. If they aren’t likely to use Twitter then chances are it won’t be a successful initiative for you. If you do decide to tweet, use a micro URL service such as tri.im in your messages: this generates click metrics. And remember that people will judge you based on who you follow, so choose them with care.
3. Is it sustainable?
There are hundreds of examples of companies that started tweeting only to stop weeks later. This just looks bad. If you want to be in the game, you have to be ready to play—and keep playing. So even though it may seem counterintuitive for an on-the-fly application like Twitter, a predetermined tweet schedule is a good idea.