Ever wondered how to advertise, communicate directly with customers and keep abreast of your competition, all at the same time? Social networking website Twitter could be the answer. PATRICK STAFFORD reveals the tips and traps of this hot new online tool.
By Patrick Stafford
Ever wondered how to advertise, communicate directly with customers and keep abreast of your competition, all at the same time? Social networking website Twitter could be the answer. We reveal the tips and traps of this hot new online tool.
The internet has given businesses a variety of ways to market themselves, but the last few years have seen the rise of one of the most innovative – social networking.
MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn have all been co-opted by marketers who saw the opportunity to have almost instant one-to-one conversations with customers and potential customers.
But those social networking sights quickly became “so early-2008”. Right now there is no hotter social networking tool than Twitter.
In the last 12 months, visitors to Twitter have risen five fold to around six million a month. The company has just reportedly knocked back a $500 million takeover offer from Facebook.
No wonder marketers and entrepreneurs are excited.
But there are also traps and problems businesses need to be aware of. Some experts believe Twitter – like other social networking tools before it – could be little more than a fad. Twitter users are also particularly sensitive to attempts by marketers to hijack the site and companies that slip up could find their online reputation is damaged.
Twitter, which was established in 2006, asks users to answer a simple question – What are you doing now? – in the form of a message of up to 140 characters. This message – known as a “tweet” – is then broadcast to the user’s online “followers” who track the user’s account and are alerted every time that user posts a message.
The site’s popularity has exploded as Twitter’s content has changed from mundane personal messages (“I’m visiting my friend Trevor”) to short messages containing a huge range of information, from short news updates through to product reviews and company messages.
During the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks, major news organisations were using Twitter updates from people on the ground as the basis for updated broadcasts. Universities in the US are also using Twitter to relay class information.
Businesses have been quick to realise the challenges and opportunities that Twitter presents, with companies such as Telstra, US internet provider Comcast and a range of small businesses now using Twitter accounts.
These companies are using Twitter to push their marketing messages, communicate with customers, monitor customer feedback and defend their online reputations.
Where to start
Kevin Yank, technical director of sitepoint.com is an avid Twitter user and suggests businesses should search Twitter to find out what people are actually saying about them. He argues that because Twitter is such a fast medium users are more likely to broadcast what they are feeling at the exact moment they are feeling it.
“You can use the Twitter search engine to search the latest posts for keywords that have to do with your products or services, or your company name,” he says. “You can also subscribe to an RSS feed so that you will be alerted when new posts are made containing those keywords.”
Yank argues businesses have a tremendous opportunity to then engage with users. He points to US internet service provider Comcast, which has an entire customer service team who monitor “tweets” for complaints about the group’s service.
“If someone complains about receiving their bill two days before they have to pay it, rather than just say ‘we’ll look into that,’ they’ll say, ‘yeah, we’ve heard of that from customers and have been talking to ISPs who have the same problem’. They’ve stripped away the veneer of customer service language.”
Marketing and communications
Yank says Twitter is a brilliant tool to increase brand awareness.
“We’re giving away one of our books in PDF format. So we’ve set up a service – anyone who signs up to follow the Sitepoint Twitter account will then get a download link. We spread the word, and in the space of a week we had 15,000 followers. That put us in the top 50 users in the world.”
Suzi Dafnis, national general manager of the Australian Businesswomen’s Network, uses Twitter as a way of communicating quickly with her members.
“I subscribe to the Twitter account of certain experts, and as things are Twittered that I think are relevant to my followers, I send a message to distribute those resources,” she says.
“I also use it to drive traffic. If you’ve posted something online, you can Twitter your followers and drive people there.”
Ann Nolan, founder of babysitterdirectory.com.au, uses Twitter as a quick and easy content delivery tool.
“It feels like people are awash with lots of content on normal blogs – this is the way to get it in some little titbits. I’ve got a blog, but some people won’t go and read the whole thing, so you can post little snippets on Twitter.”
Talking to customers in real time
Twitter is such a powerful marketing tool not only because of one-on-one conversations, but because those conversations happen in real time.
“The advantage is the immediacy,” Yank says. “Any time you’re going to reach out to people and make them aware of what you can offer them, it’s going to be treated with a certain level of scepticism. If you’re just throwing banner ads up on a site, people will usually dismiss your message.
“When someone is actively communicating with the world at large… It’s a unique opportunity to respond to them in the moment. And with more and more mobiles having internet access, people have used Twitter mobile to follow on the go.”
Dafnis also says Twitter’s advantage is that it can be used much faster than traditional media.
“For instance, at an Apple conference where Steve Jobs was speaking, people were releasing the information that he was talking about on Twitter. If you were subscribing to those accounts, you were getting it faster than news services and blogs.”
Dafnis argues that not only is the service “very immediate”, but also extremely public. In fact, she points out the fact Twitter culture shuns users who do not participate in public discussion.
“It’s a two-way street. Twitter is all about contributing to the conversation in the online neighbourhood and engaging with a community of people that you’re following.”
Yank agrees, saying the purpose of the service is to “create a conversation”.
“Twitter has its own language – there’s a whole vocabulary and language, so it’s very much like an online neighbourhood. Build the relationship with your customers and publicity – it has to be engaging, and within the rules,” he says.
“Traditional marketing can be a little bit out of limits, but if you learn to play by these rules, you can actually market the same way the big companies would.”
But despite Twitter’s advantages, Yank says one of the biggest mistakes businesses can make is not understanding what sort of tone users expect online.
“It really is a personal communication medium. If you’re speaking corporate speak, or even worse if you’re setting up an automatic responder, you’re in trouble.
“Telstra made this mistake by setting up some software that would detect a complaint about BigPond, but would say ‘please fill out our support form’ in response. You can imagine how well that was received.”
Yank implores businesses to “speak like a real person” on Twitter.
“If you can, tell people your name. Anything you can do to get that one-on-one experience rather than the company-to-company experience. If you cannot dedicate the resources to people speaking one-on-one – Twitter may not be what you’re looking for.”
Getting your Twitter tone right
Dafnis agrees, but adds that businesses should not bother using Twitter just because of a fear they need to get in the game.
“Think about where Twitter is in your strategy – who are you trying to reach? It’s like corporate blogs. Blogs have become such a big thing, but people don’t understand why they need them. If you have a boring blog, no one will read it and that’s the same on Twitter.”
Nolan also says the balance has to be struck between providing information, and engaging your followers in a personable manner.
“You have to think – am I using it for my business, or am I using it personally?” she says.
“It’s good to convey your personality; that’s part of what a blog is. But you need to have in mind what your followers want to hear. I found that when I logged in for the first time, all people were doing was posting headlines. If I want that, I can get an RSS feed. You want to feel you’re connecting with a human being.”
Dafnis also warns businesses not to go against the flow of what the Twitter community wants to hear.
“Don’t be irrelevant. People will follow you because they’re interested in you, so you want to add your personality. What I’ve found with Twitter is that if you only push information, you lose followers quickly
“Don’t be self important. It’s not a place to brag. If it’s a one way conversation about how good you are, how can you get people engaged? The more value you add, the more people will follow you.”
Waiting to take off
Despite the praise for Twitter, Nolan says it may be some time before Australian businesses catch on the hype.
“People aren’t 100% sure how to leverage Twitter. The US is way ahead of Australia in this respect – everyone uses it there. I just don’t think it’s established enough here, and even individuals aren’t using it enough.
“At the moment, I’m just taking baby steps and just seeing what’s out there and what’s coming online,” she says. “The most use it’s had off me has been connections, but they’ve all been in the US.
“I haven’t seen any businesses in my niche in Australia that are using it – but they should. It’s good for networking with similar businesses, and I think the more businesses that get on to it the better.”
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