Twitter for Business: Perspectives from the 140 Twitter Conference and beyond

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From the CNN/Ashton Kutcher race to one million followers to Oprah’s on-air “first tweet”, the hype surrounding Twitter reached a fever pitch earlier this year. It seemed like everyone was jumping on the Twitter bandwagon. But amongst all the publicity, there was very little information about how Twitter is useful to non-celebrities. After all, we can’t all have the same appeal as Britney Spears or Barack Obama.

Should business owners get on the bandwagon too?

Twitter by the Numbers

Before investing in business Twitter account, it is important to take a step back from the hype and take a look at the hard numbers. Despite Twitter’s meteoric rises in traffic in 2008 and early 2009, there are indications that Twitter is hitting a growth ceiling. Twitter’s growth has been hampered by poor retention rates. According to Nielsen Online research, “more than 60 percent of Twitter users stopped using the free social networking site a month after joining.” And Facebook is still growing twice as fast as Twitter.

A cursory analysis of the most followed Twitter accounts by TwitterHolic shows that around 80% of the most followed people on Twitter are celebrities. The rest are news outlets like CNN and NPR, a handful of tech business like Google and Twitter and then standouts like Zappos.com CEO, JetBlue and WholeFoods. It is also worth noting that the followings of the top 100 Twitter accounts ranges from 1.3 to 4 million followers, meaning even celebrities are unable reach more than a small percentage of the total online population.

As for the content of tweets, Pear Analytics released a study in August 2009 using a random sample of tweets taken from the public time line. The study found that over 40% of tweets were “pointless babble”, with “news” and “pass-along value” making up less than 4% and 9% of tweets, respectively.

These statistics demonstrate the pitfalls of buying into the hype that Twitter is the next “big thing.” Twitter can be a valuable tool in a company’s arsenal, not the answer to all marketing and public relations needs. Businesses  should consider carefully before allocating significant resources to a Twitter account. Used correctly, Twitter can complement current business goals, from marketing to customer service.

Business Lessons from the 140 Twitter Conference

In March 2009, the first Twitter conference took place in Mountain View, CA. While primarily attended by company social media, marketing and public relations executives, the topics included everything from Twitter app development to real-world strategies from a wide variety of speakers like Twitter’s Alex Payne, Robert Scoble and iJustine. Below is a summary of the primary takeaways from the conference regarding how to use Twitter in business.

1. Protecting Brand and Company Names

The most important advice came from ZDNet writer Jennifer Leggio regarding protection of brand names. Leggio shared her personal experience about her personal brand getting hijacked. Someone registered a Twitter account in her name and then began sending tweets falsely attributed to her. Even family and friends thought it was her account. It took her several months of time consuming back and forth with Twitter to get the imposter removed and get her identity back. This important lesson applies to business as well. Twitter is a private service; it publicly governed like domain names, where companies can appeal to ICANN to get their brand names back. Unless someone is violating copyright or trademark law on the twitter account, Twitter is not obligated to remove his or her account. For example, a private person is using @bmw because their initials are BMW; they beat the famous motor company to the registration. Twitter is currently overwhelmed with the volume of removal requests, so getting back a twitter name may take much longer than expected even if a company has a legitimate claim to the name.

Key Takeaway: Regardless your company plans for twitter, register your brand and company names (and variations) now to keep them away from squatters.

Links:
Twitter signup page: https://twitter.com/signup
Twitter Terms and Conditions related to squatting: http://help.twitter.com/forums/26257/entries

2. Targeting Customers

Businesses should carefully consider their target market and compare it to the current demographics of Twitter. If your consumers aren’t tech-savvy, or fall outside Twitter’s age range, Twitter might not be the best use of resources.

Key Takeaway: Evaluate your customer base and find out if they are on Twitter. A Twitter account is useless if your target market isn’t there.

Links
Pew Internet Twitter Demographics Report: http://www.pewinternet.org/Infographics/Twitter-demographics–Fall-2009.aspx
eMarketer Twitter statistics: http://www.emarketer.com/Article.aspx?R=1007359

3. Using Twitter for Business

In his excellent keynote, Jeremiah Owyang outlined five primary ways for business to use Twitter:

  • Listening – Use Twitter search for instant feedback. Understand your customers in real time. Track what’s being said about competitors.
  • Talking – Give out information to users, such as news and discounts. Keep content relevant and interesting for users, and deliver what you promise.
  • Energizing – Find your advocates (those who tweet most about you) and engage with them. Keep tweets short, interesting and informative so users are more inclined to retweet. (See http://twitter.zappos.com/ for an example of a company engaging Twitter users.)
  • Supporting – Use twitter as a CRM to support customers in real time. (See @ComcastCares)
  • Embracing – Ask users for feedback and properly prioritize integrating feedback into your company.

Not all of the above uses for Twitter will fit the needs of all businesses, nor should they all be implemented at once. However, it is important to identify which of these goals a business wants to pursue and move forward with a clear plan.

Evan Williams of Justin.tv also shared some insight into creating a successful company twitter account. First, make yourself easy to find by adding keywords related to your business in your profile description. This description is indexed by services like Google as well as in Twitter People Find. Second, create transparency by letting followers know who is running the account. A personal touch goes a long way to adding credibility and gaining user trust. Lastly, act as an expert in your field. Demonstrate your knowledge and competence by sharing not only your own company news, but also the latest news and trends in the industry.

Links:
Jeremiah Owyang Keynote PowerPoint: http://parnassusgroup.com/files/Jeremiah-140tc.ppt

4. Buying Twitter Followers

Several services will sell you a few hundred twitter followers or let you automatically add new random followers on a weekly basis. The consensus at the conference was unanimous: while seemingly the easy way out, these methods don’t work long term. The former will increase your twitter followers temporarily; however most will drop off after the required week or two follow period. The latter will create an imbalance on your Twitter following to follower ratio; this a red flag to most legitimate Twitter users. In all cases, these new follower acquisition methods don’t address the core reason to have a Twitter account: the ability to communicate with people interested in your company.

Instead, seek out people on Twitter who will pay attention to your tweets. There are several methods to finding legitimate followers:

  • Take a look at who your competitors are following and who is following them back
  • Use the Twitter Find People search for users with keywords in their name or profile related to your business
  • Look through user-generated twitter directories in relevant tags
  • Subscribe to Mr. Tweet and receive weekly direct messages with suggested followers
  • Search conversations (http://search.twitter.com/) in Twitter and follow people taking about your company, or topics related to your business. Don’t forget to engage with them as well.

Key Takeaway: High follower numbers don’t mean anything if no one is listening. Better to seek out and build a smaller, relevant list of followers who care about your message.

Where to go next

There are several excellent resources available online to help you learn more about Twitter and how to use it. Below are some recommended resources:

Twitter Guides
Twitter 101 for Business by Twitter
The Twitter Guide Book by Mashable

Professional Twitter Account Management Tools
CoTweet – used by major brands such as JetBlue, Southwest, Pepsi, Starbucks and even Twitter itself.
Hootsuite – also used by major brands such as Disney, Dell, InStyle and MSNBC.

Useful tools
Bit.ly – a service that shortens links posted to twitter and provides click-through rates and tracking information
Tweetbeep – receive alerts whenever your specified keywords are mentioned on twitter (similar to Google Alerts)
TwitterFeed – send RSS feeds to your twitter account, such as your newsfeed or your blog postsTweetmeme http://tweetmeme.com/ – listing of the hottest links on twitter
TweetStats – analyze your Twitter behavior, such as average tweets per day, timing of tweets, accounts you often retweet, etc.

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