In a down economy, it might seem counterintuitive to try experimental mediums such as Twitter for marketing and customer outreach. After all, the more well-established Facebook has a documented 175 million active users, while estimates place Twitter (which doesn't disclose such figures) at around 5 million users.
But while Twitter's user base might seem small, the return on engagement from Twitter fans is substantial, says Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang), a senior Forrester analyst who researches social technologies and who writes a blog on Web strategy.
"Most Twitter users are hyper-connected," says Owyang. "They are influencers and really want to share opinions with others. Many of them keep blogs. They are very different than the mainstream Facebook users."
While Twitter's founders have hinted at charging companies in the future for their participation, any business can get started today for free. For most companies, the decision to utilize Twitter will depend on the type of products or services that they offer, as well as the department - or departments - that would benefit from joining the service.
Gathering Twitter wisdom from social media analysts and companies that have enjoyed success via Twitter, we've rounded up the key steps your company must take before it can enjoy a viable Twitter presence. In most cases, companies that started Twittering with clear objectives - or at least listened closely to the Twitter user base after they got started and adapted their strategy accordingly - have reaped the greatest benefits and (more importantly) helped their customers in the process.
Listen and Learn About Twitter
Before you can identify the main objective for your organization's use of Twitter, you first must understand the Twitter community and what they think of your company, says Laura Fitton ( @pistachio), who runs Pistachio Consulting, a firm that helps companies utilize Twitter and other microblogging (also known as microsharing or microstreaming) technologies.
"Get some search tools and start listening to the Twitter community before you do anything else," Fitton says. "Listen to what they're saying about your company and your industry."
Fitton also recommends reading "Twitter 101" stories on the Web. Her firm has compiled a "Twitter for Business" reading list, with articles written by sources that span the Web.
Companies that have enjoyed success on Twitter echo this sentiment. Frank Eliason runs the Twitter handle @comcastcares, which allows the cable company's customers to ask service questions. With more than 11,000 followers to date, most analysts consider the efforts by Eliason, Comcast's Director of Digital Care, to be a brilliant effort to reshape the cable company's poor reputation for customer service.
"We started listening to Twitter back in February, 2008 before we started actively tweeting," Eliason says, who started posting to Twitter in April, 2008.
During this research period, Eliason used Twitter's basic search tool, which he found sufficient. Some social media measuring tools can delve deeper into tweets (messages on Twitter) about your company. In a recent research note about businesses using Twitter, Owyang listed a few of these tools, including Andiamo, Infegy and Radian6.
You also might set up a personal Twitter account to see what makes this community tick. That's how Morgan Johnston, Jetblue's manager of corporate communications, built his own Twitter presence ( @MHJohnston) before setting up Jetblue's popular Twitter page ( @jetblue), which has more than 155,000 followers to date.
If you're confused about how to start a personal Twitter account, read CIO.com's how-to guide for individuals..
Establish Your Twitter Objectives and Metrics for Success
Before you can set up a Twitter profile, you need to establish what goals you hope to accomplish by being on Twitter. The expectations you set should be two-fold. The first goal: internally justify your efforts to your company. Twitter remains a nascent technology, and in a tough economic time, you need to make a good case as to why someone should be dedicating his or her time to it, in addition to traditional marketing and customer service channels such as e-mail, web advertising (through Google) or even Facebook.
For Comcast's Eliason, the objective was easy to communicate.
"We wanted to use Twitter as a place to have conversations from our customers, get feedback, and when possible, help them," he says.
By measuring the amount of times they can help customers and also by chronicling common problems that people experience, for example, Comcast shows how having a Twitter presence provides value to the company, Owyang says.
"In this market, you shouldn't be on Twitter just to do it or to be the cool kid," Owyang says. "You need a clear objective. You should also make sure you have permission of the business [likely from corporate communications] to be doing this."
The Twitter objectives of companies vary. Some use it as merely a marketing megaphone, while others answer customer questions and provide support. Some use it for a little bit of both. How you use it could (or mostly likely will) evolve based on user feedback.
In general, companies that just push marketing deals or links to corporate press releases won't gain much traction, experts warn. Jetblue used its page for such activities at first, but adapted quickly after garnering negative user feedback.
"It was probably no small coincidence that we didn't gain a lot in the way of a following at first because of that," Johnston says. "Twitter users said, 'we want a conversation with you, not faceless marketing.'"
For example, Jetblue followers want to receive some promotions, but they also want to know about flight delays, cancellations, general information and what to expect from their in-flight experience, he says.
To build a good presence on Twitter, most companies must be responsive to questions regarding their service. Above, social media guru Stowe Boyd ( @stoweboyd) quizzes Jetblue ( @jetblue) about its new policy to charge for pillows and blankets.
In some cases, the decision to travel the pure marketing route can be fine - as long as you're up front about it to Twitter users, Fitton says. Companies such as Dell have set up pages for deals and promotions; others dedicate Twitter pages to customer service. The purpose of each Twitter page, as we'll detail in the next section, should be made clear in your company's Twitter profile. This can save you a lot of trouble.
Set Up Your Company's Twitter Profile
The first step for your company's Twitter profile will be selecting a user name. As is the case when you search for available Web URLs, your company name may already be taken by another user, either as a hoax account or because the person blogs about or follows the company closely.
Experts say Twitter has a good track record of giving back your trademarked name if someone has taken it, so contact Twitter if someone has taken your company name already.
In general, the more personal a company's Twitter account appears, the better. Traditional mediums such as corporate websites, advertisements and promotions typically lack the sort of human feeling that Twitter users crave, says Stowe Boyd (@stoweboyd), a social media analyst who writes the /message blog.
"It's not a forum to throw up press releases," he says. "They should be real people who are real representatives of companies. To remain personal, you need to be able identify the individual or individuals doing it."
While Eliason's Comcastcares Twitter page has a company logo, it also features his picture and a very humanizing trove of information, including ways to contact him directly, his personal and family blog, and other Comcast employees who operate on Twitter.
Frank Eliason runs the @comcastcares Twitter page. Analysts (and Eliason himself) credit his willingness to give the page a personal touch as helping make it a successful place to interact with customers.
If you have a page with multiple people who share the responsibility of updating it, you should devise a way to make it clear who is "on the desk." Jetblue lists this information in the bio section of its Twitter profile. Other companies' reps put initials or some form of identification at the end of a tweet.
All Twitter profiles have a field for a URL. While it might be tempting to insert your company's homepage, this might not be a good use of the space, Fitton says. Instead, you should link to a custom page on your website that explains why you're on Twitter and what you hope to accomplish by being there.
Dell provides one of the clearest examples of this method. Most of its Twitter pages link back to dell.com/twitter, where the nature and purpose of its various Twitter pages are displayed. Dell lists some of its pages as clearly promotional in nature, while others dedicate themselves to community building and discussion around Dell products.
On your company's traditional home page, you might consider creating a widget that lists your latest tweets, to send traffic from your company site to your Twitter page.
"People say businesses need to be conversational on Twitter," Fitton says. "But my overall rule is you have to provide value."
Mind Your Twitter Etiquette
You should learn the rules of Twitter etiquette for individuals who use the service. Many of the same principles apply for company profiles, with a few notable exceptions.
One main difference is over the issue of following people. On your individual Twitter account, you should only follow people who bring you value personally. On a company profile, the rules change. Once people decide to follow a company's Twitter updates, companies should generally follow them back. It shows you're listening. In addition, people will not be able to direct message the company Twitter page if it doesn't follow their updates. (A direct message is a private message between two Twitter users.)
"It makes sense to follow people back in most cases," Fitton says. "If someone walks into your store, you wouldn't ignore them. You'd go and greet them and ask how they are."
Ideally, it's better to tweet publicly and avoid direct messages unless it's absolutely necessary (such as when you need to send private information, like an account number). Most problems or questions that people tweet about will be common, and the group can benefit from knowing the answer.
Finally, be prepared to make mistakes. The Twitter community is temperamental, but passionate. They may evangelize your product if you respond to their criticisms thoughtfully and in a way geared toward helping them. Since every message must be 140 characters or less, it's easy to create misunderstandings. You must clarify your thoughts when necessary.
"If you make a mistake, the important thing is to acknowledge it and say what you really meant," Eliason says. "That's what you'd do if you were talking to someone in person."