Tweet, twit, tweeple, twestival…what’s all this stuff about Twitter? Is it an echo chamber for the self-absorbed, or a viable engagement channel? How to tweet your way to a more engaged market.

branddialogue_sm101_callout1Twitter has gotten tremendous press in the last three years, has been used by presidential candidates, actors and seemingly the entire, highly vocal social media crowd. But many companies and brands still haven’t considered Twitter as a channel for brand dialogue and engagement. So let’s talk about how a marketing team can use Twitter as another arrow in their engagement quiver.

“What is Twitter?”

Twitter is a website that allows registered users to post short comments to their followers: other Twitter users who subscribe to your posts, or “tweets.” Posts can be made from the Twitter website, from numerous cell phone applications, and from instant messenger clients like AIM, so “tweeting” is very easy to do, from pretty much anywhere.

Originally, Twitter was intended to be a means of posting your status, such as you might do in AOL Instant Messenger: “I’m heading out now – back in 5″ or “working on a project.” Twitter’s founders launched the site in March 2006 as a “what if” proof-of-concept: what if you could take your status updates out of the IM clients and place them on the web? Now, less than three years later, what was created as a side project has turned into a full-blown short messaging service serving millions of users.

“Sounds like a whole lot of people boring the world with the mundane details of their lives.”

Not anymore. When Twitter was launched, many users assumed it was similar to IM status: a place to share the day’s details, like I’m having a sandwich, doing my laundry, heading out to a movie. Because of this initial start, Twitter developed a reputation as a place for others to bore you to death with incredibly self-interested trivia. But a much bigger set of uses was forming.

People began to tweet at conferences and events, starting with the 2007 South By Southwest Festival. You could “listen in” on commentary of people attending events, even if you weren’t there. Some dramatic events were twittered, such as an American student who was being arrested by the Egyptian police and alerted family via Twitter. Users started providing instantaneous updates from the scene of catastrophes. NASA provided real-time Twitter updates from the Mars Phoenix landing as if the probe itself was tweeting. And people with fascinating careers, such as Jim Long, an NBC cameraman on assignment with the White House Press Corps, provided insight into the events in their lives.

Brands get involved

Within months of launch, a few experimental brands saw the opportunity and jumped on the Twitter bandwagon. Delta Air Lines started tweeting special offers. Comcast, often a target of angry bloggers, began to answer customer service queries on Twitter. H&R Block started offering tax advice, and Aston Martin started sharing car news with AM fans. And news providers like the New York Times and the BBC began posting headlines.

Simultaneously, myriad applications were developed to allow easy tweeting. Twitterific let Mac users see tweets and replies in real time, while Twhirl provided the same functionality for Windows users. TweetDeck allowed a broader view of the conversations. TwitterMaps and the fabulous Google Maps mashup called TwitterVision allowed you to not only show where you were physically located, but also see where people were twittering from. Cell phone applications were developed for iPhone (here, here and here), Blackberry (here and here) and Windows Mobile (here and here). And widgets were developed to bring one’s tweets to any other website. All of this, of course, led to a tremendous rise in the number of users, resulting in the Twitter we know today.

And to answer the original question: if you find that someone is boring you with minutiae, it’s quite simple to unfollow them.

What other companies are using Twitter?

The list is too long to go into but this should give you a good idea of the brands who are using Twitter for outreach, customer service and engagement:

  • Whole Foods
  • Marriott International
  • TJ Maxx
  • Fast Company
  • MTV
  • Wall Street Journal
  • ESPN
  • Comcast
  • Dunkin’ Donuts
  • Starbucks
  • Urban Outfitters
  • Carl’s Jr.
  • GE
  • American Apparel
  • Apple
  • QuickBooks
  • Dell
  • CNN
  • JetBlue
  • Virgin America
  • Ford

“What will joining Twitter provide me?”

It depends on who you follow, but Twitter can provide instant news as it happens, helpful professional hints, the chance to follow thought leaders in your industry, to connect with like minds or brand zealots, or the opportunity to merely learn more about people. Like a radio that can tune into a million stations at once, Twitter can connect you conversationally with people all over the world.

“Who should I follow?”

Like figuring out which cable channels you want to watch, finding people to follow involves a lot of trial and error. You can search for conversation topics, the city you live in, search terms from your profession or certain people by name.

As a marketer, you might want to follow Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester Research. Former colleague Steve Rubel of Edelman PR. The latest social media news from Mashable. Or social media professionals like Ford Motor Company’s Scott Monty.

You could follow ProfNet for a chance to get some press by providing a quote for a journalist, or NBC’s Jim Long for an inside view into the White House. There are many many options for new Twitter users.

If you want to see who is being followed by the largest number of people YOU are following, try Twubble. It’ll show you those most followed by the people you are following.

“What should I watch out for?”

  1. Above all others: give Twitter time. It takes time, effort and thought to create a successful Twitter experience and to build a following. If you hang a Twitter shingle and only have a handful of followers, it may be that you aren’t providing value. You will get from this tool and the community what you put into them.
  2. Do not use Twitter as a monologue channel. If you are merely spouting outbound messages, you will seem as uninteresting as a person at a cocktail party talking only of themselves. Twitter is about conversation, so converse! Even if it’s through direct messages, be sure to respond to inquiries and conversation starters. Remember that old interpersonal communications adage: the best conversationalists are the best listeners.
  3. Assume that everything you tweet will be recorded permanently within Google search results. Everything. From now in perpetuity. Do not tweet anything you don’t want found. Assume it will live outside of Twitter as well as within it.
  4. Not everyone on Twitter is who they say they are. For example, one user calls themselves “ComcastScares” evidently as a joking reference to ComcastCares, the official Twitter ID for Comcast. “4Starbucks” is a wag who makes fun of the real @Starbucks.
  5. Not everything you read on Twitter is true. Should be obvious but warrants restating. It’s easy to react to a tweet but before you do, best to investigate before saying something permanent.

“What should I tweet about as a marketing professional?”

if you set up your own personal account on Twitter, decide what you want to use it for. Are you merely connecting with others? Are you sharing personal stories or experiences? Are you going to do a mix of personal and professional updates? Decide what you want Twitter to be for you.

Personally, I use it to demonstrate expertise and value. I post helpful tips, try to provide insights into my areas of expertise, as well as commentary on marketing trends. I also call out examples of bad marketing behavior and sometimes will talk about major cultural issues dominating the public consciousness. I typically avoid politics and religion unless they are part of a major discussion.

Think about how you might want to represent yourself online as a marketer and tweet accordingly.

“What should we tweet about as a brand?”

If you are using Twitter as a channel for brand extension, I would limit tweets to some combination of the following:

  • Category/sector news
  • Company news (that would interest more than a few folks at HQ)
  • Current events that impact company business (e.g., are you a food manufacturer? Discuss the recent peanut recall)
  • Talk about CSR efforts
  • Pointers to genuinely-helpful thought leadership pieces on the company blog or in the press
  • Reports from the floor of events such as marketing conferences
  • Special offers to Twitter followers (discounts, promotions, contests)
  • Customer service requests

“What should I not tweet about?”

As a rule, I counsel my clients to NEVER tweet something that has no value. Valueless tweets merely add noise to the stream and we’re all time-starved. Respect this time starvation by being succinct, valuable and interesting.

A press release about a minor rev of your software product may interest a few people, but chances are few will care. If you truly believe your followers will find it interesting, go ahead and tweet about it. If it’s questionable, I’d pass.

“How much effort will this take?”

Twitter is a qualitative, rather than quantitative, brand channel. It’s a great tool to build dialogue, engender trust, establish brand loyalty, and to raise awareness. IT IS NOT A MASS COMMUNICATION MEDIUM, nor should you consider it an outbound-only channel.

To cultivate a Twitter “garden” has required me to spend approximately an hour a week as an occasional “tweeter.” If you plan on really learning and making connections, expect to spend at least 2-4 hours a week getting started.

For those of you who shudder at the idea of adding another activity to your time-starved lives, I offer you this: social marketing is the New Marketing. Spend less time with older, less effective methods like email blasts and tradeshow booths and rethink your marketing program spend. Reallocate some of your time and effort away from older techniques and try the new. You’ll have fun, learn a lot and will be able to demonstrate new expertise and innovative marketing approaches.

“What is proper Twetiquette?”

Great question. It’s easy to offend an online community if you’re unfamiliar with the rules. Many of the following are currently open to debate, since Twitter changes so rapidly. My recommendations are:

  • Stay positive. It’s easy to get snarky, easy to scoff. Unless you specifically want to critique or criticize, be shiny and happy.
  • Thank people who follow you with a Direct Message. Twitter allows you to send private messages (called “Direct Messages” or DMs) to individual users. Rather than publicly replying, send a DM saying thank you.
  • If someone asks you a question, respond via DM. If your response would benefit a number of followers, reply publicly.
  • If it makes sense, thank those who retweet your tweets. If you see “RT @yourname” in your Replies, it means someone has found your tweet valuable enough to share with their own followers.
  • There is some debate about automatically following those who follow you. Some think it’s only fair to follow those who follow you, as a sign of mutual respect. Others, myself included, only follow interesting Twitterers, regardless of whether or not they follow me. Like everyone else, I am time-starved and drowning in social media noise. So I thank them and continue to keep my Twitter reading workload to a manageable 400 or so.

“How do I attract a large audience?”

As with many social media venues, size is not what matters. You might have a small number of followers who are extremely vocal brand advocates. Or you may also have a large audience that provides little feedback and takes a lot of your time.

There is no formula for Twitter success, in my opinion, other than if you feel you are getting value out of your audience and spreading value back to them.

“How do I measure this activity?”

Twitter is new enough that metrics around Twitter programs are questionable. There’s no way to measure pageviews or impressions, other than followers. There’s no way to know if a tweet has impacted behavior other than if they respond directly to it. You could measure product or brand mentions but there’s no way to tie it to your outbound twittering. And finally, there’s no easy way to measure influence, although some are working on a formula.

WebAnalyticsDemystified has put together a formula to measure Twitter influence which, after some recent tweaks, looks reasonable. Enter the Twitter ID of yourself or someone else to see how influential that user is.

An earlier yet less substantial influence calculator is TwitterGrader. Follow @grader to get access to a report on your influence.

Yes, according to the Twitter Influence Calculator, I am “slowly emerging.” And I’m down with that. 🙂

In summary

In the mid 2000s, there was an explosion of Web 2.0  sites that mostly provide a one-off technology or service. Twitter survived the Web 2.0 shakeout that hobbled several competitors, including Pownce and Jaiku. Despite service outages and negativity from the uninformed, Twitter has prospered and grown.

Recent numbers show to be at around 6MM unique visitors at the moment. However, that doesn’t include mobile phone or instant messenger users. Suffice to say this is one Web 2.0 channel that will continue to be both a benefit and tool for marketers.

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