How Twitter is Teaching Business the Lost Art of Conversation

So it’s happened. Twitter has gone mainstream. As Twitter users, we knew instantly when Mumbai came under terrorist attack. We laughed at the photo of Stephen Fry stuck in an elevator when he tweeted his predicament, we were there when Ashton Kutcher beat CNN to 1 million followers, we caught the first glimpse of passengers being evacuated from the ditched plane on the Hudson River and we all suffered the lag time when Oprah Winfrey sent her first ever tweet on live TV.

Industry pundits and bitter journalists regularly diss Twitter as a time-wasting, “look at me” fad, destined for Forgottensville in 2 years. In fact New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd is quoted as saying to Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone:

“I would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over me and red ants eat out my eyes than open a Twitter account.”

So is Twitter really just an emergency beacon and “a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls” as Dowd gleefully claims?

Thankfully, no. The latest wave of Twitter users are business executives. They range from home business owners, SME’s, middle and upper management, marketing executives, brand evangelists and CEOs. Take a look at ExecuTweets and you’ll see some well-known names with very active Twitter accounts: Richard Branson of Virgin, Lisa Stone Co-founder of BlogHer, Tony Hsieh CEO of Zappos and Steve Case Co-founder of AOL, to name a few.

It’s not just individuals either. Some of the world’s most recognized brands are Twittering. I found a number of super brands on Twitter and asked my followers which of these they were following:

POLL QUESTION: Which of the following US companies do you follow on Twitter?

* Amazon 19%
* BestBuy 2%
* Dell 7%
* DunkinDonuts 2%
* Etsy 4%
* Motorola 0%
* Overstock 5%
* Starbucks 12%
* Threadless 16%
* UrbanOutfitters 2%
* WholeFoods14%
* Zappos 18%]

Other major brands with Twitter accounts include:

* JetBlue
* ComCast
* Vodafone
* TheHomeDepot
* H&R Block
* Qantas
* Virgin
* Forrester Research
* Ford
* Samsung
* Kodak

Twitter as a Business Tool

So why would companies be interested in Twitter? Because they know that conversation is a powerful, persuasive business tool and right now, Twitter is where the conversation is happening.

Here are some recent stats about the micro-blogging site from Nielsen:

* Twitter is fastest growing community site on web
* Twitter experienced 1,382% growth in the 12 months to Feb 09
* The largest user group on Twitter is 35-49 year olds

As the Internet morphs from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0, conversation has quietly ousted content and taken the throne as King. The Web has always enabled businesses to reach new markets. But Twitter allows them to engage directly with customers and potential customers in real time in front of an impressionable public. The opportunity this provides is unparalleled. As an effective advertising tool, the dusty old Yellow Pages seems positively prehistoric in comparison.

So just how are companies using Twitter as a business tool? To find out, I set up a poll and tweeted the question:

POLL QUESTION: If you represent a business using Twitter, what is your/their *main* reason for doing so?

The results were quite interesting:

* Branding 7%
* Driving traffic 23%
* Reputation management 7%
* SEO 0%
* Internal communications 0%
* News / product announcements 11%
* Service status updates 2%
* Customer interaction 37%
* Fun 5%
* Other 9%

A couple of things stood out for me here. Firstly, the majority of companies who took this poll are using Twitter primarily to interact with their customers and drive traffic. That’s understandable. But very few are using it for reputation management and none of them are yet using it for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) reasons. It was also interesting to see that a few businesses are using Twitter purely for fun.

Asked why he thinks Twitter is a good fit for business, Overstock’s Social Media Manager Josh Austin says:

“Twitter allows for a personal, real-life brand presence, while fostering better communication, engagement and attention to our customers.”

Customer Interaction on Twitter

So just how do customers interact with businesses on Twitter? I wanted to find out, so I launched another poll:

POLL QUESTION: Have you ever communicated directly with a company using Twitter? What was your main reason for doing so?

* Yes to resolve an issue 25%
* Yes to give positive feedback 18%
* Yes to give negative feedback 6%
* Yes for another reason 16%
* No 35%

It was encouraging to see that 65% of poll respondents have conversed with a company using Twitter. When you consider that nearly half of those people had an issue to resolve with the company they communicated with, the potential for customer loss and retention is lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree. Then there’s the number of respondents giving companies direct feedback via tweets. That’s enough to get any PR Department salivating!

Meg Geddes, a Search Marketing expert and power Twitter user related her recent positive experience with a business on the micro-blogging site:

“At the end of December, there was a special one-day only promotion through Intuit and Staples (an office supply) for buying Quickbooks Pro where you’d get a full rebate. I ordered it and filled in my rebate paperwork but it was illegible and had to be refaxed. The date on the revised paperwork sent by Intuit didn’t match my order date (and I didn’t notice) so my rebate was denied. I was bitching about it on Twitter and within half an hour, someone from Intuit sent me a tweet asking if she could help. I laid it all out for her, and she got it approved; I got my rebate very shortly after that. I was very happy, as I had been expecting to have to sit on the phone for hours with Intuit and/or Staples.”

But they’re not all positive experiences. Below is an exchange I witnessed on Twitter between a company representative (V) and an unhappy customer (J) who was Twittering while on hold with a Call Center.

J - What the hell is happening with our countries [industry removed]? Are they actually all run by turkeys?

V - Can I help?

J - I officially ban the V Twitterati from this conversation.

V - You seem to be having a problem with a V product. As I’ve said, can I help? If not, why are you bringing it up?

J - This is Twitter. I can bring up whatever I want. If you don’t like the rants and discussions, feel welcome to party elsewhere

V - Oooh, sensitive! Well, good luck with it. I’m sure it’ll be just fine.

J - No you cannot help. I am already dealing with V muppets.

J - [@somebody else] I’m polite to customers. I never harass them. But this discussion is about frustration with V - and all justified.

V - I really don’t understand what it is you hope to achieve. you say you have a problem but refuse to accept any help.

J - Pull the cottonballs out of your ears. Please join another discussion.

V - then you say you wish more companies use Twitter while refusing to accept my help, through Twitter.

J - I’m not rejecting help. Only help from you. As mentioned 5 times now!! I’m already talking to V to resolve

V - J, if you want some help with your problem, if you ACTUALLY WANT TO SORT IT OUT, let me know

J - Ok (non listener) for the 6th time today. I’m already resolving it with V. So I don’t need YOUR help.

V - so you’re resolving the problem. Good. So why are you whinging about it?

J - DO NOT try to tell me what I am and am not allowed to talk about. I can discuss whatever I want.

V - I saw you asking for help on Twitter, so I responded on Twitter. How is that a bad thing? Seriously, I’m keen to know.

V - If Twitter can’t be used for support then I guess I should stop trying to help anyone who wants help via Twitter.

J - As you have the right to hijack conversations, I have the right to vent. That’s Twitter…

V - Sorry everyone, I just wanted to know… I guess I really can’t help

Clearly, this issue could have had a positive outcome, but mistakes were made on both sides. The customer shouldn’t have been so quick to reject help when it was offered and the company representative should have let the issue go instead of pushing it and trying to publicly humiliate the customer into accepting help. But the exchange gives you an idea of the opportunities there are for customer communication and retention.

Open a Dialogue, Silly

Kaila Colbin runs the Social Marketing agency Missing Link in Christchurch New Zealand. She says that businesses can be transformed by simply opening a dialogue with their customers using blogs, emails and Twitter.

“For businesses looking to build a direct connection with their customers, Twitter can’t be beat, but it only works if you’ve got the right mindset and are prepared to invest in relationships”, she says.

“Unlike traditional advertising, a Twitter presence requires constant two-way communication to be effective. It also requires a level of transparency and selflessness that most companies aren’t used to employing in their marketing efforts. You can’t pretend to be perfect, and you can’t talk only about yourself.”

Colbin can generally convince companies to hire her by asking a single question: “Would you like to be the one having that conversation with your customers, or would you rather your competition do it?”

The Pizza Meal Win

It’s not just super brands that can benefit from using Twitter. Small businesses can gain from it too. Take Silicon Valley pizza chain Tony & Alba. By using keyword tracking and the Twitter Search tool, they monitored conversations on Twitter involving the keyword *pizza*.

Seeing a tweet from local man Ryan Kuder to his buddy suggesting a rival pizza place as their venue for dinner that night, Tony & Alba tweeted Ryan directly suggesting their pizza restaurant instead. It was further away for Ryan and his family, but a quick offer by Tony & Alba to reserve a table and throw in free soft drinks clinched the deal. A positive meal experience and a single tweet won the respect and future business from 3 happy families.

The Free Burrito Fail

But if you’re going to use Twitter to promote your products, make sure you’re prepared for the potential rush of business. In February this year, Utah-based Mexican restaurant chain Costa Vida sent a one-day-only offer for a free sweet pork burrito to its 80 followers on Twitter. As part of the promotion, Costa Vida required customers to have an electronic coupon on their mobile phone.

The Sweet Pork Burrito promotion was designed to test the effectiveness of leveraging social media Web sites like Twitter and Facebook in brand building and in driving restaurant traffic. However Costa Vida customers tweeted about the promotion and forwarded the offer to friends via mobile phone. Their followers told THEIR followers and so on, until more than 2,500 people inundated one of Costa Vida’s stores looking for their free burrito.

Costa Vida had to send multiple Twitter updates with instructions for how new Costa Vida Fans could redeem their coupon on a future date for the (now sold-out) burritos.

Reputation management

Savvy companies already understand the power of Twitter. Companies with shareholders monitoring their every move can’t afford to have their brand sullied at the virtual water cooler. These companies have employed staff whose only job is to send out short bursts of 140 characters every hour or so.

Handbooks on Twettiquette are being distributed to their marketing teams. They’ve created TweetBeep accounts to monitor how their brand is being talked about by Twitter users and they’re actively engaging with those people. They’re already at the water cooler and they’re handing out the cups.

Think your business can be a Twitter success story? Then here’s one last piece of advice, courtesy of Michael Martine:

“If you’re on twitter to market your business, the best thing you can do is shut up about your business and help people.”

About the author
Kalena Jordan who writes a daily Search Engine Advice Column, and is Co-Founder of Search Engine College - an online training institution offering online instructor-led and self-study courses in Search Engine Optimization and other Search Engine Marketing subjects.